It has been my arguable prejudice since long that judging the technical quality of a painter’s craft should depend on how on his canvasses he has managed hands – the manner in which he navigates his own hand to perform that trick of tricks.
Not that a less crafty painter may not impress us with work that intrigues or inspires. A Hopper is a good example, so is Magritte. Both of them are ‘bad painters’, yet now and then producing bloody good art. But do not ask them to paint a proper hand…
Danton might have spoken to the cursed Robespierre like this: “Touching the hand that, with a detached stroke of his pen, sends off so many people into their deaths – I just cannot afford to do that.” After all, the hand of that fearsome French Revolutionary was a hand of utter t/Terror, the word to be written with both a small t and a Revolutionary capital T. Danton did not shake that hand and thus perished under the razor-sharp claw of Madame la Guillotine. This as an introduction to a little essay on the depiction of hands, more especially the painted hand.
Could a Rembrandt have painted that hand of Danton in such a manner that we would immediately recognize it as the Hand of Death? He would surely not have used a symbolic hand, an icon like the porcelain little talon used by Emperor Napoleon. The real hands given to the emperor by the painter Gérard on this crowning portrait are pretty well done, and so by the way is that little artificial hand on its stick, lying on a pillow.
Master Rembrandt was not one for explicit symbolism, he considered it cheap. Or it must be symbols created by himself, for instance in the attitudes he gave his sitters. He is still the best of them all, proving that someone who opposes Calvinist preachers may still be blessed by the Lord with the mastery of his craft, as can be seen on his portrait of Eleazer Swalmius .
This is indeed exactly the kind of overconfident, Reformed Church little prick with a Latinised name who may have summoned Rembrandt to be given a sermon on his way with women. Here, indeed, the task of producing a proper hand was complicated by such an attitude.
We know that this Man of God has been given a preacher’s pose, including ‘an orator’s hand’. So, this hand must have been given extra special care by Rembrandt – which he gave it.
Perhaps, though, something may have gone wrong with the thumb…
But then again, look at this fatty, a man trying to impress the painter with his business capacities or perhaps merely with his scribbler’s intelligence, offering Rembrandt a chance to make a portrait of a man not all too clever, so it seems.
Apart from his intelligence, Rembrandt has managed so well to capture the culinary pleasures of this man – exactly the hands of a fatty man who is in top form when eating copiously every day. Vicariously, one feels the ring wriggling itself painfully in the plump finger’s flesh.
Many a great painter shies away from hands. They may first try, as did Ferdinand Bol in his masterly portrait of this old pensive man with the face of almost a Rembrandt quality.
However, observe how something has gone seriously wrong with the portrayal of the fingers of the right hand. Bol decided to take the easy way out, giving the beard a little extra which now covers and hides them. The effect, though, is rather silly.
Arent de Gelder also solved his hands problem cleverly. He decided not to overpaint this young man’s hand after failing to do it properly. He hid almost the whole of it under what seems to be an etching which he is now supporting with that hand to show it to us, his observers.
A true master of hands is Samuel van Hoogstraten. Look at the way in which – in a self-portrait – he has portrayed his hand manoeuvring the pen over a sheet of paper, holding it as a dear instrument.
Or for that matter that other Master of the Hands, Herman van Aldewereld, who lovingly gave this rather plain woman hands one would like to start kissing on sight.
In detail they are even more striking:
What has always puzzled me is the way in which such magnificent paintings come into existence. A hand like Aldewereld’s girl must have taken even him quite some time. It still seems unjust to the person portrayed to make her ‘sit’ ad infinitum, till finally her hand has been done and has achieved the status of the Sublime for centuries ever after.
Then, unexpectedly, visiting the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam, I found the solution. Rembrandt’s old room with his requisites has been preserved. You know – the skulls, the helmets with plumes. The works.
On the floor the keen eye may observe two plaster hands in a certain pose. You imagine the painter doing his vital job on a sitter’s face and on the outlines of the pose, then leaving the rest of the canvas to be finished by one of his pupils, for instance by that great Ferdinand Bol who assisted Rembrandt before he himself became a Master. Although I would not leave the painting of the hands to this Bol…
However, for a great painter a hand is perhaps like the face of its owner. These hands may need that same toucher and finesse given to the sitter’s countenance. Rembrandt may have done both face, pose and the hands himself, then leaving the rest of the canvas to be finished by his staff.
Sierksma, January 2018