by Brian Miller
The sculptor Auguste Rodin once denied the suggestion that he shared an ounce of genius with that Dutch nonesuch: “Compare me with Rembrandt! What sacrilege! With Rembrandt, the colossus of Art! We should prostrate ourselves before Rembrandt and never compare anyone with him!”
The imperative to place Rembrandt on a pedestal might have come from Rodin’s idea that art was a quasi-religion and the artist at his best (as Rodin considered Rembrandt to be) was very near a god. Even today, like Rodin we’re quite comfortable compartmentalizing not only personage and period, but artistic medium. Case in point: few people today, when they think of Wordsworth, tend to think of Rembrandt. Perhaps naturally so. One was a poet, the other a painter, and if there’s any misgiving, they were separated by 100 years and at least five times as many miles.
And, also quite naturally, we usually associate Wordsworth more with his artistic contemporaries. Fragments of the unique quality that filters through Wordsworth’s poetry are certainly identifiable in the pastoral scenes of John Constable, particularly in his attention to capturing the true face of his native Dedham Vale. And the diffusions of cloud, light, and land evident in JMW Turner’s oil paintings do invariably resemble that sense of sublimity and emotional frisson to be found in The Prelude (1850), when Wordsworth’s ascent of Mount Snowdon reveals to him
A fixed, abysmal, gloomy, breathing-place–
Mounted the roar of waters, torrents, streams
Innumerable, roaring with one voice
Heard over earth and sea, and, in that hour,
For so it seemed, felt by the starry heavens.
But history in one of its many lessons informs us that, in spite of the most vehement resistance, ideas, identities, and divisions all merge, distort, and overlap in challenging ways.
Another case in point: when Wordsworth thought of Rembrandt, he tended to think of Wordsworth – well, maybe. As William Hazlitt recorded in Spirit of The Age (1825), his inventive and critical chronicle of the circulating luminaries of his lifetime:
“[Wordsworth’s] eye also does justice to Rembrandt’s fine and masterly effects. In the way in which that artist works something out of nothing, and transforms the stump of a tree, a common figure into an ideal object, by the gorgeous light and shade thrown upon it, he perceives an analogy to his own mode of investing the minute details of nature with an atmosphere of sentiment, and in pronouncing Rembrandt to be a man of genius, he feels he strengthens his own claim to the title. “
There’s reason to doubt whether this intimate detail of Wordsworth analogizing his poetry to Rembrandt’s style of composition is really based in fact. Hazlitt was known for fudging the details. It might instead be a confabulation originating from Hazlitt’s own critical agenda or, perhaps, a jealous double-edged lunge at the poet who so easily achieved in verse what Hazlitt attempted in oils during his frustrated career as a portrait painter. For instance, in 1814, a decade prior to the publication of Spirit of the Age, Hazlitt wrote a lengthy maiden review of Wordsworth’s The Excursion for The Examiner periodical. In one paragraph, he veered for an allusion to high art, singling out the Dutch master, and wrote how Wordsworth’s poems in general
“bear a distant resemblance to some of Rembrandt’s landscapes, who, more than any other painter, created the medium through which he saw nature, and out of the stump of an old tree, a break in the sky, and a bit of water, could produce an effect almost miraculous.”
So, there are two possibilities: either Wordsworth had a disastrous habit amongst acquaintances of theorizing to dizzying heights about Rembrandt and his stumps… or Hazlitt drew on the ready-made image in both cases. The choice might seem obvious, but don’t dismiss the former out of hand.
The poet did indeed make noticeable forays into the world of pictures and painters, “professing their genius” on more than one occasion. The reason we don’t often think of Wordsworth in this light has to do in part with a critical reluctance to engage with Wordsworth’s approach to visual art, a reluctance based on a key set of polemical statements made in The Prelude and various correspondences. In these, Wordsworth relates how stodgy and constricting the medium of painting is when compared with the more free-flowing and versatile nature of poetry. Some took that to mean he hated pictures. But in other lines and other letters, Wordsworth assumes a less defensive, occasionally even an effusive, stance when it comes to fine art and what the eye can make of it.
While early in life he had associated with many traveling watercolourists and sketch artists venturing north to capture the wild scenery of the Lakes for a public growing more and more interested in seeing the remoter regions of their native England, it was after coming under the patronage of Sir George Beaumont in 1805, a former Tory MP turned dilettante after retirement, that Wordsworth began to wax finely artistic.
At the beginning of a correspondence with Beaumont postmarked 1808, Wordsworth mentioned a Rembrandt he had seen with Samuel Taylor Coleridge while touring the collection of John Julius Angerstein, whose accumulated store of paintings would later establish the basis for the National Gallery:
“Coleridge and I availed ourselves of your letters to Lawrence, and saw Mr. Angerstein’s pictures. The day was very unfavorable, not a gleam of sun, and the clouds were quite in disgrace […] The new Rembrandt has, I think, much, very much, in it to admire, but still more to wonder at, rather than admire. I have seen many pictures of Rembrandt which I should prefer to it. The light in the depth of the Temple is far the finest part of it; indeed, it is the only part of the picture which gives me very high pleasure; but that does highly please me. “
An immediate obstacle stands in the way of identifying the exact painting referenced here, for the simple reason it’s considerably difficult, to put it mildly, to say with absolute accuracy what Wordsworth actually saw. The description of a “light in the depth of the Temple”, though, might indicate the above, The Woman Taken in Adultery, a biblical scene executed by Rembrandt in 1644 and acquired by the National Gallery from the Angerstein collection in 1824.
Regardless of which painting he meant to bring up, this is a very different Wordsworth from the version we’re apt to imagine. At a juncture, were it in a different letter, where we might expect an interesting meditation on nature, we get a blunt and rather uninspired weather report. Instead of a rustic tableau midst the northern lakes or a scene recovered from a bucolic childhood, an image from a different era and a different country seizes the poet’s mind. He even airs a polite form of that terse hallmark of the snobbish art critic heard faintly in the exhibition halls of countless galleries ever before and ever since: ‘I’ve seen better.’
Distinguishing the quality of light, however, is entirely consonant with what we might expect from Wordsworth. The poet had always displayed an interest in light and vision, what is seen or unseen, as a way of achieving a unique variety of pleasure. In “Tintern Abbey” (1798), after all, recalling the features of the Wye landscape, he writes
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration.
The idea of “feeling” in these lines is key to understanding the importance of the Romantic image that Wordsworth outlines, but plain old seeing does all the work. If we arrive at that restorative inner sanctum of contemplation where images of abbeys (or daffodils) spring up to refresh us, it’s because the eye expended energy in ferrying us there. Certainly, the mind’s eye, the department of the imagination concerned with image, opens the setting. But these “forms” of the land are not simply intuited or recalled in a shallow way, but powerfully and overwhelming envisioned: they “have not been to me/as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” The negative is critical here. We cannot say with much precision that Wordsworth simply “imagined” or “remembered” this scene; as certainly as we can say he saw anything, we can only say that he literally saw it without seeing it.
The difference between the Wordsworth of ‘Tintern Abbey’ at age 28 and the Wordsworth of Rembrandt at age 38 is that, at least within the upper class circle to which Beaumont’s patronage permitted entrance, art became a topic of greater relevance to the poet and an object, like nature, available for admiration, critique, and inspiration.
In a qualified way, then, we can imagine Wordsworth accepting Hazlitt’s characterization of him, however spurious it might have been. But what was it about Rembrandt’s work in the first place that gave rise to this association?
To begin answering that question, we may turn to the Preface of Lyrical Ballads (1800). Here Wordsworth relates not only one of the central tenets of the collection but the intent of his poetic philosophy as a corrective to the artificial and emotionally stifled verse of the previous century, writing:
“The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems, was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men, and at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.”
The collaborative vision of Wordsworth and Coleridge in Lyrical Ballads, though disproportional in its results, was partially a kind of aesthetic upcycling. What was old and tired, and for that reason noxious to the spirit, became simple and new. Coleridge later described this attribute of Wordsworth in more artistic terms in his Biographia Literaria (1817) as “the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops.” Hazlitt, for his part, called it working “a common figure into an ideal object.”
If that upcycling characterized some aspect of Wordsworth’s intention for his poetry, here we might ask: what did Rembrandt, on the other hand, envision of his own art?
The answer quite simply is: very little, at least in quantity. Rembrandt only committed a single clause to paper regarding his artistic intentions – certainly nowhere near an entire preface. In quality, though, we sense in that autobiographical statement a hint of the revitalization and authenticity for which Lyrical Ballads set course. Writing to one of his patrons, the statesman Constantijn Huygens, Rembrandt plainly described two works, paintings of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, as containing “the greatest and most natural movement.”
Those two adjectives might convey so obvious a task for a painter as to be a little disheartening. An artist working in the tradition of realism for which the Dutch Golden Age is known would be remiss to paint in a manner anyway short of ‘great and natural.’ Yet the substance for which Rembrandt aimed, “movement” (translated from the Dutch beweegelijkheid, variously connoting mobility or dynamism) reveals a truly Sisyphean task: to express through a medium what in that medium it is impossible to express.
If Rembrandt sought to capture the spirited animation of nature, the rustling of leaves or the coy angles of a smile subdued by time, he must have been relentlessly disappointed. Painting may imply motion but it can never produce it; it may recommend and inspire the most sublime ideas, the most gruesome actions, but it will never stage them for all to see. Wordsworth knew this liminal reality intuitively. In painting, we see only a panel, a layer of conspicuously flat and thin emotion splayed out in space. By viewing that space and calling up our imagination, we reapply time, movement, and a fuller dimensionality to its surface – in a sense, seeing as the artist might have seen. Only 50 years after Wordsworth’s death in 1850 did film enable and normalize that kind of superlative vision.
Yet the depth, the colour and, more than anything, the division of light and dark present, for example, in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) emulate an earlier form of cinematic vision to a powerful degree.
Even without knowing the biblical story, the viewer intuitively feels the wind, the spray, the urgency and fear wrought by the storm. The brighter left portion of the composition dazzles the eye, drawing attention to the intense yet perhaps futile labour of the sailors to prevent the boat from capsizing. Moving lower away from the source of light, toward the pure sable depths of the sea, the eye encounters the disciples thronging Jesus, his head encircled with the dim but warm realist suggestion of a classical halo. The parallel illumination of his face, unwrinkled and calm, together with the immediate recognition of his status and place on the jeopardized vessel, instils in the viewer a sense of pacifying beauty, a sense of resolution at odds with the chaotic setting.
Hazlitt might have been onto something.
That grand balancing act between light and dark, “natural” and “great”, real and ideal, allegorized through Rembrandt’s sustained application of chiaroscuro in not just his historical paintings but his portraits as well, recalls the critic MH Abram’s concept of “natural supernaturalism” in High Romantic literature:
“A conspicuous Romantic tendency after the rationalism and decorum of the Enlightenment, was a reversion to the stark drama and supranational mysteries of the Christian story and doctrines […] Romantic writers revived these ancient matters with a difference: they undertook to save the overview of human history and destiny, the experiential paradigms, and the cardinal values of their religious heritage by reconstituting them in a way that would make them intellectually acceptable, as well as emotionally pertinent, for the time being.”
A visual precedent for that secularization of Christian experience in Romantic period England resonates powerfully in Rembrandt’s masterful realistic depiction and minute representation of biblical myth and history, literally conjuring up these ancient literary scenes into eternal physical reality. This wasn’t just about religion, but grafting the high drama of religion onto the visually self-evident and commonplace – making the ideal real.
Of course, we don’t and may never know if Wordsworth saw this or any other biblical narrative painting by Rembrandt. We may never even know if Wordsworth truly saw any Rembrandt at all or if, when we adjust for the poet’s ego and the unreliability of Hazlitt, all these references simply deflate to the status of a series of misinformed name-drops. But if we choose to believe Hazlitt, and we choose to believe Wordsworth, and we take a brief explorative glimpse at Rembrandt, there are certainly ways in which this slightly stilted, slightly strange comparison begins to glow with a faint truth.
Brian Lanahan Miller is currently a first year student in the Literary Studies PhD program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His interests revolve around the sociocultural and philosophical relationships between visual art, landscape, and poetry during the long-eighteenth century (1750-1850). This blog post developed out of research conducted during the dissertation stage of an MA in Romantic literature undertaken at the University of Leeds.