What makes a masterpiece

A Masterpiece is Elegant Unrest

June 2, 2015
Ellen Eagle
Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Woman, probably a Member of the Van Beresteyn Family, 1632. Oil on canvas, 44 x 35. H. O. Havemeyer Collection. Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Long before I became aware that artists think about principles like selection and unity, I was captivated by seemingly simple paintings of people. My eyes fixed on a quiet tilt of a head, a tension at the corner of a mouth, a posture that implied an emotional state. A watchful artist’s straightforward depiction of a small, undramatic moment made me trust that the painting was a truthful record of the artist’s honest involvement.

I am in love with Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman (ca. 1632). The volumes in space, the almost invisible transitions of darks into the light, the color, the air. The varieties of texture. Areas of calm punctuated by activity elsewhere. All woven together with restraint, in harmony: the beauty of each detail intensified.

For me, though, it is the marriage of these perfections with a kind of awkwardness that Rembrandt captures, which makes the painting achingly beautiful and which speaks of real life. The poor woman looks so uncomfortable, wrapped in her impossibly ornate and bloated dress. The incredible millstone collar against her sublimely straightforward face; a face without a touch of glamour, and so breathtaking in its simplicity. The formality of the pose gives way to an almost imperceptible imbalance. There is something about her hand holding the ostrich fan—she doesn’t appear committed to it. And her other arm is straining, just a bit, to hold on to the edge of the table. It all looks slightly out of kilter, somehow, as though she is a soul ill-at-ease. Yet she stands with such fine posture. How dignified she is in her quiet perseverance.

My interpretations are conjecture, of course, and personal. But it is Rembrandt’s empathy that stimulates my feelings. Portrait of a Woman appears to have been initiated as a commission. But because Rembrandt was exquisitely sensitive to an inner life and responded to small moments which hint of that life, he transcended the potential artificiality of a commissioned portrait and tells of a rich human presence that resonates.

Great paintings stimulate thoughts and feelings that take us beyond the four corners of the canvas and then they bring us back; we crave to see the image again and again, our responses only deepening with time. And although a painting is a complete statement, an artist’s own words can, at once, widen and crystalize our meditations, illuminating and heightening our sensations as we stand before the paintings we love.

At the Metropolitan Museum’s Thomas Eakins exhibition in 2002, I took notice of the artist’s quotations that appeared on several gallery walls. When I came upon “I hate affectation,” I laughed, delighted by the defiant bluntness in proximity to Eakins’s other, more scholarly sounding quotes. But this quote is a serious statement.

Some of Eakins’s detractors impeached his portraits as being cold and cruel, or worse, dull. But I think the opposite is true. I think Eakins’s meticulous description is fired by his longing to grasp the heart of his subject. He never turns away.

Thomas Eakins, The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog, ca. 1884–89. Oil on canvas, 30 x 23 in. Fletcher Fund, 1923. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This desire drives his portrait The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog (1884–89). He probes the cool colors of Mrs. Eakins’s skin, the shifts from hard bone to soft flesh, the warm recesses of her eye sockets, the strength of her hands, the pull of her satiny dress form her hips to her knees. His love for what he observes is evident, and his expression, so sensual.

The content of this painting is personal. Susan McDowell was an artist, too, and had been a star student of Mr. Eakins. When they married, she put aside her painting and devoted herself to his care. Respectfully, he places her at the center of his own study: her luminous figure is pivotal to his work and well-being. Her head, tilted toward her book of paintings, turns to Mr. Eakins. Her eyes and hand are open to her husband. He is the beneficiary of her strength. The artist’s presence is deeply felt. This is a portrait of complex and intimate connection. But The Artist’s Wife and His Setter Dog is a double portrait. Thomas Eakins has painted a fully-realized portrait of his dog, Harry. No mere accoutrement to Mrs. Eakins, Harry is an essential member of the household, the weight and warmth of his presence unsentimentally conveyed.

Brush in hand, a portrait painter stands before his or her model and embarks on a solitary voyage. The desire to connect is fundamental and powerful, and there are moments when the possibility feels beyond reach. When I look at these two paintings, so full of emotion, I feel the artist striving to connect and to give shape, on his canvas, to his compassion.

Their paintings are records of watchful artists at work, striving to touch upon something true in their subjects. For me, that is their greatest beauty.