Rembrandt's Sympathy for the Poor Still Holds Lessons Today

Seventeenth-century stimulus package
Rembrandt Van Rijn, Beggars receiving alms at the door of a house (1648), Courtesy Landau Traveling Exhibitions

It’s Not Such a Wonderful Life
Rembrandt’s etchings of beggars and paupers were controversial in their time.
Good thing our attitude toward the poor has evolved so much then, right?

Last month, the city of Santa Ana decided to lock down its recycling bins for a dozen residents in the Wilshire Square district so that the destitute part of the population couldn’t raid the Dumpsters for recyclable cans and bottles. It clearly doesn’t matter to anyone that the few cents made from the disposables can mean enough for a fast-food-menu meal, but the city-contracted trash hauler Waste Management needs to make its bank, damn it, so the poor can just go to hell.

How ironic and appropriate, then, that within the city’s boundaries, the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art is hosting “Sordid and Sacred: The Beggars in Rembrandt’s Etchings—Selections from the John Villarino Collection,” a traveling exhibition of Dutch painter Rembrandt Van Rijn’s deeply empathetic works featuring the impoverished.

At the time Rembrandt did his etchings—1629 through 1654—the poor were looked upon in much the same way as now, wrapped up and surrounded by a religious arrogance that equates poverty with heavenly punishment and wealth with blessing.

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Rembrandt took a stand against his artistic contemporaries at the time and was one of the first to portray the destitute with sympathy (French artist Jacques Callot trumped him by a few years with his collection Les Gueux in 1622), even going so far as to etch a self-portrait surrounded by the faces and bodies of beggars in Sheet of studies, head of Rembrandt, beggars, entire picture.

The artist, who would later die in poverty, portrayed les miserables with a journalistic fervor, every shoeless child, public urination, dirty extended hand or mental illness scratched out in grim detail. But he also, controversially, gave them a kind of divine humanity, placing them in saintly poses that any person of his time would have immediately understood. In Two tramps, a man and a woman, the couple walks, a bundle on the woman’s back like a child in swaddling clothes; The strolling musicians’ two men and a dog playing to a family is reminiscent of the Three Wise Men’s visit and features Rembrandt’s trademark chiaroscuro, as does the more explicitly religious trio of Jesus, Joseph and Mary as poor beggars in 1654’s The flight into Egypt: crossing a brook.

In choosing the 36 etchings, curator Gary Schwartz (who also contributed the excellent essays posted in the gallery) could have trimmed down the number of solitary disheveled figures leaning on walking sticks—they have a tendency to blend in with one another, distinguished only by gender and even then not so much—but most of the pictures teem with a life that threatens to spill past their tiny borders. In The blind fiddler, a hulking behemoth plays his instrument alone, except for a small dog tethered to him. The pancake woman is surrounded by customers awaiting her food preparation, as a hungry dog tries to snatch a child’s meal. The man who hands a couple and their children a coin in Beggars receiving alms at the door of a house (1648) is almost indistinguishable from them, except for the cut of his clothes and empathetic face. In contrast, a homeowner looks away as he rudely dismisses The rat catcher, a man in a long hat holding a staff adorned with the corpses of vermin, a small boy nearby holding an empty box waiting to be filled with more.

Paper was expensive in Rembrandt’s time, so many of the etchings are very small (some just a few inches tall), and I have no doubt I missed a great deal the day I went. I overheard the owner of the collection talking about going to Target to buy a box of magnifying glasses after the press exhibition, and I hope he followed through with that plan. There were just two glasses for four pictures, and the difference between viewing images aided and unaided was pretty illuminating, with faint details popping out of the work with just a minimum of visual amplification.

As I sit and reread LA Times reports of Wilshire Square residents “frightened” by homeless people digging through their trash cans out on the street or irked that their beauty sleep is disrupted by the sound of glass bottles being collected in the wee hours, perhaps it’s wishful thinking they’ll accidentally visit the Bowers exhibit. The humbling experience of Rembrandt’s work would melt the ice around the coldest of hearts, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t do the same to the city’s dozen Mr. Potters as well.

“Sordid and Sacred” at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 567-3600; Open Tues-Sun., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; fourth Thursday of every month, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Aug. 23. $9-$12.

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