Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt
Analysis, Interpretation of Dutch Baroque Allegorical Portrait

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Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt
Aristotle Contemplating the
Bust of Homer
By Rembrandt.
Regarded as one of the
Greatest Paintings Ever.

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653)


Interpretation of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer
Analysis of Other paintings by Rembrandt


Artist: Rembrandt (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Baroque painting
Movement: Dutch Baroque
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

For the meaning of other pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

Art Appreciation
To evaluate paintings by
Dutch Realist artists like
Rembrandt, see our
educational essays:
Art Evaluation
and also:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Interpretation of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer

Considered to be one of the greatest portraits in 17th century Dutch painting, this impressive, if unusual, imaginary painting, was painted by Rembrandt for Don Antonio Ruffo of Messina (1610-78), one of Sicily's great art collectors. (On his death he owned 364 paintings by numerous masters, including Saint Rosalie Interceding for the Plague-stricken of Palermo [c.1640, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York] by Anthony Van Dyck.) It is one of the few pictures commissioned from the Dutchman by a foreign buyer and was sent from Amsterdam to Ruffo's palace in Messina in the summer of 1654. The price was 500 guilders. Some 300 years later, in 1961, it was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for $2.3 million. Today, it would be worth well in excess of $100 million. Other outstanding Baroque portraits painted by Rembrandt during the mid-1650s include Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654, Louvre, Paris); A Woman Bathing (1654, National Gallery, London); and Portrait of Jan Six (1654, Six Collection, Amsterdam).



The Commission

Ruffo, who never travelled and who formed his collection through dealers and by correspondence, would have heard of Rembrandt through his contacts in Italy, where the artist had a considerable reputation for his skill in etching. Specifying only a half-length portrait of a philosopher, he ordered the work through his agent, Giacomo di Battista, who did business with Cornelis Gijsbrechtsz, a prosperous Amsterdam merchant. Besides Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, ordered in 1653, he commissioned two further works of Dutch Realism from Rembrandt in 1660: Alexander the Great (1661) - possibly the painting now in the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon) - and Homer (1663, Mauritshuis, The Hague). Rembrandt wrote that all 3 should be hung together, with Alexander The Great in the middle. In 1669, Ruffo also bought a large group of Rembrandt's etchings.


In the painting, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), the great Greek philosopher, is depicted standing in his study dressed in the robes of a Renaissance humanist. His right hand rests on a bust of Homer (probably one of several copies of ancient Greek busts owned by Rembrandt), while around his neck hangs a jewelled chain which includes a medallion of Alexander the Great. For the figure of Aristotle, Rembrandt appears to have used one of the portraits he painted of Jews from the Amsterdam ghetto, some of whom he had employed as sitters for his biblical paintings. A follower of Caravaggism, Rembrandt conveys the solemnity of the painting through the dramatic use of tenebrism, focusing all attention on Aristotle's face, and chiaroscuro to create depth in the face and eyes. All this creates an unforgettable image of profound contemplation.

Besides noting the identities of the persons represented in the Aristotle painting scholars have speculated for some time over its deeper meaning and its relationship to the other two paintings. Nothing quite like this picture had ever been painted before. (For a similarly revolutionary painting, see his historical work The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm).


As to the picture's meaning, it may be unwise to seek too far, although some scholars have referred to the treatise Physiognomics, which was associated with Aristotle. Physiognomics is the study of the relationship between physical appearance on the one hand, and intelligence and character on the other. According to this view, Aristotle is placing his hand on Homer's skull for physiognomic reasons. It is interesting to note that the Italian Baroque artist Guercino (1591-1666), who was sent a drawing of Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Ruffo in order for him to paint a companion piece to it, thought that the person depicted in it was a physiognomist.

However, according to the art scholar Julius Held (Rembrandt's Aristotle, 1966, most recently reprinted in Rembrandt Studies, 1991), there is a much simpler explanation. Faced with the need to find an appropriate philosopher, Rembrandt found a way to present three of the greatest men of Greek antiquity: the philosopher Aristotle, the legendary epic poet Homer, and the great warrior Alexander the Great. (Alexander The Great had been tutored by Aristotle, who had fired him with an admiration for Homer.) In the painting, his philosopher Aristotle compares two sets of values: on the one hand, everything that he admired in Homer - gravitas, humility, intellect and expression - and on the other, sumptuous wealth and material achievement, as embodied by the gold chain and iconic image of Alexander the Great.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Ever since the 19th century, when a portrait's emotional content began to carry significant weight, Rembrandt's reputation as one of the best portrait artists has been upgraded to one of the best artists of all time. His psychological portraits include such masterpieces as Portrait of Jan Six (1654, The Six Collection, Amsterdam); Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654, Louvre, Paris); The Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts); and The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).



Analysis of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague

The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (The Staalmeesters) (1662)

Return of the Prodigal Son (1668) Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

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