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This little self portrait by Rembrandt is a small miracle and a tour de force of the Dutch master’s skill and visual intelligence. The subtle variations of value and color in Rembrandt’s face, particularly in the shadows, are perfectly modulated and quite amazing. Back in 2011, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA hosted this amazing little painting as part of the exhibit Rembrandt Degas: Two Young Artists. Eleven years later I still think about it. After looking at this piece for a while I saw something that I only suspected and had to prove to myself with the help of Photoshop.

The whole of Rembrandt’s left cheek (on our right) is the same color, the same paint. All the variations in the shadows are an optical illusion created by the careful manipulation of the background value and color. We are fortunate to have very high resolution images of this painting available HERE at The Rijksmuseum.

By isolating the cheek and displaying it against several different colors also isolated from the painting’s background, you can clearly see that yes, it is the same color and value. After I did this I went back to the exhibit and verified it again in person. The adjacent value variations are the most apparent, but the subtle use of warm and cool color contrasts are as important to the illusion as the value is.

Very little of what we see to be modeling and shape in his face is actually present in that paint. I like to imagine Rembrandt knocking out the face relatively quickly, but laboring over the background, laughing with every change. The best realist paintings transcend the material and actually become the subject, regardless of the level of detail, which more often than not can be a distraction, or the texture of the paint, which when manipulated skillfully, is irrelevant. We know we are looking at a painting, yet the mysterious and unnerving thing is that the artist is not only showing us his vision, he is in our heads playing with our perceptions.

Now don’t get me started on how great this ear is.

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