Rembrandt’s The Skater (c.1631)

This image may seem simple but is full of meaning. Imagine, for instance, what Rembrandt was doing when he made this print. Like the skates the man wears with their sharp blades cutting into the ice, Rembrandt dragged a sharp needle across a flat and shiny metal plate, creating lines with furrows on either side like the tracks of an ice-skate. The resulting print provides an inverted image of the orginal just as reflections in water do too. Reflections are an age-old symbol of the human psyche as the word suggests. We all use our minds to reflect.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, The Skater (c.1631) Etching with drypoint on paper. Only state.

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The skate blades and lines etched in the ice are not the only references to art. The pole the skater rests his hands on (top) recalls the mahlstick artists use for the same purpose while doing delicate work (bottom). It, too, generally has a globular shape on one end. And by showing one mitted hand resting on top of the other, Rembrandt suggests through touch - an age-old metaphor for the painter's hand at work1 - that the top hand "paints" the lower one and that, in consequence, the artist paints himself.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Rembrandt's The Skater
Bottom: Adriaen van Ostade, The Artist in His Studio, detail (1663) Oil on panel. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden.

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It has not been recognized (before it was pointed out here) that the many turbans in Rembrandt's compositions refer to the turbans artists commonly wore in studios to keep paint off their hair. Rembrandt wears a turban in one of his most important self-portraits, as did Van Eyck and others.2 This man must be an "artist". Besides, the two forms of visual perception have often been conveyed through the use of one closed eye to represent insight and one open for exterior vision. Here the skater has his far eye open and the near one closed.3 Real skaters keep both open.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Rembrandt's The Skater

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Although Rembrandt shows the figure creating an image on the ice, the scene itself including the skater's own figure is the finished artwork. This important distinction is suggested by the use of Rembrandt's own distorted features in the folds of the skater's trousers.4 Do note how his left "eye" is precisely placed (as so often in other examples) in the subject's groin to convey (through a visual pun) the conception of the image. 

Even in this fragmentary "self-portrait", the eyes contrast: one is solid black; the other open and white. A line then loops out from the groin to form his bulbous nose with another short line under that for his mouth. It is only suggestive, a mental image of himself, amorphous and fragmentary. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Detail of Rembrandt's The Skater, rotated
Top R: Detail of Rembrandt's Self-portrait in a Fur Cap (1631) Etching.
Lower: Diagram of image at upper left, enlarged

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The skater, to summarize, is an artist moving across the surface of his own psyche etching the lines we look at. The artist's mind is a crucial feature in art because the search for self-knowledge in all major religious traditions is the search for truth. It is the common element of philosophy. The Skater, as an image, is conceived by Rembrandt out of whose veiled face the skater appears fully formed. It is, as I showed in his other contemporaneous etching, A Beggar in a High Cap, a mental image of the very moment at which Rembrandt the artist imagined this print. 
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, The Skater (c.1631)  

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Notes:

1. See an explanation with many examples of how touch is associated in visual art with the act of painting under the theme, Pointing and Touch.

2. For an explanation of turban symbolism, see Filippino Lippi's Dead Christ (c. 1500) and the Artist's Turban.

3. See the theme Insight-Outsight. For a particularly interesting use of this motif, Donatello's David and Goliaths (1410's-1440's).

4. New visitors can find these distorted self-portraits difficult to accept; the image is sketchy and, some think, you can see what you want to. No-one else though, as far as I know, has seen how repetitively these features appear in Rembrandt's work. They appear so often - almost all still unpublished - that they cannot be coincidence. Besides, other artists from at least the fifteenth century onwards have done likewise. Albrecht Dürer is famous for it and it has also long been accepted that Michelangelo included his greatly distorted self-portrait in the skin of St Batholomew in The Last Judgement. In our own time Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Philip Pearlstein and others have made such distortions a hallmark of their style though the presence of their own distorted features within their paintings remains mostly unseen. For other examples by Rembrandt, see Rembrandt's Beggar in a High Cap (c.1629) or Rembrandt’s Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638). More will follow. Examples already published by other major artists include Dürer's Mountain Hut in Ruins (1494-5), Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (1522), Goltzius' Apollo (1588) and Rubens' drawing A Forest Path. You will find more under the theme Veiled Faces.

The purpose and rationale for these hidden and approximate self-portraits is, I believe, that mental images are distorted and fragmentary and are often seen from multiple viewpoints at one time. That is why Cubist images are so fractured and why James Joyce's novel, Finnegan's Wake, is disjointed as well. The images and the book are describing scenes in the mind and not in exterior reality. In conceiving the artwork Rembarndt imagines his mental vision as diffused, which is why his own head appears in veiled form. Meanwhile the artwork which he creates inside his head is well-organised and mostly mimetic despite the intentional inconsistencies such as, for example, having one eye closed.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 01 Apr 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.