Abstract Details in Rembrandt’s Work

Perhaps the most notable artist of the Dutch Golden Age of painting was Rembrandt van Rijn. His skill in capturing the details of faces gave his portraits a liveliness that was subtle and engaging. His works convey a sense of paused motion that makes them distinct from the finely detailed and posed works of the Rococo period. The highly representational art works of Rembrandt and his contemporaries seem to be a far cry from the abstract art works of the 20th and 21st centuries. But we can learn much about abstract art by looking back at Rembrandt’s techniques.

"Old Man with a Gold Chain" by Rembrandt

“Old Man with a Gold Chain” by Rembrandt


Aspects of Rembrandt’s Style


Chiaroscuro is one of the most notable features in Rembrandt’s paintings. He fills the world of his canvases with shadows and then creates an intense focus on the elements the light falls on. Most often, these are faces, for he painted many portraits during the course of his life, including a series of self-portraits. The depth of shadows allows the distinct features of each person to stand out more sharply than they would if the light intensity was consistent throughout the painting.

In a sense, Rembrandt has, in his technique, abstracted the unique elements in his painting subject and brought them “into the light”, while still presenting an obviously representational work. Yet he makes choices about what to feature and what to subdue, an aspect that marks the beginning of any modern abstract painting. What element shall the artist put forward for the viewer’s attention? What element is less significant in detail? These are key in modern abstract art, obviously, but they are also true in Rembrandt’s work.

Let us look closer at how he does this.

Making Details Pop


Rembrandt’s “Old Man with a Gold Chain”, dating from around 1631, seems to be a relatively simple composition, for there are no elaborate details to it. Yet the striking simplicity of the composition manages to convey the dignity of the subject. One element that helps convey this is the ornate chain the gentleman wears draped over his cloak. But just how ornate is that chain really, in the painting?

Detail from "Old Man with a Gold Chain"

Detail from “Old Man with a Gold Chain”


Abstracting from Reality


By looking more closely at the detail of the chain from the painting, we can see that Rembrandt implies its details more than he meticulously reproduces them. The chain is composed of a sequence of different shapes, all evidently holding small details worked by the jeweler. But Rembrandt uses some swift brush-strokes to convey the shapes, and then brilliantly adds the dashes of light that would reflect off the rounded surfaces of the gold work. In essence, he has abstracted the reflection of light, and given it prominence over the possibility of depicting the exact shape of every element of the chain.

Abstract Energy in Non-Representational Work


When the viewer moves from studying highly representational art works such as those of Rembrandt to looking at the works of an abstract artist, the tendency is to stay caught in the expectation of representation. Because we need to know what we are looking at in order to navigate the world around us, we give greater attention to the accumulated effects of the details, not the details themselves.

But looking at the details in Rembrandt’s work shows us that an abstraction from the detail can tell us much if we allow our minds to take it in. Abstract artists plunge us into this mental exercise without preparation. They have already made the choice to leap beyond the representational stage to elements they wish to focus on.

"Always a New Pinnacle" by Diana Hobson

“Always a New Pinnacle” by Diana Hobson

Diana Hobson’s “Always a New Pinnacle” presents the viewer with just such a challenge. The body of the work in the color choices seem to echo the types of shadows that Rembrandt loved, with the darker tones grounding the work. Even the reddish background at the top of the picture melds with the darker colors. The cooler blue shape in the foreground might in other circumstances become the central highlight of the work, except that the vibrant yellow strokes in the upper regions lift our eyes to them. As with the precise dashes of gold light on the chain in Rembrandt’s painting, the yellow here makes itself the owner of the viewer’s attention and keeps us engaged with the whole composition.

After forty years of working, Diana Hobson remains engaged in the art worlds of Los Angeles and New York, continuing to produce paintings that capture her energy in surprising ways.



“Old Man with a Gold Chain” by Rembrandt van Rijn, circa 1631, at the Art Institute of Chicago. The image and detail included here is presented under Fair Use Practices for instruction and information.

“Always a New Pinnacle” by Diana Hobson, 2007. Copyright Diana Hobson, used by permission.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s