This late Rembrandt portrait, at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, depicts a man with pockmarked skin and recessed eyes. The bridge of his nose has collapsed. His name is Gerard de Lairesse, and he is suffering from congenital syphilis (a disease that, incidentally, has been steadily rising in the United States in recent years).
As the infection, inherited from his mother, takes its ineluctable course, de Lairesse (1641-1711) will eventually go blind. So you could say that Rembrandt’s painting, wherein shadows encroach on light, has a metaphorical, almost tautological aspect: painting as a kind of fumbling in the dark, a diminution, a dying away.
But wait! De Lairesse isn’t going anywhere. It will be 25 years before he entirely loses his sight, and more than 40 before his life gives out. Whereas Rembrandt (1606-1669), at the time he painted the portrait, had only a handful of troubled years to live.
De Lairesse meets the great painter’s gaze with perplexed but unyielding dignity. Born in Liège, in today’s Belgium, he was an artist himself and the son of a painter. (Venereal disease is not the only congenital condition.) He fled the city after entangling himself in an affair with two sisters who had posed for his pictures. He moved to Utrecht, in the Netherlands, with another woman, whom he subsequently married, and they had a child in 1665.
De Lairesse’s talent was noticed that year by the art dealer Gerrit van Uylenburgh, who persuaded him to move to Amsterdam. Van Uylenburgh’s father, Hendrick, was the art dealer who had launched Rembrandt’s career.
Rembrandt had moved into Hendrick’s studio and married his cousin, Saskia. So when de Lairesse moved to Amsterdam 30 years later, it was almost inevitable that he would meet Rembrandt — and that Rembrandt would paint him.
At first, de Lairesse was spellbound. Rembrandt was in the midst of his famous fade-out, which his late self-portraits — each one more harrowed and bewildered than the last — document with an exploratory intensity and honesty unmatched in the history of art. The problems began with financial collapse; they culminated in the deaths of his partner, Hendrickje Stoffels, and his beloved son, Titus. Within a year, Rembrandt was dead, a pauper assigned an anonymous grave.
But in 1665, the year of this painting, he was still Rembrandt. He could paint like nobody’s business, and de Lairesse fell under his sway.
Sadly, however, the subject’s sympathy for his portrayer proved short-lived. Long before he went blind, de Lairesse adopted a smooth, classical manner of painting that was at odds with Rembrandt’s roughly brushed naturalism. Later, forced by his condition to switch from painting to theorizing, he delivered lectures that tried to consign Rembrandt to the dustbin. In an influential 1707 treatise, he compared Rembrandt’s style to “liquid mud on the canvas.”
De Lairesse’s basic problem with Rembrandt was that he veered too far from the ideal, and in this judgment, he was by no means alone. Rembrandt’s almost animal thirst for the real, his maverick disregard for accepted conventions of visual beauty, stuck in the craw of quite a few art critics. None could refute his talent. But they could not abide his refusal to idealize. And they were at a loss to explain his energetic interest in all the most abject aspects of life, from defecating women and rutting monks to saddle-nosed syphilitics.
Rembrandt’s work has always been distorted by an excess of “genius-talk.” We forget too easily that his human flaws and artistic sensibility were all of a piece. He was the great identifier. Nothing human escaped his notice. Just as his self-portraits traced the arc of his own bloom and decay, this portrait of de Lairesse conveys what it feels like to be approaching the end of something. For de Lairesse, it was the eventual end of seeing; for Rembrandt, it was the imminent end of everything.