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Light out of darkness

The fascinating possibilities of shadowy darkness evidently stirred the young Rembradn'ts imagination. In fact it was a richly evocative characteristic of many of his paintings and etchings throughout his career. The small early painting reproduced here seems, above all, to be a deliberate and concentrated study of darnkess: it isn't simply a narrative event or a portrait emerging into light out of an obscure background. Some writers have thought it might possibly be an illustration of a biblical subject or a representation of a saint or apostle. If so, it is scarcely overt. Usually Rembrandt's storytelling paintings draw attention with some definiteness to the main action he is depicting. Light, either natural or supernatural, catches the psychological moment, picks out the crucial expression or gesture -- and the setting, whether it is a vast temple, a cottage interior or a barn, contains and enhances the story, but never swallows it up. Even in pictures believed to have been painted by Rembrandt at about the same period as this one -- compositions of old scholars disputing, writing or studying, contemplative studies of aged experience, tranquility and wisdom -- the people are predominant and their quiet activities plainly visible.

This dramatic little picture, however, is of a place rather than a person, and it is filled with unknowns and imponderables. Something of this is reflected in the abandonment of a former title for it in favor of the present simple one. In the past it was known as A Scholar in a Lofty Room. But how do we know he is a scholar? We can't tell what, if anything, he is engaged in doing, not even if he is asleep of awake. It is difficult to guess his age or character. The barely discernible objects in this cavernous room might be manuscripts and large urns: perhaps the silhouetted man is an antiquarian, a collector. Rembrandt was later to make an etching of a dealer friend named Abraham Francen -- and he himself was an avid buyer of antiques -- so this kind of subject would have been of sympathetic interest to him.

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But the essential happening here is not a human one. The essential is the armosphere of a mysterious chamber (you can almost smell the fustiness), and the drama is one of light and darkness: light that streams through the window, but does not manage to fill the room. The light intensifies and increases, if anything, the shadowed recesses, though these are not impenetrable or blank but deepened with tonal subtleties and broken by faintly reflected lights. It is like the darkness of an unexplored attic, undisturbed for years, packed with dusty and draped treasures. The diagonal patch of light has the effect of sun-dazzle, as if the viewer has suddenly entered this dim space with eyes that cannot accustom themselves quickly enough to the blackness. This light-dark contrast actually makes whatever is stored or whatever may be happening in the room even more obscure.

It is intriguing comparison to remember for a moment some later paintings of rooms, also lit by light from windows on a side wall, by a very different Dutch painter, Vermeer. With Vermeer there is crystalline lucidity, natural light entering, as into a camera obscura,m to reveal an image of pearly, intense clarity. Both Vermeer and Rembrandt employed the illusion of light that seemed to originate within the picture space itself, but Rembrandt makes the viewer feel that he himself is shrouded in darkness and that all the light is contained by the picture. Vermeer's light, on the other hand, appears to include the viewer in its pervasive and fresh rality.

Though Rembrandt's paintings are solemn, their darkness is not gloomy. Nor is it detrimentally "theatrical." Everyting in his paintings has too much weight , is painted with too much rough conviction, to permit effect for its own sake. Consider how much mass and solidity there is to this room -- and it's not much more than a splash of brilliance in a pool of darkness

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