The gentle creaking of the old floorboards made me realise that I had crossed the threshold and entered the calm of the house. It was a bright morning in early May and tiny motes of dust floated in the shafts of sunlight that crossed the hall of Kenwood House in North London. The ticking of a tall grandfather clock was the only sound I heard as I looked around, taking in the paintings and beautiful quiet.
I went to the reception desk and enquired about the painting that I had come to see. The attendant directed me to a room at the back of the house, and I happily made my way along corridors filled with wonderful works of art. There were many paintings and pieces of sculpture, both big and small, and some fine furniture. No doubt all these pieces could tell a tale, but that would have to wait as I rounded a corner and stepped into the room that I had been directed to.
A few weeks earlier I had found out that a painting by one of my favourite artists, Johannes Vermeer, was on permanent display in the magnificent house on grounds that border Hampstead Heath. I had seen some of Vermeer’s work when I was in Amsterdam the previous winter, and was looking forward to seeing The Guitar Player.
And so I slowly looked about and found the beautiful painting only a few feet away, hanging near a tall window. The room was empty, save for me, the paintings and the gentle hum of a discreetly placed humidifier.
Although Vermeer produced less than forty attributed works, they are all prized and admired in equal measure for their clarity and brilliant capturing of a ‘moment in time’. It has been suggested, somewhat snootily, by some experts that he may have used a camera obscura to assist in the accurate rendering of his subjects and brilliant use of shadow. Whether this was true or not was far from my mind when I gazed upon the red-cheeked, young girl dressed in her gold and white dress, smiling as she plucked the strings of her guitar. It was a magical moment as I studied the colours, shadow and engaging smile that forced a grinning response. I was captivated and marvelled once again at Vermeer’s work. It was magnificent and I was delighted to have seen it.
I was aware of the silence in the room when I turned and looked at the other wonderful paintings. There was a delightful portrait by Franz Hals, and others by Gainsborough and Reynolds brought my eye to something that took my breath away. For there in front of me was a painting by another famous Dutch master that seemed to breathe and pulse, so intense and brilliant was the work. I was taken aback by the power of the sitter’s gaze, and it’s a moment that I have always treasured.
After the gentle, light work of Vermeer, I was completely unprepared for one of Rembrandt’s greatest works – Portrait of the Artist – that speaks with deep understanding over three hundred years after it was created. The artist is dressed for work and holds an easel and paintbrushes and has a bright, white hat to protect his long, silver hair. The painting is lit from the left and casts his left cheek and shoulder into shadow, a device that draws your attention to his face.
And his eyes – the windows to the soul.
They are the eyes of an old man, who was almost sixty years of age, and all too familiar with the ups and downs of life. For Rembrandt, who early on was successful, happy and rich, life dealt him some cruel blows. His wife, Saskia, who he loved madly, died young as did his son Titus. And, like other artists before and since, he made bad financial decisions and was eventually declared bankrupt. Such a fall from grace and the attendant pain are all captured in the painting that hung before me.
Then I realised something for the first time, and stepped closer. I could clearly see the brushstrokes and the dabs of paint that the master had applied all those years ago. And here I was in exactly the same position that Rembrandt must have stood, maybe on a morning in a far-off May, considering his next move. I felt that I was being let in on a secret and it was those deep, world-weary but captivating eyes that were my gateway to appreciating the master’s work. I have visited Kenwood House many times since, and always enjoyed Rembrandt’s gnarled, engaging face and the silent eyes that say so much.