On a Portrait of the Artist
‘Lighting new cigarettes, pouring more drinks.
It has been a beautiful fight.
- Charles Bukowski
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669)
The portrait still hangs above the fireplace, on the brick wall in the living room. The old man gazing up, head uncovered, tired hat in hand. He used to make me cry as a child; he seemed so sad. Later, the streetlight glow on his face and his sunken eyes made me think of Rembrandt. The last time I looked at him, I thought of you.
Over the course of his life, Rembrandt painted more than ninety portraits of himself. One of the finest autobiographies in art history. The paintings were not accurate; they were true. He painted himself from within, freezing moments in time, capturing emotions, selves, and states. Creating a succession of vignettes so intimate, so brutally honest that looking at them almost feels intrusive. Laying bare, in all its vulnerability, a very human life.
‘Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.’ – Julian Barnes
A Portrait of the Artist, as a Young Man.
The subject is handsome, healthy, strong. Gazing out of the canvas with the serenity of one who knows he has the world at his feet. Rembrandt had talent, wealth, and repute, a beautiful wife and four children, a lavish home in Amsterdam.
I remember, you once had it all too; first class tickets and hotel suites overlooking European boulevards. Wine and women, whiskey and cigars. Cocktail parties in Copenhagen and business deals in Havana. Taipei, Brussels, Khartoum, Paris. And her.
She was so beautiful in her cream colored dresses and cream colored pearls. The red on her lips, the pink on her cheeks and her soft blond curls. She gave up her dreams to follow you on yours, gave you two beautiful children, a bed, a home.
A Portrait of the Artist Wearing a Toque and a Gold Chain.
A professional portraitist, commissioned by the Dutch Court. A burgess of Amsterdam, a member of the local painters’ guild, a mentor to pupils who would, in turn, become great. Rembrandt brought home artwork and antiques, busts of Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor, precious rocks and minerals, and a printing press.
I remember running to meet you at the door. Your brown leather suitcase, the breathless excitement of opening it right there on the floor. You brought back Swiss chocolates and dresses in fine Belgian lace. Bottles of French perfume and Russian vodka, boxes of Cuban cigars. Rolls of Armenian paintings, delicate Czech crystal, wrapped in Soviet newspaper and smuggled under silky Italian suits and soft fur coats. The sheer magic of you coming home; I remember it all.
A portrait of you then. The way you took your whiskey; The Famous Grouse. Same bottle, same year. Always in a tall glass, always without ice. The smell of your eau de Cologne; Eau Sauvage, Christian Dior. Same bottle, same classic scent. Always in your hair, under your cufflinks, behind your neck. The carefully ironed pleat along the front of your trousers, the carefully polished shoes. Your Ascott tie, your pocket watch. The poker chips, the cigarettes. The way they failed you, both. The way you danced her to Sinatra, whose words you knew by heart. The way you laughed, the way you fought, the way you charmed us all.
A Portrait of the Artist, Before he Became an Old Man.
You could have been happy. You could have made her happy. Told her she was the most beautiful woman in the room; she always was. Told her you loved her while she still listened. Come home to her while she still waited. She would have been less lonely, smoking her filtered cigarettes by the radio in the kitchen, waiting for Montand to sing her favorite song. You would have been less lonely too, at the other end of the house, the other end of the phone, the other end of the world. At the other end of the bed.
Rembrandt lost three children, his fortune, his wife. He painted his last self portrait in 1669, the year he died. A Portrait of the Artist, as an Old Man.
A simple portrait of a proud man in quiet pain. Staring directly at his life, with no regret, just sad acceptance ‘leavened by the absolute conviction that this painter knows himself.’
‘Time is, time was, but time shall be no more.’ A portrait of you. Gazing up, head uncovered, tired hat in hand. Hanging above the fireplace you never lit, on the brick wall in the living room you never shared.
There are no mistakes. Just a succession of frozen moments that capture the essence of being human, the essence of being alive. A portrait of a life felt, and a life lived.
Now, let Death tremble to take you.*
* Inspired by the words of Charles Bukowski: ‘We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.’