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Seeing the Real:
The Art of Rembrandt and Greenaway

Tim Dotan

ASAG Journal

October 2, 2021

The relationship between reality and truth seems apparent to most but an understanding of their nature is extremely difficult to discern. The philosophical implications of reality and truth can be looked at as the foundation of art. Reality can be approached from many different perspectives. Some believe that objective truth does not exist while others beg to differ. Some on the other hand believe that an objective truth can only be uncovered by subjective means.

There are two general ways of approaching the subject of reality, either scientifically or artistically. Scientists seek to achieve an objective truth. Artists are more subjective. Both can be regarded as observers who seek to understand reality and both attempt to evaluate nature. Even a work of pure fantasy is based on the past sensory perceptions of the artist. Two artists in particular who employ both subjective and objective means in order to depict and assess reality are the British filmmaker Peter Greenaway and the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn. These seemingly disparate artists are able to reveal a deeper truth through art. Each has produced works that deal with the self and the self’s perception of reality.

Realism is a term typically used to describe a work of art that attempts to come as close to nature as possible. In Rembrandt’s Nude Seated on a Mound etched in 1631, a woman is shown seated on a mound of earth. The creases on her skin are readily apparent and nothing about her appears glamorous. It can be seen from this etching that Rembrandt wanted to show the woman for what she was. He took great care in not altering what he saw. This unflattering depiction of a woman is an example of how Rembrandt strove to show observable fact.

Nude Seated On A Mound.jpg

Naked Woman Seated On A Mound (1631)
Joseph-Émile Muller [et al.] (1968) Rembrandt, London: Thames & Hudson.

Greenaway uses nudity to show the natural as well. In his 1991 film Prospero’s Books, which is based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, most of the actors are nude at all times. The film even begins with a nude John Gielgud as Prospero voicing his lines in a large bathhouse that looks more like an indoor swimming pool. Throughout the film the human body is shown at every conceivable stage of life. The bodies of aged men and women are seen. This emphasizes Greenaway’s concern with the life cycle and how every organism reaches its peak then decays. The younger characters in the film are continually dancing and performing acrobatics to depict the body’s full potential for movement. Greenaway has no problem with showing all facets of human biology: “To Greenaway’s cool, zoologist eye, human beings are merely another species of mammal; his performers are naked rather than nude, not revealed but exposed. He shows us the vulnerability and imminent decay of flesh…No filmmaker has ever displayed his performers so clinically.”[1]

Prospero's Books.jpg

Prospero’s Books (Peter Greenaway, 1991)

Rembrandt too did not shy away from showing the crudities of life. In The Good Samaritan, an etching from 1633, a dog is seen defecating in the foreground while the human figures in the background are shown in front of a building. Some are talking to each other while others are collected around a horse.

The Good Samaritan.jpg

The Good Samaritan (1633)

As well as showing the stages of life, Prospero’s Books also accentuates the interminable nature of time. The film is separated into three sections: past, present, and future. The beginning of the film focuses on Prospero’s past. Prospero, in Shakespeare’s prose, relates his history to the audience as well as to Miranda his daughter. He describes his dukedom and how his brother exiled him to an uninhabited island. On the island, he is accompanied only by his daughter and some of his books.

Once the film switches its focus to the present, Prospero’s machinations of revenge against his brother are revealed. Until this point the film has taken place predominantly indoors. Once the present section of the film begins, Prospero is shown sitting with his daughter in a cornfield. The juxtaposition of this brightly lit outdoor scene with the preceding darker indoor scene produces a high contrast. Soft pastoral music is also heard which adds an air of peace and tranquility.

The third and last section of the film, the future, takes place at night. Even though the film is constructed in chronological order, Greenaway superimposes images to allude to both past and future. The resultant use of a split screen adds meaning and depth to Shakespeare’s text. It also floods the viewer’s senses.

The superimposition of images is not only used to show past and future, it also functions as an expository tool. Greenaway is obsessed with the collecting and cataloguing of knowledge and thus attempts to put as much information as possible into each shot. While watching Prospero’s Books the viewer must grow accustomed to absorbing many screens and images at the same time. Greenaway’s oeuvre seems to be based around the supposition that the sum of human knowledge can be collected to produce a unified whole. Perhaps this resultant whole can be considered true objective reality. The amount of detail in each shot is extremely important to Greenaway.

Rembrandt’s concern with detail is more apparent in his paintings than his etchings. In The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, which is oil on canvas dated 1632, Dr. Tulp is seen demonstrating the muscles of the forearm. Dr. Tulp is holding the flesh of the corpse’s arm open while his medical colleagues watch. The pale corpse is located in the bottom mid section of the painting. The listeners are collected in the top left while Dr. Tulp is at their right. Each of the listeners, Dr. Tulp, as well as the corpse is depicted in painstaking detail. There is an almost triangular composition with Tulp separated from the listeners and the corpse separated from all that is above it. In a sense this painting, through lighting and positioning, separates the animate from the inanimate. The lighting focused on the corpse’s torso also allows us to “perceive fully the contrast between the tones of the corpse and the vivid colours of the physicians who follow the lecturer’s demonstration with various degrees of attentiveness.”[2]

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Dr. Tulp is not only separated from his listeners by his position within the frame, his attire is distinct as well. He is the only one not wearing a ruffled collar and is the only one wearing a hat. As the instructor he imparts knowledge to his listeners. He is assisted in doing so by the famous textbook by Vesalius, which stands open at the feet of the corpse. The expressions on Tulp’s face, as well as on his listeners, are examples of Rembrandt’s mastery in moulding features with light. Rembrandt reveals each individual’s character and nature.

This painting is thematically concerned with corporeality and our human need to understand ourselves. Many of Rembrandt’s paintings focus on the natural impulse to seek understanding of the self and nature, as well as the relation between the two.

The act of painting anything is really the illustration of the painter’s vision. Once the image of an object enters the eyes of the painter it changes and it is precisely that change that is captured in the painting. This is subjectivity and many believe that the merit of a particular painting relies heavily on the painter’s ability to capture subjective perception.

In contrast to his etchings, most of Rembrandt’s paintings lean heavily toward romanticism. They exemplify an approach to depicting reality that reveals the artist’s emotional state. They are images of reality sifted through the mind’s eye.

All of Greenaway’s films are highly stylized painterly works of art. They seem to exist in a world of their own and thus rely heavily on subjective experience. At the same time they may reveal more truths about nature than a seemingly realistic objective documentary. There is a sense of wholeness and discovery in his films. However the questions still remain: is it possible to attain complete objectivity or come in contact with reality as it is? Does objectivity even exist?

A film like Prospero’s Books is an art film that attempts to reveal objective truths that exist within a fictional and highly subjective construct. Prospero, the magician, stands at the focal point of the entire film. His books are of prime importance to him: “Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me from mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom.”[3] A large portion of the film is devoted to him revealing the contents of each of his books. The books deal with every conceivable field of study and interest imaginable. The content of each of these books was not revealed in Shakespeare’s original play so Greenaway produces a list of what they may well have been. Prospero uses these books to magically conjure the other characters in the film to life. Gielgud even speaks these character’s lines. Prospero employs his knowledge of the natural world to create his own reality. Whatever and whomever Prospero interacts with is of his own making. Greenaway can be compared to Prospero in the sense that he creates his own world by using knowledge he’s acquired throughout his life. He admits this in an interview: “I learned a lot from my father’s phenomenal knowledge of ornithology and ecology. A personal aspect, if you will, lies deep within the film somewhere.”[4] The creation of art is the collecting of information about the outside world to shape a subjective expression, which in turn may reveal objective truths.

Today many painters are not as concerned with reproducing reality as they once were. This is because the end product of a painting that is merely a reproduction of observable fact can be produced in much less time by means of the photograph. A painting of this sort also does not say anything about the artist or the natural world as a whole. The subjective paintings of Rembrandt were able to reveal more truth about the natural world by the inclusion of and appeal to human sensory experience. His paintings portray reality as he saw it and that allowed him to explore deeper truths: “Rembrandt always put truth before beauty - not only the obvious, visual truth of the physical world, but also, penetrating and conditioning it, the spiritual truth…Forms, in his compositions, are not allowed to become too definite or to have any finality, since this would break their contact with the life process.”[5]

Lighting is extremely important to Rembrandt. It enabled him to shape and sculpt details within his paintings. Rembrandt was able to duplicate the behaviour of light in his paintings. In The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp Rembrandt’s lighting and composition work together to add a deeper level of truth: “Such overrefined, almost manneristic playing with linear composition actually contributes to the realism of the scene: the figures, with Dr. Tulp in the center, represented as helper and teacher, are linked together in the liveliest way by the chiaroscuro and the colors.”[6] Greenaway’s cinematographer Sacha Vierny uses lighting in order to make Greenaway’s films look like moving paintings. Lighting also emphasizes the illusory nature of Prospero’s Books. Greenaway considers the many nude figures in the film as part of the lighting: “…they’re very asexual, they’re very desexualized. They’re very much part of the general light and dark chiaroscuro of the picture, part of the landscape, part of a scholar’s mind in 1611, who had been brought up on Renaissance painting.”[7]

The nude bodies in Prospero’s Books reveal and embody the natural while their surroundings are illusions: both the bodies and their environment exist in Prospero’s mind. This relationship between the mind and the outside world is of fundamental importance to the understanding of subjectivity and objectivity in art. Both Rembrandt’s and Greenaway’s art begins in their minds. What they produce is a reaction to reality. The result of their efforts is the allusion of objective reality through art. Both artists are also a testament to the idea that reality can be depicted, assessed, and revealed by subjective means.


1.   Gras, Vernon, and Marguerite Gras. 2000. Peter Greenaway Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. p. 82-83

2.   Munz, Ludwig, and Bob Haak. Rembrandt. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1984. p. 58

3.   Greenaway, Peter. Prospero’s Books. London: Chatto and Windus, 1991. p. 79

4.    Gras Vernon, and Marguerite Gras. Peter Greenaway Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. p.45

5.   Wallace, Robert. The World of Rembrandt. New York: Time-Life Books, 1968. p. 159

6.   Munz, Ludwig, and Bob Haak. Rembrandt. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1984. p. 58

7.   Gras, Vernon, and Marguerite Gras. 2000. Peter Greenaway Interviews. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. p. 133-134

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