Saturday, August 8, 2009


Nobody knows for sure why Rembrandt drew this errant line beneath his signature in his famous picture of Adam and Eve:

The line seems so incongruous, some print collectors who preferred "tidy" art trimmed Rembrandt's line off the bottom of their print. Apparently they thought they were doing Rembrandt a favor.

Me, I adore this line. It's the only line in the entire picture not employed in the service of content. Instead, Rembrandt turned it loose in all its abstract glory, as naked as the day God invented lines.

We see it separated from the picture of Eden as the tool Rembrandt uses to perceive the world. It is the means by which he performs miracles. It underscores his signature, but for me it tells us more about Rembrandt's identity than his name does.

Abstract expressionist Barnett Newman was famous for painting wall-sized canvases, blank except for a single bold line. A friend who was trying to educate me about how to understand Newman's work raved, "When he painted that stripe his balls must have weighed 20 pounds apiece."

"Eve" by Barnett Newman

Well, I understood what he was trying to say.

You'll find echoes of Rembrandt's line in some of his other drawings. For example, in the following two pictures, after Rembrandt completed the careful, controlled portion of the picture he scraped a bold, powerful, almost abstract line across the bottom of the page.

The line in Rembrandt's tiny drawings seems more powerful to me than Newman's ten foot stripe. A line doesn't need to be physically large to be compelling, and it is not necessarily diluted by sharing the page with a subject matter. Note how Rembrandt's eyes sought out the strongest most fundamental line in those landscapes, distilled it to its purest and simplest form, and recorded it on paper as the exultant mark you see above.