Clark exhibits self-portraits

At the Francine and Sterling Clark Art Institute until Feb. 5 is a small, wonderfully idiosyncratic exhibition pairing the youthful art of Degas and Rembrandt. As the Clark undergoes renovations, gallery space is tight, and this show is limited to two rooms. One room explains the show’s premise with wall texts and copies of Rembrandt’s etchings by both his contemporaries and Degas’s. A choice sampler of early work by the two masters is limited to the second room, with four paintings and 12 prints constituting an intimate presentation of select early work by two of the greatest names in the European tradition. Aesthetically, this second room is a quietly rich display (as unostentatious as “Billsville” itself) that is worth seeing and rewards contemplation. I most enjoyed trying to make sense of the pairing, which is by no means an obvious one, but which proved quite suggestive.

The focus of the show is self-portraiture, which accounts for 13 of the 16 works by Degas and Rembrandt. The effect of this focus is to emphasize the different personalities of the artists even as it reveals important connections. The wall texts argue that Rembrandt’s famous self-portraits, amounting to a full autobiography of the artist, served as a model for the young Degas’s brief engagement with the genre. Demonstrating the point, most of the self-portraits here are three-quarter views with shadowed faces, with Degas following Rembrandt’s lead in achieving self-dramatization through an unconventional use of chiaroscuro (modeling through contrasts of light and dark values, a technique Degas used more than any other Impressionist). But the similar poses and their common use of this technique convey very different attitudes, and indeed the artists are far enough apart stylistically as to suggest the important difference between oil painting in the 17th and 19th centuries.

Born 228 years apart in Holland and France respectively, Rembrandt and Degas personify opposing bourgeois types, with Rembrandt’s earnest engagement and sociability the polar opposite of Degas’s aloof and jaded detachment. If Rembrandt’s bold light effects were an important stylistic model, Degas’s sense of self derives more from 16th century Italian Mannerism than from Rembrandt’s version of the Baroque. The key quality in Mannerist portraits is sprezzatura, an insouciantly aristocratic combination of natural ease and high style. It is a quality Degas possessed in spades: One glance at the Clark’s own Self-Portrait, 1857-8, should convince you.

This painting is the centerpiece of the show, on a wall where it is flanked by the only two Rembrandt oils (likewise both self-portraits) in the exhibition. The comparison is fascinating. The Rembrandts are smaller than the Degas yet suggest a more dramatically involved artist, striking a pose on the left and romantically backlit on the right. By contrast, the Degas shows a detached dandy, with hat and red scarf and morose, dark features. Although the face is shadowed in each painting, the artist’s use of chiaroscuro is remarkably different.

Rembrandt’s light is concentrated and palpable, whereas the Degas painting has a diffuse grayness that contains a greater variety of chromatic effects than the Rembrandt – notice the blue tonalities surrounding the face. If the Rembrandt paintings are nuggets of piercing light, the Degas is a delicious if subtle color-chord: the blue-gray harmonizing with the pink-red of the scarf, as well as the beige of the uncovered canvas at bottom-left and the liquid blackness of his jacket, eyes, beard and hat. This heightened chromaticism within the convention of chiaroscuro suggests Degas’s chronological distance from Rembrandt, as it is a stylistic innovation of 19th century Romanticism that is as important to tonality after Beethoven as it is to chiaroscuro after Delacroix – a Trojan Horse portending the end of each convention in modernism.

The wall grouping these three paintings is undoubtedly the show’s climax, but the works on paper on the two adjacent walls are worth perusal. These are two of the greatest draughtsmen in history, but Rembrandt gets the better of his competition. His value contrasts are stronger than Degas’s, ranging from an inky black to piercing white light as against Degas’s shades of gray, and Rembrandt’s “handwriting” is finer (the great English art critic Roger Fry deemed it the finest ever).

The only other painting in the show is a slightly earlier self-portrait by Degas, monochromatically brown and entirely without the chromatic richness of the Clark’s painting. The earlier painting is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which lent four additional works to the exhibition and where the exhibition will travel following its stay in Williamstown; in a happy coincidence, the Met’s painting was previously owned by Sterling Clark’s brother Stephen.

Students in Boston over the holidays should consider visiting the current exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Degas and the Nude, which includes the two key works of Degas’s youth as well as a bounty of beautiful paintings that continue the story of the young genius we see at the Clark.