Eyes: Learning from Courbet and Rembrandt

I am sure you have gathered from looking at the images in the blogs over the past few days that Eyes are the most important of our sensory organs. But what happens if we cover up the eyes, slightly or completely. What happens if we shade the eyes with a hat? Head gear and the placement of it against the angle of the face and in particular the eyes can alter the expression of the subject and imply different emotions.

Credit: http://www.gustave-courbet.com

As I mentioned in an earlier blog Courbet painted many, many self portraits and not only because he was a particularly handsome young man. The real reason he appears so often in his works is that he was exploring his own self image alongside exploring the social/cultural traditions of the 1840s in Europe. He is a fascinating artist so more of that later- we are concentrating on eyes at the moment.

If we think about this painting in a little more depth we will realise that his look of confidence and superiority is accompanied by a sartorial outfit: he is beautifully clothed as an elegant gentleman which combines to give him a position of status and respect. The spaniel alongside adds to the image especially as it is looking outwards and beyond into the background landscape. The viewer is not distracted by a glorious or cute dog. All your attention is focused on Courbet. Of course if you want to demonstrate your superiority it is best to sit up higher than your audience so that you can look down upon them from your lofty position of authority. Courbet knew all about branding: this painting is an 1840s selfie. Courbet would have relished Snapchat and Instagram. But Gustave was a man of many moods and experimentation with paint, pen and pencil.

Credit: http://www.gustave-courbet.com

In this black chalk on paper sketch (above) Courbet has achieved a very different impression. The hat alone indicates that this isn't a gentleman of importance but more a worker. Like Monsieur Courbet with his dog, this man also has downcast eyes but there is no feeling of superiority being conveyed. This man looks thoughtful, not depressed or downtrodden but perhaps reflective or contemplative. The open brim implies honesty, trustworthiness unlike in the first painting where the hat shaded the eyes and emits a feeling of unease. There is an ambiguity about the first painting not present in the second. This man is the salt of the earth type.

Credit:Norton Simon Museum

Not only is the hat positioned to allow some light to touch the face, the subjects’ eyes are looking directly at the viewer therefore imparting a sense of honesty.

Credit: Pinterest
Credit: theartstack.com

The slight gaze to the right of the subject sows a little doubt in the viewer’s mind as to why is he looking over there? His frown adds to the intrigue- is he concerned, suspicious. Makes for a wonderful painting doesn’t it.

The Hero Image is another wonderful Rembrandt painting titled: Girl at a Window who is staring directly at you, enticing you into her world. The position of her hand adding to this gesture. If you would like to read more about this painting, follow the link to the Dulwich Picture Gallery who have studied her in depth.