Arte

The God of Realism

da: The New York Review

He came from the lower middle class of Holland. His father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (circa 1568– 1630), owned a half-share in a flour mill in Leiden, and his mother, Cornelia van Zuytbrouk (1568–1640), was a baker’s daughter. He was the second-youngest of ten children, and although big families were commoner then than now, the effort of raising such a brood must have placed an exhausting strain on his parents; it is written all over the seamed, lined face of his mother, whom he frequently painted in her old age. Nevertheless they were able to send him to Leiden’s Latin school, where he would have studied Latin, classical literature, and history. In later life he would not show a great enthusiasm for painting subjects from classical mythology—or at least the patrons of Leiden and Amsterdam did not commission many from him—but this would certainly not have been from ignorance.

He was a singular connoisseur of ordinariness, and some of his self-portraits are eloquent proof of this. His first self-portrait in particular: it is the artist as a young dog, an etching of himself snarling at the mirror, rejecting the viewer’s (and by implication, society’s) gaze. We see the same rebarbative snarl in other self-portraits and (most tellingly) in an…

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