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Rembrandt's Homer in the Mauritshuis Steele, Gordon Edward

Abstract

Rembrandt's "Homer" in the Mauritshuis in The Hague is but one work of three executed for the Italian nobleman, Don Antonio Ruffo of Messinao Ruffo had previously received an "Aristotle" from Rembrandt in 1654. At some time between 1653 and 1661, it was decided to supplement this painting with the "Homer" and an "Alexander". That Rembrandt should receive such a commission from a foreign patron at a time when his style was beginning to be outmoded by an emerging classicism is significant indeed. There are many problems that concern the/-painting of "Homer" itself. One of the first is in determining what Rembrandt's original composition look like since the "Homer" has been drastically reduced in size, apparently the result of damage by fire. Then there are questions concerning what format did Rembrandt choose and what visual precedents was he following for his portrayal of Homer. Some tentative answers can be found by examining two drawings attributed to Rembrandt, "Homer Reciting His Verses" (Ben.no.913) and "Homer Dictating to a Scribe" (Ben.no.l066), and a painting of Homer by one of Rembrandt's most faithful pupils, Aert de Gelder. All these sources, however, suggest rather than define possible solutions as to how the "Homer" originally appeared. For the figure of Homer himself, one can be more definite. Rembrandt turned to an antique bust, known as the Hellenistic, Blind Type, of which he at least owned a cast (Urk.l69, no.l63). Problems also arise when one views the "Homer" in the context of the entire commission. Were the three paintings commissioned at the same time and who was responsible for their selection, Rembrandt or Ruffo? What are the historical and iconological reasons for making such a combination? Partial answers can be obtained by a careful and cautious reading of the documents. The evidence suggests that Rembrandt not Ruffo should be credited with choosing all the subjects or at the very least the "Aristotle". To answer why the three should be combined, a close reading of Aristotle's Poetics and Plutarch's Alexander would provide sound historical reasons. Many Rembrandt scholars have offered various iconological interpretations of which, I feel, Held's for the "Aristotle" and Valentiner's for the entire commission are the most conclusive. Their interpretations depend largely on what Homer meant to Rembrandt himself. Homer generally in the seventeenth century was considered as the great teacher and inspired seer whose work, if properly read, would lead men to a righteous and virtuous life. Homeric allegoresis began in antiquity as a defense against Platonic criticism and continued into the seventeenth century. Although Rembrandt may not have been too familiar with the actual text of the Homeric poems, he would certainly have been aware of Homer's reputation since the Dutch scholars were amongst his strongest supporters. It was Homer the man rather than his work that interested Rembrandt. Homer's image as the blind seer, the great teacher, and the 'almost' Christian prophet would have appealed to Rembrandt. The fact that Homer was blind, a theme inherent in much of Rembrandt's work, would only have served to increase this interest. In essence, it was the nature of Homer's blindness that made him, for Rembrandt and the seventeenth century, the great moral educator and the divine prophet.

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