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Working at the finest masterworks

In an art gallery in New York City my eye was drawn to a Rembrandt etching of a beggar warming his cold hands at a chafing dish. Close by, another Rembrandt etching showed a lonely wayfarer of the road, in rags.Rembrandt produced many such etchings and drawings. At that time in Holland beggars were a familiar sight, victims of the Thirty Years War, then engulfing much of Europe, in addition to those impoverished by personal misfortune unrelated to war.As an artist and as a human being, Rembrandt felt drawn to these people. They became a lifelong concern of his, beginning with his early days in Leyden as a young artist, and continuing in Amsterdam through his periods of prosperity and poverty.Rembrandt was not unique in selecting beggars as subjects. The originality lay in his approach. Jacques Callot, the French artist, a contemporary of his, represented beggars as comical figures, intended to amuse the viewer. Rembrandt's approach differed. As Jakob Rosenberg writes in Rembrandt, Life & Work, ''His emphasis lies on their deplorable condition, on their loneliness, exhaustion, and tragic degradation to an animal-like state.''Rembrandt's portrayal of destitute people vanquishes time, conveying to the present viewer a startling immediacy. The beggar warming his hands at a chafing dish in 17th-century Holland is brother to the homeless man I see today warming his hands over a fire in a vacant lot. His Amsterdam beggar in rags resembles the man I pass huddled in a doorway seeking protection from the cold.Rembrandt viewed these tragic people with his artist's eye. We can do the same, though we lack any painterly skills. To see these people as Rembrandt saw them--not as buffoons, not as faceless forms--we need only open ourselves to the suffering of other human beings. Montaigne writes that a man ''produces Essays who cannot produce results.'' (Not a comment you expect from an essayist.) If it follows from this observation that results can be of inestimable value, then all who open themselves to the suffering of the destitute, and work to relieve their misery, may be creating a personal masterpiece to rival anything ever done by Rembrandt.

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