The Colors of Emotion

 Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1951, oil on canvas.

Mark Rothko, Untitled, 1951, oil on canvas.

The summer heat draws me to this Rothko painting…blazing hot…blinding…sublime… yet disconcerting, like suffocating humidity…how could just blocks of color touch my core?

Throughout history color has carried symbolic meaning. A golden yellow can symbolize divinity, truth, trust…ochre yellow can symbolize doubt. Today colors continue to express emotional intensity. This may seem to be a dichotomy, but as I am personally drawn closer and closer to this color field, I feel doubt in my soul as I look at the outer ochre edges, yet at the same moment a peace when my eyes move to the richer, golden yellow in the center. The orange-red rectangular plane that caps the color field gives me a feeling of love.

Rothko described “Untitled” as a “self-contained unit of human expression.” He declared, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions…If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” (Quote is from the Museum of Modern Art, “MOMA Highlights. NY: The Museum of Modern Art,” revised 2004)

Rothko would be pleased to know I get his message, that I am moved by his extraordinary piece… that my heart skips a beat, that tears well up…that I feel elation and sorrow, trust and doubt simultaneously…

And isn’t this true about life? One moment our hearts are filled with a joy and trust that we are on the path of life that we are meant to be on, despite the inevitable winding roads. We are so very certain of God’s plan for us, yet in a split second we doubt…we doubt God…we doubt ourselves…”one step forward, three steps back”, as the saying goes.

Today, just for today—not yesterday, not tomorrow—I will concentrate on the bright yellow and orange-red— believing, trusting, loving all that is good, all that is precious in life…

The Whole World Is In A Person

  “Self-Portrait”, Rembrandt, 1661, Rijchtmuseum, Amsterdam, oil on canvas.

“Self-Portrait”, Rembrandt, 1661, Rijchtmuseum, Amsterdam, oil on canvas.

It is believed by many throughout the centuries that no artist has left a more penetrating personal testament than the 17th-century Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn. In more than 90 portraits of himself that date from the outset of his career in the 1620s to the year of his death in 1669, he created a visual autobiography, a tale of triumph and tragedy.

“Self-Portrait” was painted eight years before his death. In his early career he was the most successful and sought after painter in Amsterdam; he“hob-knobbed” with the “who’s who of high society”—let’s just say “life was good!” …but there came a time in his illustrious career when his style of painting fell out of favor, sales were down, forcing him to move to a more “modest” neighborhood in Amsterdam, and most tragic, the loss of three of his four children in infancy, the death of his wife, Saskia, after the birth of their fourth child, TItus, the loss of his common-law wife, Hendrickje in his latter years, and then his beloved Titus a year before his own death.

Look closely …the majority of the portrait is steeped in shadow, defined by broad brushstrokes of deep chocolate brown. The focus, though, is on Rembrandt’s face—he looks directly, wearily at us with his piercing eyes and gaze— the lines on his forehead are deeply grooved—a warm, brilliant golden light from an unknown source lights the left side of his face from our point of view, whereas the right side from our point of view is in the shadow. Rembrandt was known for his use of what is called “chiaroscuro”, a subtle modulation between light and shadow.

So what does this play of light and shadow mean? Rembrandt shows us through such a composition that the play of light and shadow can be read as one’s emotional differences, that they are reconciled—grief at one with a quiet acceptance…like you and me, he was a mere mortal who on his life’s journey experienced highs and lows, success and sorrow. But he never crumbled. In fact, his most powerful, insightful portraits were painted the last years of his life. It was through his personal pain that he could portray in his portraits the range of human psyche—from grief and depression to a quiet acceptance and hopefully joy. As I gaze upon this portrait I am deeply moved, as if Rembrandt is looking directly at me, speaking directly to me. The shadow on his face is pain. I feel his pain, he feels my pain, a ray of hope lights up some of his face, a ray of hope, a ray of peace, shines in me.