The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer

 

The conservator’s eye: Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, oil on canvas, 143.5 x 136.5 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Speakers: James Coddington and Beth Harris

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, also known as Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, is an oil-on-canvas painting by Rembrandt.

It was painted in 1653, as a commission from Don Antonio Ruffo, from Messina in Sicily, who did not request a particular subject.

Aristotle, world-weary, looks at the bust of blind, humble Homer, on which he rests one of his hands. This has variously been interpreted as the man of sound, methodical science deferring to Art, or as the wealthy and famous philosopher, wearing the jeweled belt given to him by Alexander the Great, envying the life of the poor blind bard.[1] It has also been suggested that this is Rembrandt’s commentary on the power of portraiture.[1]

The interpretation of methodical science deferring to art is discussed at length in Rembrandt’s Aristotle and Other Rembrandt Studies.[1] The author notes that Aristotle’s right hand (traditionally the favored hand), which rests on the bust of Homer, is both higher and painted in lighter shades than the left hand on the gold chain given to him by Alexander.

The exact subject being portrayed in this portrait has been challenged in the book by Simon Schama titled Rembrandt’s Eyes, applying the scholarship of Paul Crenshaw.[2] Schama presents a substantial argument that it was the famous ancient Greek painter Apelles who is depicted in contemplation by Rembrandt and not Aristotle.[3]

It was purchased in 1961 for $2.3 million by the Metropolitan Museum of Art[4] in New York City, USA. At the time this was the highest amount ever paid for any picture at the public or private sale.[5] During the renovation of the Rembrandt wing of the Metropolitan Museum, the painting was retitled in November 2013 as Aristotle with a Bust of Homer.

The painting forms the central theme of Joseph Heller‘s 1988 novel Picture This.

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