Rembrandt Sketches

Laughters Expressions Drawings
"Charlesy Pve had it with you and your goddam> moods "

There is no landscape that we know as well as the human face. The twenty-five-odd square inches containing the features is the most intimately scrutinized piece of territory in existence, examined constantly, and carefully, with far more than an intellectual interest. Every detail of the nose, eyes, and mouth, every regularity in proportion, every variation from one individual to the next, are matters about which we are all authorities.

We've come to know the face so well because it's so important to us; in fact, it's the center of our entire emotional lifesFrom birth to death, the face links us to friends, to family, to everyone meaningful to us. Few things are capable of moving us as deeply as the face of a loved one; nothing interests us as much as looking at that same face, in all its moods, in its evolution over time.

The Facial Expressions_

No wonder, then, that the little movements that alter the look of the features—facial expressions—can have such great significance. The slightest suggestion of a smile can start a conversation between strangers; the slightest suggestion of a frown can start an argument between friends.

When we look closely at expressions like smiles and frowns, we realize how little on the face has to change for us to recognize an altered mood. When we try to draw an expression, we then realize that there is a gap between the recognition of an expression and the recreation of one.

The actual physical threshold that must be crossed for an expression to be perceived can be very slight. For example, an audience would know instantly if a speaker became sad, drowsy, or annoyed; audience members too distant to distinguish a two-inch P from a two-inch F would have no problem noting a quarter-inch shift in the speaker's eyebrows and interpreting its expressive meaning correctly.

An Innate Skill

Our ability to read facial expressions isn't something we had to learn. It's part of our instinctive equipment, like our aversion to pain or our feeling of warmth toward creatures with lots of fur and big eyes. Our mastery of expression is so deep-rooted that it's possible to lose the ability to tell one face from another yet still be able to recognize a smile from a frown. Researchers studying stroke victims discovered a group of individuals who could recognize various expressions even when they couldn't identify their own faces in a mirror. There's clearly something fundamental about a skill that can persist despite such severe brain damage.

Just as innate as our capability to distinguish the facial expressions of others is the reflex by which expressions appear in the first place. We don't learn to smile or cry by watching adults do it. Facial expressions arise powerfully and involuntarily like sneezes, or shivers. A baby born without sight will laugh and cry like any other baby. In fact, it's probable that babies have laughed and cried in a similar manner as far back as there have been human babies. Most experts believe that the fundamental facial expressions—fear,

Fear Facial Expressions Drawings
Drawing by C. Barsotti; 1973 The New Yorker Magazine. Inc
Facial Expressions Fear Facial Expressions Drawings

joy, sadness, surprise, disgust, and anger—are common to all human societies and have remained unchanged for thousands of years.

Facial Expression and the Artist_

Facial expression has long attracted the attention of artists. Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his famous handbook for artists, On Painting (1435), that a painting "will move the soul of the beholder when each man painted there clearly shows the movements of his own soul... we weep with the weeping, laugh with the laughing, and grieve with grieving." He advised artists to carefully study the facial expressions, remarking, "who would ever believe who has not tried it how difficult it is to attempt to paint a laughing face, only to have it elude you so you make it more weeping than happy?"

Alberti's comment nicely summarizes the two most important facts about the relationship of art and expression: (1) facial expression can have a decisive impact on the effect of a picture; (2) depicting precisely the effect desired can be maddeningly difficult. These facts are related in two ways. First, it is a short step from recognizing the face's powerful grip on our consciousnesses and the primal nature of expressions to recognizing that the same power applies to depictions of the face. By moving us to identify with the emotions of people in paintings, art can gain in power and impact. Second, since depictions of expressions can be so powerful and subtle, they can, by themselves, make or break a picture.

There are many stories about artists struggling to perfect a particular laugh or grimace. Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have worked for years on the smile of his Mona Lisa, employing the services of jugglers, musicians, and clowns in an attempt to evoke from his subject that certain smile. While working on his sculpture Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, Bernini is reported to have burned his own leg with a candle in order to study the expression of pain. Ilya Repin agonized over the countenance of the returning exile of his painting They Did Not Expect Him, changing it many times—partly in response to published criticisms— because he felt that the whole meaning of the picture depended on it.

Memorable Images

The effort can be worth it: certain masterpieces revolve around a particular vivid expression. It's no coincidence that nearly every acknowledged master of Western art was a master of facial expression. Included in this book are major paintings by Velazquez, Rembrandt, Leonardo, Reubens, and Caravaggio; in each, a vivid expression takes center stage. Alberti's advice, that an artist should show the soul to arouse the viewer, is borne out in each case; our reaction is the exercise in empathy that he suggested.

The manner in which artists have depicted facial expression has also depended, to some extent, on the period in which they were working. Artists of the late eighteenth century, for example, were more likely to portray emotions in their paintings by the use of obvious, theatrical gestures—what

Acting Facial Expressions Exercises

Like actors in a B movie, the characters in the neoclassi-cist David's Death of Socrates overtly demonstrate their anguish over the philosopher's impending suicide. Melodramatic gestures and conspicuous poses (Socrates points heavenward to indicate the immortality of his soul, sorrowful disciples slump against walls or cover their heads with their hands) dispense-with all subtlety. The face plays a minor role.

The treatment of emotion in this late-nineteenth-century realist painting is opposite to that of the neoclassicists. Rather than broad, unmistakable gestures, everything is held in; mood depends on nuance and detail. The daughter's stare, the father's scowl, and the mother's expression reinforce the sense of isolation and distress.

actors call indicating—than by focusing on subtle movements of the face. In paintings by the neoclassical artist David, for example, despairing people fling their arms up in the air or slump against walls in a manner that seems terribly exaggerated and artificial to the modern eye. One would have seen much the same thing in the theater of David's time.

Painters working in the late nineteenth century, particularly between 1860 and 1890, placed a higher priority on careful observation from life. Their artistic climate was shaped by the realist movement. Gone were paintings of nymphs and the lives of classical heroes—in their place were scenes of farmers, laborers, and the unhappy bourgeoisie. In the plays of Chekhov and Ibsen, in the novels of Tolstoy and Zola, and in the paintings of Repin and Eakins, there was a similar effort to hold up a faithful mirror to the contemporary world. As actors of the time brought to the stage a new level of craftsmanship and emotional conviction, painters succeeded in portraying the most compelling nuances of facial expressions and gesture. No artists before or since have painted pictures that were so psychologically true in their depictions of the face.

The Twentieth Century

In our century, there's been a very different attitude towards the value of visual truth. Many felt that painters had exhausted the worth of pursuing the "merely visible." Artists like Picasso, Cezanne, and Kandinsky strove to create an art that was independent of nature, in which color, form, and expression were valued simply for their own sake. Painting was conceived of as a universal language, like music, capable of moving our emotions without any reference to recognizable elements. Given this ideal, it's no wonder that painting in the twentieth century has seen little in the way of continuation of the nineteenth-century realists' work.

The work of photojournalists, however, does represent a link with the realist painters of the past (whose drawings often appeared in nineteenth-century newspapers).

Sketches Facial Expressions

Just practicing. Rembrandt's fondness for self-portraiture arose early in his career. These etchings of the youthful Rembrandt mugging before the mirror were undoubtedly meant as exercises in rendering various expressions. Anyone who has ever etched a plate can appreciate the task he set himself; expressions are not usually held on the face more than an instant, and the effort to maintain the poses of fear (A), laughter (B), anger (C), and the slight smile (D) is in itself impressive.

Just practicing. Rembrandt's fondness for self-portraiture arose early in his career. These etchings of the youthful Rembrandt mugging before the mirror were undoubtedly meant as exercises in rendering various expressions. Anyone who has ever etched a plate can appreciate the task he set himself; expressions are not usually held on the face more than an instant, and the effort to maintain the poses of fear (A), laughter (B), anger (C), and the slight smile (D) is in itself impressive.

News photos have had an enormous impact on the modern consciousness. We can immediately bring to mind the photojournalist's images such as Lee Harvey Oswald's scream of pain (or his guard's scowl) or crying children fleeing their burning village in Vietnam. Unquestionably, these too are images where people "clearly show the movement of their own souls." These photos are direct successors to the "journalistic" paintings of the nineteenth-century realists. (Ironically, the advent of newspaper photography was part of the reason realist painting fell into decline.)

Painters will always be passionately interested in the face and its moods in a way that transcends periodic fluctuations in style. The power of the face will always inspire artists to explore its expressive possibilities, and pictures that capture emotions in a striking way will always be notable. Moments of strong emotion are rare in the humdrum of daily life, and we're instinctively drawn to images of the face where the "movements of the soul" are clear.

Non-Western Traditions

Artists from nearly every period and culture have recorded the effects of emotion on the face. This book includes the jade head of a crying baby from pre-Columbian Mexico; a wooden, snarling-faced war helmet from the Pacific Northwest; scowling emperors carved in stone from ancient Rome; and theater masks from Japan and North Africa displaying a range of emotions from fear to laughter. Human expressions also appear on the faces of animals, demons, and gods; looking at the art of some civilizations, it is harder to find a face in repose than one contorted by some expression.

How Artists Have

Studied Expression_

For artists wishing to inform themselves on the subject of facial expression, there have always been three op-tions: (1) looking in a mirror; (2) looking at other pictures; (3) direct observation.

Direct observation is clearly the

Rembrandt Sketches

Rembrandt may have relied on quick notations from life for his etchings and paintings, but these drawings represent an unusually clear record of his procedures. The sketch of a screaming, struggling little boy hauled off by his mother is a masterpiece of quick observation. Note the flying shoe, the admonishing gesture of the mother, her scowl.

Rembrandt may have relied on quick notations from life for his etchings and paintings, but these drawings represent an unusually clear record of his procedures. The sketch of a screaming, struggling little boy hauled off by his mother is a masterpiece of quick observation. Note the flying shoe, the admonishing gesture of the mother, her scowl.

most difficult option. We don't often see people in the grip of a primal emotion, and even when we do, there are obstacles: expressions don't last very long; they are frequently of the utmost subtlety even when they do last; and we usually feel too inhibited or involved to look on objectively when someone else is suffering anguish or pain.

Some artists have nonetheless persisted in working from direct observation. Rembrandt Van Rijn's sketch of a screaming child, clearly made from life, became the basis for the expression in (and may have inspired) his painting Ganymede. Perhaps Rembrandt was aware of Leonardo's advice: "Try to be a calm spectator of how people laugh and weep, hate and love, blanch from horror and cry out in pain."

Rembrandt also (like most artists) studied his facial expressions at the mirror. Many of his early etched self-portraits have a distinctive, dramatic expression. These lively pictures were probably meant as a sort of exercise, unrelated to any specific work. Like a musician studying scales, Rembrandt seems to have been preparing himself for the demands of his future art. In a similar spirit, the French Academy used to require all students to portray a specified emotion in an "expression competition," feeling that it was an important skill that students needed to master.

Traditionally, artists have referred to the work of other artists to learn to portray emotion. For example, students once dutifully copied the anguished grief-stricken face of the classical sculpture Laocodn. In the Middle Ages, painters were expected to base their renderings on studio books of standardized drawings. Yet the expressions captured in the sculptures of the Middle Ages seem taken directly from life. One wonders if medieval sculptors took more liberties with their research than painters of the same time.

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