Part of the profound impact of Rembrant's portraiture, of his faces on the viewing public, appears to be carried by the expression in the eyes. This expression offers us the sense of 'interior vision', revealing to us the 'character' of the person depicted - and more. We seem to be allowed a privileged access to the knowledge of the person as one who is concerned with matters of piety and responsibility. We may even feel that we come to share the moral condition of this person. We have entered the realm of insight into last things, of a personal accounting before the court of last things.
Yet this effect of inner profundity, of inner focus, is achieved by having the two eyes staring, in two different directions. A product of exterior lack of focus (a figure for the person's 'interior vision'). And not only two different directions, it is on different objects that the eyes seem to bestow their gaze; or better, on one object, the person standing before it (the eye of recognition) with the other eye focused upon a non-object, on no-one (the eye of non-recognition). Indeed, if we follow the implied direction of this other stare, it is impossible to find oneself before it; this eye follows the plane of the picture, it remains caught within the picture plane, despite seeming to look out of it. One eye looks out, suggesting the recognition due to one person before another; the other is fixed upon an invisible (to us) elsewhere, an elsewhere which may indeed be trapped (by its painterly illusionism) within the world of the artwork as other to our world as regarded by the first eye. One eye (the painting's left eye) focuses upon you, the painting's implied viewer: the other (the painting's right eye) refuses recognition, its elusive stare appearing to be going off somewhere beyond the viewer's left shoulder. This division of the eyes between presence and non-presence (in our world), on this world (us) and another, suggests that the thought of the bearer is relating, has successfully related, the conflicting demands of this world and another (the visible and the invisible, the actual and the ideal, temporality and eternity).
Furthermore, within this general pattern, both eyes (the painting's right one more so) turn towards the picture's right, to a greater degree than the face of which they are a part. The face then may point in one direction (to one's right or more-or-less at one, at the viewer) whilst the eyes will stare at points slightly to the viewer's left, these points themselves becoming distinguishable, producing the two directions discussed above (one towards the viewer, the other to the viewer's left). The viewer's left, however, is the right of the painting. Moreover in the cases where the implied gaze is elevated only slightly, it then most clearly finds its final deixis in the heavens. Rightwards and upwards this directionality is, in tradition, not only an indication of the place of God, but also of God's eye view. A way of proclaiming the priority of the world of the picture, the art object's (implied) ideology, its point of view, over (that of) the viewer (if different). Sacrality and the priority, axiologically, epistemologically, of the interior gaze and its truths, the truths of the painting (the support for our own ideal truths, inward truths), are in this way upheld. These are truths which must stand outside of our world to retain their potency, their mystique, their everlasting value; their very timelessness is what gives them their undisputed value. A look beyond, an interior stare that connotes elsewhere, the painting as beyond our reality or as conduit to it (a ritual image/the image as ritual), all these point to, open the portals to, the outside of time as rhetorical guarantor of the truths the painting proffers.
On yet closer examination it appears that the eyes no longer sit comfortably in the face that would contain them, but appear, no longer fitting, organic but somehow disjunctive, as if placed upon the host face, as if originating from another source - even as if painted by someone else. This tension between directions may owe something to the history of painting itself, specifically the history of painting the face half side/half-face on, a difficult combination to paint well (as opposed to the profile or side, or full face on). This difficulty will have yielded many illusionistic effects during the exploration of the options and anomalies available; Rembrant's eyes probably owe their origin to the history of the attempted solutions to this tension or difficulty. The attempted solutions to this tension or difficulty in the realm of meanings is another matter. The effect is of citation, from different times, from different points of view, even temporal moments - a contradiction in time, in our place in time, a fracture in our temporality. This uneasy coexistence makes for two kinds of meaning, suggests two forms of recuperation in the world os sense. Like all errors, like all transgressions of proper order, the path of meaning may lead equally to abjection (damned error) or to transfiguration (the circular self-privileging of the -'already'- great). The frame of the artwork (the frame that is the artwork) is often found to guarantee the latter option (regardless of content). It is as if the artwork automatically refuses the 'illegal' option, in favour of the self-justification, the 'positive spin', which is the right of power. Artworks, in the realm of meaning, are sites of power. This recuperation of all transgression and its links to foundation in a passage to the eternal, suggests ritual in its intensifying and insistent call to sacred identity (the individual in the collective, blest community). Indeed, the exchange or sacrifice is that of all transgression, the law, here represented by realism, which must fall to a greater good, so that Law itself may be reborn (whatever its content, it is the space of such which is opened up by this operation). Detail leads us to effects connoting greater things, from micro-element we step up to the horizon of the meta-set. From afar, however/then, the effect is one of character, depth, inner-vision, abstraction - of the unseeable shown, the invisible manifest. (Not just part of being, revealed, but that part of being which reflects upon itself, and its role as part... ). Creation thinks in Rembrant's eyes.
Democratic afterthought. The eyes look perpetually at you and elsewhere at the same time, in this way a larger range of space before the picture is covered, offering more spaces to stand, more spaces from which to 'see' the picture's effects.
Endword. Some at least of Rembrant's school copied this technique and carried it over into their own very successful portrait painting (Nicolas Maes). See also other Dutch masters, contemporaries of Vermeer).
Copyright 2003 Peter Nesteruk