Rembrandt at UVM

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(Host) Recently, commentator Peter Gilbert got a good laugh out of a visit to the Rembrandt exhibit at UVM.

(Gilbert) A pair of small etchings by Rembrandt were right ahead of me as I walked into the exhibition at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont. They are only a several inches tall; to view them – and to read the inscriptions – one has to get very close to them – like when a clown or comedian beckons you to bring you ear or face in very close before he squirts you in the eye or steals a peck on the cheek.

Each etching is of a Dutch peasant, all bundled up against the winter. Under one of them Rembrandt has written, in Dutch, “It’s damned cold!” Under the other figure, he’s written, “That’s nothing!” I burst out laughing in the quiet art gallery. Three hundred and seventy years after Rembrandt made those prints, they ring as true and human as those incredible faces in his large oil portraits. And they have lost none of their humor.

The etchings remind me of all the one-upsmanship that goes on now that the cold weather is here. “You think this is cold? Hah!” I think of my own extended family, a dozen houses of them spaced out along the road in a Vermont town. You’ve heard of dueling banjos. I call this
dueling thermometers. Particularly in the fall and winter, one relative comments on the temperature reading at their place overnight. Another relative responds with surprise – “Only minus five?” Seems it had been several degrees colder at their house. Never fails.

Some art of earlier times seems as if it were created just yesterday. Years ago, when I was a lawyer at a large Boston law firm, I would ask my colleagues how they were doing. Some of the lawyers would furrow their brows, fiddle with the flaps of their suit jacket pockets with harried energy, shake their heads, and say, “Busy, busy. Good, but busy!”

Their response always brought to my mind the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. In the General Prologue, Chaucer the narrator introduces and describes all the pilgrims he’s met on their way to Canterbury – including a lawyer. The narrator doesn’t say anything negative or ungenerous about any of the pilgrims; he says things that appear neutral or positive – until you think about them a bit. Chaucer tells us about the lawyer, “He was a man of excellent parts, discreet, and of great distinction – or so he seemed, he spoke with such wisdom. [And then Chaucer adds,] There was no busier man anywhere; and yet he seemed busier than he was.”

Incredible that over 600 years ago, when Chaucer wrote those lines, lawyers were acting precisely the way some still do now! And more than three and a half centuries after Rembrandt, we are still posturing about the cold – in Vermont as well as in Holland. These two character sketches, one crafted in ink, the other in words, long ago, still ring so true. You gotta laugh.

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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