The Emotions and the Sublime
Expression and Perception in Rembrandt’s History Painting
As I believe that the idea about the lifelike depiction of emotions does not resolve the question about the timeless attraction that Rembrandt’s art exerts, since the issue of verisimilitude may be linked to different criteria, I opt for a different approach. Certain positions to Rembrandt’s work indicate an important affinity to the sublime, as expressed by Longinus, while the Longinian sublime is reformulated in Dutch seventeenth-century texts. Accordingly, I move from the viewer’s empathy to a response that perceives the depicted stories and emotions within the framework of the sublime; not necessarily as experienced emotions with which the viewer can identify, but as expressions of a complex circumstance which includes the exceptional, vastness, transcendence, or darkness and fear. To put it differently, I try to trace the sublime in Rembrandt’s history painting, not as the painter’s intended goal, but as a possible approach within a dynamic process that involves the viewer’s stance towards the artwork.
“Seven resistless warriors-captains
have slit a bullock’s throat over an iron-rimmed shield, and
have brushed their hands over the bullock’s blood and sworn
an oath by War and Havoc and Terror, the lover of blood.”
Longinus on Aeschylus