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Recently read: Rembrandt's Nose

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on February 11, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

Michael Taylor. Rembrandt’s Nose: Of Flesh and Spirit in the Master’s Portraits

Recently, I had the idea that I would start reading more about visual art. The first thing I did was lug home Jansen’s massive History of Art from the library. But the thing was too daunting, and I have a bunch of other books out now. Anyway, I’m not sure that a broad historical survey is the best way into any subject. (This is why back when I was teaching I always did my best to transform any surveyish class I was responsible for into something a bit more focused, the idea being that you often get a better sense of the whole by learning a part of it in some meaningful detail. The only thing I ever got from a ram-it-down-your-throat-as-fast-as-you-can-buffet style sampler approach to a subject is that there’s a lot of the subject, perhaps even too much.)

And so I decided to begin reading about visual art at the other end of the scale of generality, with a book-length study of noses in Rembrandt. If it strikes you as funny that someone would write a book length study of noses in Rembrandt, then you probably haven’t read Rembrandt’s Nose. It’s author, Michael Taylor, is so keen on the subject, finds it so natural a spur to reflection and study, that he confesses at the outset of the book that when he first got the idea for it he was surprised that no one else had gotten there first. Lucky him. And lucky us too. It’s a delightful book, filled with close observations, insight, and warmth.

Rembrandt’s Nose is not just about noses in Rembrandt’s paintings, etchings and sketches.* It’s just that noses play a starring role in the works that Taylor discusses: the way they catch the light in Rembrandt’s portraits; the way they indicate character and experience. Taylor works more or less chronologically through a number of works of art, describing them closely, commenting on them, and filling in historical details when it matters. It should be obvious that I’m completely ignorant when it comes to this sort of thing, and so I’m not in a position to say anything about the reliability of Taylor’s scholarship. I can say, however, that Taylor’s observations helped me see things I would not otherwise have seen; and that having seen those things, I felt better equipped in general to notice more about other works of visual art. If you’re starting out the way I am, you can’t ask for much more in a book on visual art.


Author: Maynard Handley
Date: 2010-10-07

Try reading Quentin Bell On Human Finery. It’s a discussion about the history of clothing and its sociological meaning — why, for example, did it use to be the case that men were dressed to the nines (think Henry VIII), but somewhere in the 19th century that changed.

It’s perhaps not exactly the same sort of book — more concern with what the clothes mean to self and others than on the details of how this look changed to that look — but perhaps the same idea of surveying the past by looking at one small part of it.

Author: Chris
Date: 2010-10-08

Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve put it in my list.