371 Ears and eyes

In his paintings of faces Rembrandt displays knowledge of a particular muscular feature, the one that gives some people bags under their eyes. Schwartz became mildly obsessed with following this from face to face and found that Rembrandt never gave paying sitters the bags he admits to in some self-portraits and mercilessly records when painting old studio models.


Every art-history graduate student hears about (and should read) the writings of Giovanni Morelli (1816-91), the father of modern connoisseurship. The method he developed for distinguishing the hands of particular artists was based on the close clinical observation (Morelli was a physician) of characteristic details. Specifically, as he wrote in his book Kunstkritische Studien über italienische Malerei (posthumously published in 1893, based on articles starting in the 1860s): “Every painter who matters had as it were a type of hand and ear specific to himself.” That “as it were” is a semi-modest plea to the reader not to take his statement all too literally, a plea that is difficult to honor. Morelli remains associated with a mechanistic approach to artistic authorship that has not always been looked at kindly.

Although I shared in the objections to Morelli’s reductionism, I could not deny that he had a fairly incontrovertible point. Moreover, there was something in his writings that appealed to the egocentric obscurantism in me to which some stressed graduate students are prone. Out of a mixture of pride and diffidence, Morelli published his art-historical writings under the anagrammatic pseudonym Ivan Lermollieff, a supposed Russian traveler who was translated by a certain Johann Schwarze. This was a play on the meaning of his name – the morello is a black sour cherry – but it also made us near namesakes.

Believe me or not, I swear that I was not thinking of Morelli when I began to take notice of a specific type of eye in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, portraits and tronies. That is, three roughly concentric circle segments under the eye.

A beautifully subtle example is the left eye (right to the viewer) in the self-portrait in Kassel of 1634. The three muscular bulges that I see are here differentiated by color: yellowish pink directly under the eye, pinko-gray in the more protruding feature beneath, which casts a slight shadow, and yellowish in the slighter arc below. (Notice though, that the lower arcs are missing in the right eye, although they are evident on other self-portraits; see below. This thing does not walk on all fours.)

When after long years I finally decided to see whether these formations correspond to anatomical descriptions of the eye, I found evidence that they might. In the schematic drawing below, from the clearest parallel I could find on Internet (out of many others that were less clear), the three ridges seem to correspond to the pretarsal part, the preseptal part and the orbital part of the orbicularis oculi.

Once having noticed this, I began to see it everywhere in Rembrandt’s portraits.

Man in a red coat, 1633, New York, The Leiden Collection

Here are the eyes of an unknown portrait sitter of 1633 …

… and Rembrandt’s own eyes in the self-portrait of 1659 in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The conviction took hold of me on the basis of these details that Rembrandt knew what he was looking for. Here was an instance of the wisdom of the late aphorist and soccer player Johan Cruijff: “Je gaat het pas zien als je het door hebt” (You don’t see it until you get it). Had he been working on the basis of visual impressions only, the structure of these muscles would not have been as apparent as they are.

In this he was not unique. The form and place of the facial muscles was common knowledge available to all artists.

See only the gorgeous right eye of Nicolaes Woutersz van der Meer in Frans Hals’s Banquet of the Sint Joris civic guard company, Haarlem (1616). Yet, Hals was not as consistent in applying his knowledge as was Rembrandt.

In the right eye of Hals’s portrait of Jacobus Zaffius (1611), for example, the three muscles are plain to see, but their buildup is flattened and given a more decorative than descriptive effect.

In this Frans Hals portrait of an unknown man in the National Gallery, London (1633) there is more relief, but the structure seems to have emerged more from the artist’s visual impression at the sitting than from an application of anatomical savvy. In itself this speaks to the advantage of Hals. The greater variation in his eyes may correspond more truthfully to the differences between individuals than Rembrandt’s more consistent application of the rule.

The present column is a shot across the bow, presenting first thoughts about a subject I intend to pursue further. Yet I think that something interesting can be said at this point about Rembrandt’s eyes. That is, that they show a descending order of structure in the facial muscles, and bags under the eyes, depending on the nature of the painting. The most outspokenly saggy eyes belong to paid models.

Bust of an old man with a golden chain, 1632, Kassel, Gemäldegalerie

Head of an old man, 1654, St. Petersburg, Hermitage

Less emphatically grooved are the self-portraits.

Small self-portrait, 1655, Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Self-portrait, 1669, London, National Gallery

While the commissioned portraits, of men and women alike, generally show more shallow rimples.

Portrait of Jan Hermansz Krul, 1634, Kassel, Gemäldegalerie

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, 1661, London, National Gallery

Margaretha was nearly eighty years old when this full-length portrait was painted. Were her undereyes really as smooth as Rembrandt showed them here?

Portrait of Margaretha de Geer, 1661, London, National Gallery

He himself casts doubt in this contemporaneous second portrait of the same sitter, head only, where Margaretha shows more of her age, though still I feel somewhat flattered.

Granted, these examples were chosen to illustrate the point, and there are exceptions. Following Ivan Lermollief in the translation of Johann Schwarze, let me say this is sozusagen a general rule. Nonetheless, my hypothesis challenges the “warts and all” image of Rembrandt the portraitist.

One big difference between Morelli’s hands and ears and my eyes is that he regarded these details as nearly unconscious gestures, habits that are all the more valuable as indicators because the artists were barely aware of them. In the eyes I illustrate here I see highly deliberate representations of the organ that means more than any other to a painter. Are they also valid evidence in judging authorship? A question to be examined later. Stay tuned.

© Gary Schwartz 2019. Published on the Schwartzlist on 4 March 2019.


The events of Rembrandt Year 2019, 350 years after the master’s death, are a bit overwhelming. My participation so far has been limited to giving an opening talk at the starting shot for the year in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, Rembrandt & Saskia: love in the Dutch Golden Age. Actually, the exhibition is less about love than about Frisian wedding and marriage customs, which it evokes with well-chosen objects perfectly displayed. Runs until 17 March – worth the trip.

I still have to visit the exhibitions in the Rijksmuseum and the Rembrandt House. I was held up in February by trips to London and New York, each with their own satisfactions and drawbacks. In London Loekie and I were grateful guests at a dinner given by Simon Schama on the evening of the day he was knighted by Prince William, 5 February. Simon’s gift for friendship and attachment filled the evening with warmth. We missed an afternoon in London, though, because our morning flight was cancelled and we were rebooked onto another more than three hours later. (In recompense, we recovered from British Airways nearly twice the amount we had paid for the tickets.)

New York was another kettle of fish. After flying in with what I thought was the tail end of a cold, it turned out that I had pneumonia and had to stay inside for a few days and take an antibiotic cure that delayed my return by two days. Loekie and I were staying with good friends, and I was able to spend my enforced rest reading, snoozing and watching old movies on television. TCM was showing silent films in the daytime, and I got to see Gloria Swanson in Sadie Thompson. Before I could get used to a life of leisure, I was declared cured and I flew home. I did get to see lots of dear friends and my beloved artist cousin Peri Schwartz.

Nonetheless, Rembrandt is keeping me busy, though for exhibitions in 2020 and 2021 of which I am guest curator. More about them in the coming months.


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4 thoughts on “371 Ears and eyes”

  1. Sir: Thank you for looking carefully at eyelids! I have spent 35 years operating on eyelids and the tissues around and behind the eye – a sub-speciality of Ophthalmology called “Oculoplastics”. So, I might flatter myself, but I am experienced with anatomy and physiology of the eyelids. Much can be learned from looking at eyes and eyelids!
    – a few comments: Hal’s J Zaffias shows a mild ectropion – likely secondary to sun exposure over years
    Old man with a gold chain – an obvious RLL (right lowers lid) entropion – usually secondary to age and rubbing (ie stretching the normal anatomy)
    Your comments on the three subgroups of the orbicularis muscle are correct, and analysis needs to include the various fat pads of the anterior orbit ( the “bags”), and the skin texture. Perhaps most importantly in analyzing eyelids is identifying the angle of light which make the various contours obvious or almost invisible. In my cosmetic work, every patient was taken to a mirror (same location in each of my exam rooms, and with consistent overhead lighting) to allow consistent and accurate analysis. And humans being humans, some would spend a great deal of time in weird positions and with bizarre lighting at home and in front of their mirror!
    My wife and I have spent very many days “chasing” the Old Masters – in both museums and auctions, and I have found many interesting eyelids! So, keep looking at them!

    1. I couldn’t have hoped for a better informed response than yours, Royce. Just learning the name of your specialty is valuable information that opens up research possibiities. I’m sure I’ll be contacting you at your e-mail address with queries. For example about the relative number of people with particular eye conditions, compared to their rather rare occurrence in portraiture – not just Rembrandt’s. Could you say something about that in response to this comment, so other readers can learn from it? Many thanks, Gary

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