Two Masters: Variations from Markson


In the beginning sometimes I left messages in the street.

Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain messages would say. Or in the National Gallery.

Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum, being what they would say when I was still in New York.

Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.


            From Wittgenstein’s Mistress

            David Markson



The most striking thing to me in Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson, is the sharp-edged shadow thrown across the eyes of the corpse. The eyes of the dead man are blocked from the light as one observer leans forward anxiously toward Doctor Tulp, the man leading the dissection. The day prior to the pictured event (for this was a real event and not an image from Rembrandt’s imagination) this same man had been hung for criminal activities. For assault and battery to be exact. The death penalty was much more commonly applied in the 1500s. Prisoners serving as the greatest source of dissection material since the recession of the Plague. One would hate to appear before a judge who might have been on the board of a surgical guild. Appearing in court with a form that was, well, ripe for exploration, so to speak. The necks of the subjects for the anatomies were often broken, making the heads slump oddly as in Rembrandt’s picture. They were broken by the hangman’s noose. The Doctor, to the right, at the feet of the corpse, has his left hand crooked into an odd position. As though to illustrate the workings of the dead man’s hand. The way it may have moved before death.


It is said that in the street markets of Florence Leonardo da Vinci would buy the various small birds that were for sale—the ones caged at the food stands, the ones for purchase by those with a palate for small roasted finches and warblers—and then he would go somewhere and set them free.


I presume the birds were in cages. Though I do not know. Surely bird cages are an ancient art. You see, Leonardo was a vegetarian. If he saw other animals under the same market duress I suppose he might have let those go as well. After buying them. Monkeys and dogs and such. This would only make sense. He would want to spare all the innocents from the dastardly meat eaters. Though doubtless there were some animals which were not for sale as food. Decisions would have to be made. Was he only going to buy the birds and animals that were in the most immediate danger? Were there labels to help with momentous decisions such as this?


Food monkey. Companion monkey. Edible parrot. This dog is for eating, this one is not. Please do not eat these birds. One does not want to think of the trial and error involved in birdeaters knowing which were the tastiest of birds. Let us say nothing of the dog testers.


Rembrandt’s students were rumored to paint gold coins on the floor of his studio and then watch to see if the master stooped to pick them up.


This has nothing to do with edible birds or dogs particularly but I have been stuck with those two images in my head recently: the master Rembrandt absentmindedly stooping again and again towards false gold coins and Leonardo buying and freeing the cagebirds. What other grade or praise would a student need except to see Rembrandt reach down for the coin he had painted? And how many times did Rembrandt do this before giving up completely on all this incidental gold?


“Oh, another gold coin”, he must have said, over and over. “What luck.”


It has also been said that the coin or coins were drawn just to show how much the master was driven by greed. That stooping for a gold coin was a definitive sign of a need for riches. I don’t buy it. I would reach myself. Those damn painted coins may have been a myth anyway.


And I don’t know what Rembrandt’s visual acuity was. Whether he wore glasses or not, say. I don’t remember seeing any glasses in all those self portraits. So I doubt it. He left an abundance of negative evidence. Even the late ones have unlensed eyes. He painted himself over and over, unflinchingly. Leaving these images for all of us. Hard to know if he imagined they would still be here 500 years later. Although at age 22 when he had finished painting his Christ at Emmaus, we must believe he had some idea he had etched himself into a small piece of eternity. And certainly when he signed The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaas Tulp with just his first name. “Rembrandt,” being all it said. Only the known masters were bold enough to do this. So perhaps he’d stepped back from his bold and breathtaking anatomy and said, “Damn.”


Stooping to every item that shone like gold might have been more a reflection of Rembrandt’s own shortcomings than of the student’s high talents at coinery. Or whatever such an art might be named. Is it called counterfeiting if you draw some money excellently on the floor? It would seem a hard case to prove. Though if a student was to convince a food grocer to sell him some fine wine and cheese based on the student’s assurance that he would be paying with the gold coins that are shining on the floor around Rembrandt’s feet. Well then I could see it. Though this would suggest a very gullible food grocer. Or a desperate one. We certainly need more of those, I suppose. “I will take that whole cage of birds please. The money is on the floor in that building where the artists come and go.” Certainly nowadays one of those painted coins would be more valuable than gold.


It is not the same, in pet stores these days, to wish to release some of the finches. They are not endangered directly by teeth and tine. And who would watch or care these days. But still. I am soft. So I hold that it is honorable to want to free them from the cage but it is still not the same. Buying them and flinging them free outside the stores nowadays would likely just result in their faster demise. And those Zebra finches sometimes frankly look positively happy inside their busy cages. Flinging them into the October air would make you more of a deathdealer than the pet store owners. One would have to want to buy them and then arrange for their return to Africa or Australia. Which becomes rather complicated. Not to mention expensive. It would quickly become necessary to create a whole foundation of Bird Release with all the trappings and complications. You would need tax lawyers and media experts just to fulfill your need to see birds set free. Still, honorable, however, in the complex end of it all.


I have eaten meat. I have eaten birds. Still do. Though mainly the larger ones, occasionally. Perhaps I am feeling guilty. It is unclear at this moment.


Dogs often stayed nearby at the dissection events in the 1500s. Dogs being dogs. And common. The anatomies were always performed in winter when the bodies would stay somewhat preserved. I emphasize the “somewhat.” Often a dissection would take three or four days, always beginning with the stomach and abdomen because these began to rot first. There being no refrigeration. There being no latex gloves. The suggestion then that invisible microbes might come from the dead and cause one to die being, well, the murmurings of a madman. In Rembrandt’s picture the arm is being dissected first. Doctor Tulp has nabbed it with some metal pinchers of some sort.  Scholar’s still argue as to the meaning of this. But then entire books have been written concerning this one painting. I believe that if Rembrandt knew this singular fact he would laugh and laugh and laugh.


A Pope once gave up his chair out of respect for Michelangelo. It is said. One of those changling moments in art. So mythical. And when someone suggested that the Sistine Chapel might look better with some pictures on it, Michelangelo said that painting was not his trade.


One also wonders if after releasing a few birds Da Vinci began going to the market just to look for bird salesmen—having gotten a taste for bird emancipation. Seeking them out afterward, as though breaking them free was a drug, an artist’s rush. Or did he just go for food and then became distracted once again by all the sad perishable birds floundering around in cage after cage? Ones love of birds in that case could actually become a method towards weight loss, though obesity was not a rampant problem in artists or in anyone except the rich in the 16th century. But if all the money you carried went to freeing finches and not to pasta, well. And one can also imagine Da Vinci standing at the last stall again and again looking down at his empty hands while the winged things flapped around his head. Wondering what he was going to eat later. Hearing his stomach growl, perhaps.


And we must assume the bird grocers would catch on to the soft painter. And start goosing the old guy so to speak. Gouging him for the birds they knew he would be coming back for.


“Pssst, here comes birdboy.”


The whole market for foodbirds then boosted by a local but persistent generosity. Cost of birdmeat climbing through the roof because of one big-hearted vegetarian. It can be an ugly world.


It is more likely that Da Vinci had a housekeeper to do his food shopping. Or alternately he could have sent one of his seventeen half brothers or sisters. If they were around then. It is not clear they liked him much. But with such an accomplice, he could go to the market just to single-mindedly set birds free while someone else more trustworthy bought his food. Leaving open the possibility that he might run into his housekeeper with a load of bread and fruit while he kept up his vigil for the bird salesmen.


Rembrandt, of course, had a wife, and then several lovers after she died. Perhaps they all shopped for him.


Did Leonardo have to purchase entire cages of birds? Of bamboo chord? Of gold interlace? There were no cardboard boxes back then. Pushed hard, I assume Da Vinci could have invented cardboard on the spot. But at the time there were no such things as Chinese takeout packages. What a joy to hand Master Da Vinci a modern Chinese takeout box and watch him dismantle it with the appreciation of an inventor. I assume it was either wrapping paper or nothing back then. Suggesting that the salesman might have to kill the birds for you after your bird purchase, instead of handing out hundreds and hundreds of small cages. He would at least offer such a service—thrumming them in the head with something nasty no doubt. “No charge for the killing” he might say. Just so you would not have to carry live birds home to the kitchen. Did Da Vinci have a large stack of empty cages in his drawing room? Did he stagger down the market square with many cages balanced in his arms? And where was it safe to release the birds? So they would not come back to the traps?


In a market recently—one of those gigantic indoor things that are larger really than the Roman coliseum or any imaginable market of Leonardo’s day—I saw a bird on the loose. I had seen them before. I thought they were trapped. I am convinced they were just living there now. By choice or adaptive happenstance. I caught a glimpse of one falling toward some sales racks. I abandoned my cart and my family and went to where the bird had gone. They stared after me, my family. Less worried than I would want. The sparrow was sitting in among breadloaves. There was ample evidence that it did this often. Though I could see no tearing of the wrappers, no signs of thievery. It was just sitting having its wheat dreams or sesame seed fantasies, living the life of the greater cage, seemingly alone among stacked goods and fluorescent light. While I watched, its eyes gently closed.


Da Vinci himself dissected thirty corpses in his life. He was an amateur. And he may have done many of these alone. Less celebratory than Doctor Tulp’s event. It is not clear what Leonardo was searching for. Unless for some secret plan to the human form. The map to the structure of mortality. His own way of looking for the soul—the wet, sticky way to knowledge.


Of course, if offered the chance to hand Master Da Vinci an item from our time just to record his response, I would not choose a Chinese takeout carton. Not to say that it wouldn’t be a lovely moment to see Leonardo’s eyes ponder such a thing—including the little aluminum carrying handle and the hot Moo Goo Gai Pan. I think I would choose to hand him a digital camera or a flashlight instead. Or maybe a pocket watch. In all likelihood, Leonardo would give such a thing an intense inspection and then tear it slowly apart into all its small component pieces and parts. For just a bit though, he would wonder at my false genius. Until I blew my cover and spoke.


All this raises the possibility that while the Mona Lisa was being completed there would have been several time-outs so that Leonardo could go and rescue birds. Just a quick sweep through the market—a pause from the detailed work of the hair, the long drudgery of the cheekbone. He may have been disturbed by the thought again and again that instead of sitting around and painting he could have been out there saving birdlife. One must be careful; the sorrows of the world get inside the head and won’t leave the artist alone.


I could be out there saving birdlife myself. Right now. Instead of typing. Or even saving children and dogs. There are always children and dogs in danger in the world—every minute of the day. And things, as I said, can get out of hand. The burden of guilt that is stirring around out there and waiting to pounce on someone is profound.


It was forbidden to laugh or speak at the great anatomy celebrations. Tickets were sold. The money going to the local surgical guild for wine and food. For new instruments. And, of course, to pay the hangman. The occasions were festive afterward but solemn in their execution (ahem). Newly removed organs were often passed around the theatre for closer inspection. Anyone who tried to remove a souvenir was fined. A heart, a thumb: did the fine vary with the size or the quality of the stolen piece?


Rembrandt painted a great many self portraits. As I mentioned. He was a slow painter apparently. And, of course, the most patient subject for portraiture would be yourself in the mirror. Or himself, I mean. He would not need a mirror to paint yourself. Though that sentence looks tricky. But ten thousand hours staring into your own eyes, trying to pin down the color of your own soul? For the sake of all the other elusive souls? Who may or may not be paying attention anyway? And then to still die a natural death? Would it not be easier to search inside the hollows of a corpse?


Rembrandt never had riches. Though he never had trouble selling those self portraits in his later years. He had a large home that he bought out of his desire to look well-to-do. To please his wife Saskia, who may have been his only true love. It was a great downfall of his—this home. It cost thirteen thousand gold coins. So we can imagine that gold coins would always be something of interest to the man. Something ever after worth reaching down for. Or at least shoving with his toe. Subtly. Just in case. This is not greed.


Jan Vermeer never sold a painting while he was alive. He died in poverty. The light in some of his paintings is astounding. Ethereal. Even now.


And Van Gogh sold what? That one painting for a bargain price—a few pence. It may have been to his brother. It is sometimes a hard thing to ponder. One wonders if we had been there ourselves in Van Gogh’s time would we have looked at Crows In A Wheatfield or A Starry Night and said "no thanks, I’ll keep my five bucks, this crazy guy has no future." Which is what everyone who refused his paintings said, basically, by their inaction. The ones who saw them anyway. It was a smaller world then. Though they can hardly be blamed for all the troubles inside Mister Van Gogh’s head. Still, I sooth myself when I see a reproduction of the Crows In A Wheatfield. I tell myself I would have followed that man everywhere just from the vision of that golden field and that road going always over the hill towards where the crows were flying. They look to be flying away, into the distance.


“Vincent”, I would have said, “one day your pictures will sell for the price of hospital wings, for the price of manned missions to Mars.” His smile would be worth it. Or his puzzled glower. Would he offer me a drink? Would I be any consolation? Or just also thought mad? “A manned mission to what?” He might reply.


Rembrandt kept a book of Leonardo’s works among his vast packrat collection of things. Almost certainly he never saw an original Da Vinci. He also had a backgammon board, a harp, a bird-of-paradise, a satyr’s head with horns, a lump of coral, the skin of a lion and a lioness.


Van Gogh once remarked on the skin tones in Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson. He and his brother both were struck by the painting. Moved, they were.


Which brings up the fact that I could just hand Leonardo a picture by Van Gogh. Leonardo having been long in the grave before Van Gogh painted anything. Damn. A pocket watch or Crows In A Wheatfield?


Rembrandt once spent a winter confined to his bed. He was convinced that his bones had turned to wax. Doctor Tulp, the anatomist himself, cured him with enemas and lies. Enemas being one of the great tools of medicine then. (Louis XIII, it is said, once had 215 enemas in one year.) Lies, still, of course, being the tool of every trade. Even now.


One wonders what would have resulted from painting a bird on Leonardo’s floor? It would take a great boldness and confidence to have tried it. The perspective would be tricky. For a live bird, anyway. For it to appear to be sitting there naturally on his drawing room floor. Less tricky if one painted a dead bird, of course. But making Leonardo reach for a false bird on his floor—surely this would be some sort of pinnacle as well. In a painter’s life, like fooling a small God. Then again, the failure, oh, the failure if the master just glanced down and shook his head in disgust. Nothing was said of the student who failed to turn Rembrandt’s head towards gold. Did they just try harder or give up and throw themselves from the roof?


“Starships, Vincent”, I might say, “when there are starships they will carry pictures of your pictures into your own swirling night.”


Leonardo died in the arms of a King.


Rembrandt was bankrupt by age 50. That five story house hadn’t helped. He saw his son die of plague. He saw his last lover die of plague. His other three children died in childhood. Rembrandt would fill their rooms with his paintings—using the children’s rooms for storage space. He died nowhere near a king. But the deterioration of his eyes and face in those last hard years is right there in those portraits. Still. One man’s slow sorrow in all those museums.


He could have come back to that picture he painted at age 22—the Christ at Emmaus. Rembrandt could. Maybe he did. I don’t know that painting’s early travel history. Perhaps it hung for long years in a dead child’s room? But the picture contains Christ’s silhouette in the right foreground against the white-washed wall in the tavern inn. The two travelers who had met Christ on the road are having a meal with him. And there in Rembrandt’s painting we see them recognize who they are dining with. We see them recognize that their dinner guest has been dead for two days. One of the men is knocking over his drink. It is the least one could do.


I see only a serious bearded man in my head when I think of Leonardo. I can’t picture him young. Though it has been suggested that the Mona Lisa was a self portrait. The facial structure at least. So he was young once. Or young in his own eyes. We all are. Makes one want to travel to the Mona Lisa and give it a long hard stare. Apparently Leonardo was a handsome guy beneath the beard and the intense eyes. He was over fifty when he started on the Mona Lisa. And honestly, compared to Rembrandt, the man did not do a lot of painting during his life. (What are there? Fifteen paintings?) He preferred to wander out into nature (God love him) and sketch and scribble. Possibly he liked wandering in the woods more than painting. I don’t recall ever seeing a bird painting by him. Though surely among all those pencil drawings there were some winged creatures. Perhaps he preferred never to mix his pleasures. But the scribbling was good. Just one book of his notebooks has now sold for over 30 million dollars.


And you’d think inside his small repertoire of genius there would have been at least one painting of an empty cage, beautiful and finely wrought: a dark room, a light from a window and a golden cage on its table with the door flung open. Maybe this is just my own wistfulness. Self portrait, we could even call it. (In deference to Rembrandt’s eyes—all of them.) The title making us look for old man Da Vinci standing back somewhere there in the dark, hoping for a trick of the light and the paint. I think I see the eye, the shadow of a beard. We could stand here and there to change our viewpoint. Or our luck. The cage taunting us in our own solitude, like a coin we cannot quite pick up.


I would pay a great deal for such a painting.



(This essay was begun after several images stuck in my head from David Markson’s stunning book Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Mister Markson’s book is one of the most beautiful books in my small opinion, in my fevered reading life. I have read the book at least once each year since its appearance in 1988. It was purchased in a small book shop in Little Rock. I have no financial relationship with the man so I can heartily say go out and buy all the copies you find—to thank him. I do.


I refer you also to Charles L Mee Jr.’s Rembrandt’s Portrait. A book written with the minimal material available from Rembrandt’s life. Beautifully done. And certainly I refer everyone to your local Art Museum. Or go all out and run to Chicago or New York or London or Amsterdam and make the big trip to the great museums. And stay all week. It is winter after all, the butterflies have gone.)