by Alexandra Tuschka
For a long, long time, researchers have puzzled over what is actually to be seen here. It is obvious that we are dealing with Rembrandt. Not least his numerous self-portraits (about 90) make his character head unmistakable. But why is he laughing at us so blatantly? And whose nose is sticking out into the picture? His own? But is it really so crooked? We see here a late work of the artist, which is dated in the 1660s. The artist died in 1669. Due to the very impasto painting style, this painting seems almost haptically tangible.
Among many earlier interpretations, the one known as "Laughing Zeuxis" has prevailed among researchers today. Information was provided by a painting by Rembrandt's student Arend de Gelder, who shows a similar scene. Also, Rembrandt's painting is demonstrably cropped, which is evidence that the scene was originally larger. We do not know whether the model was also visible next to the canvas, which plays a due difference in the viewer's role. In his hand (difficult to recognize today due to the darkening) the painter holds a painting stick or brush. Also the general very dark impression of the painting may deceive the contemporary viewer about the original color scheme, which will have seemed less brown and golden.
If Rembrandt has painted himself here as a laughing Zeuxis, he is alluding to one of the first artist anecdotes from antiquity. According to this, Zeuxis, one of the greatest of all artists, was supposed to paint a portrait of an old, ugly woman. When he looked at his finished work, he burst into such a fit of laughter that he died of it. In the work of his pupil this scene is driven still ad absurdum, since the old woman holds the apple, the fruit of the seduction, in the hand. The laughter, however, which is addressed to the viewer here, can of course be taken up in two ways: does the artist invite us to join in his amusement? Or are we here equated with the ugly model?
Rembrandt - Self-Portrait as Zeuxis
Oil on canvas, c. 1663, 82.5 × 65 cm, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne
Arendt de Gelder - The Painter as Zeuxis
Oil on canvas, 1685, 141.5 x 167.3 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt a. M.