STEVE CRAIN: Beggar Images Still Viewed Through Glass
Ironic, I thought, as we inspected a recent exhibition of some of the Dutch artist's work at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh.
Standing alongside a few Saturday afternoon museum-goers who appeared well-fed, well-cared-for and even well-to-do, I scanned small protected-by-glass images -- drawn by Rembrandt between 1629 and 1654 -- included in the traveling show "Rembrandt Van Rijn: Sordid and Sacred, The Beggars in Rembrandt's Etchings."
The exhibit features 35 petite prints -- one is only slightly larger than two inches by two inches -- from the John Villarino Collection.
By the time you read this, the show will have moved on, and probably no one North Carolinians would classify as a beggar will have laid weary eyes on Rembrandt's images of alms seekers.
I doubt that anyone working at a rescue mission or social services office said to fellow workers, "The museum is showing artwork that features beggars. Maybe we ought to take some of our clients to see that show."
No, I don't think anyone thought about busing beggars to review Rembrandt's renderings.
Dutch society of Rembrandt's day esteemed work, thrift and self-restraint and looked down on beggars. Artist Hieronymus Bosch, a Rembrandt predecessor and fellow Dutchman, painted beggars as almost indistinguishable from his depicted demons, says writer Gary Schwartz.
In a few "Sordid and Sacred" etchings, Rembrandt may have lapsed into what Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) called "rhyparography," the depiction of mean, unworthy or sordid subjects.
Rembrandt's 1631 etching of a man "making water" (urinating) may be derogatory to street people. Perhaps the image of a man relieving himself in public depicts destitution venting aggression.
Poverty births potential for aggression. A humble hand extended to receive benevolence can change into a fist. A potential benefactor who fears reprisal may decide to make a charitable gesture.
Critics say Rembrandt usually portrayed beggars with "sanctity and individuality." He often used images of beggars to portray Bible characters.
Dr. John I. Durham, in his book, "The Biblical Rembrandt," presents Rembrandt's intrigue with Christian faith.
"His first artworks were on Biblical themes, as was his last painting," Durham says. Of Rembrandt's known work (285-290 paintings, 300 etchings and 1380 drawings), 40 percent involve Biblical themes.
Rembrandt made many depictions of the "return" scene from Jesus' parable about a lost, or prodigal, son who asked for his inheritance, spent it foolishly and returned to his father's embrace (Luke 15).
Perhaps Rembrandt saw himself as a spiritual beggar drawn to the "there but for the grace of God go I" images of street people.
Schwartz suggests that Rembrandt's humane image of the poor and disabled may have "contributed at some time or other in the course of history to the kinder treatment of real beggars."
As a child, I heard the 13th century nursery rhyme "Hark, hark, the dogs do bark; the beggars are coming to town." I listened to Bible stories about poor people and knew funds-challenged residents who lived in my rural South Carolina community. The first street beggar I remember seeing was an African-American man who leaned against a building fronting the main street in Greenville, S.C.
The man wore black leather "holders" to cover what was left of legs amputated close to his bulky torso. I never heard him speak when someone dropped coins into a cigar box sitting in front of his stumps.
My grandparents sold "real cow's milk and butter" to a few Greenville residents on Saturday mornings, and I, as a child, often accompanied them. We'd make our rounds and then shop. I could hardly pass that beggar without thinking of this line from a poem my pastor often quoted: "I complained I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet."
As I stood in an art museum and viewed Rembrandt's centuries-old images of beggars, I wondered how many of us may still prefer to see poverty artistically interpreted and viewed through glass -- the glass of television screens.
Art still helps us deal with life.
Steve Crain may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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