Beside the vase of flowers lies a much-read copy of Emile Zola’s Joie de vivre. Van Gogh clearly knows that the novel’s title has an ironic edge. The heroine’s life is a long tale of woe. But after all her trials, when her maid commits suicide, the heroine doesn’t understand how anyone could voluntarily renounce life. If one looks closely at the oleanders, Van Gogh’s emblem of love—or at any of his subjects—one finds tortured ebullience. The leaves are twisting like a crown of thorns and the boughs seem about to break under the weight of their heavy blooms. Van Gogh paints the difficulty of beauty and the beauty of difficulty. Even when he tries to be pessimistic, as in the “The Night Café,” he can’t manage the horror and despair of Munch, for instance. Van Gogh wrote of the café painting, “I have tried to show that the café is a place where a man can ruin himself, become mad, commit a crime . . . I have tried to express the terrible human passion . . ..” But the lights billow gold against the vivid red walls, the billiard table that dominates the room like a coffin is a lively green, and on it lie a few balls yet to be sunk into the holes. And when Van Gogh is most optimistic, there is still a tinge of sadness. Though covered with blossoms, the limbs of his trees are permanently twisted. The oleanders that offer themselves so wholly still have an element of lonely isolation and a sense of the their own impending fall.
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, Aged 51 The Ellesmere Self-Portrait National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. In 1657, the year Rembrandt painted this self-portrait, he had gone bankrupt and his possessions, including his art collection, were auctioned. The canvas has been trimmed on the top and right sides, as if reality were closing in—or to make the painting less important-looking? In the picture, Rembrandt stands stripped of all ornament; even the light seems more miserly than usual. But if Vermeer is the master of light, Rembrandt is the shadow master. What little light falls from above manages to illuminate all his blemishes and wrinkles. Still, the face strikes me as painfully beautiful. The lack of adornment helps one see that flesh is exquisitely complex. His skin seems at once enduring and delicate, rough and vulnerable. He seems to look out at us with hope and fear. His face marks time like an open watch, but more eloquently—on the human face, traces of the past are not erased. Rembrandt’s brush dipped in black fate still illuminates love and pride behind shy modesty. The canvases hanging around this painting seem petty, busy and silly in comparison. Rembrandt seems to look out from a deep, dark box, as if gazing through a vat of inky water. He feels miraculously present yet sadly trapped in the past. I sense in Rembrandt as in Van Gogh a wonder at the strangeness of having a face. At fifty, Rembrandt still seems surprised at being seen—and at what he sees in his mirror and canvases. How there is flesh from which come words. How our faces see and are meant to be seen, carved by millennia of scrutiny and desire so that they may give and receive.