Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1660 when he was 54. It hangs in the Met, and every time I pass it I note a resemblance to see Bob Dylan. There’s a resemblance in the lineaments of the round, fallen face and pigheaded mouth, in the eyes a command to expect nothing, and the glimpse of bushy hair under a dark hat. I love both more as old men.
I had the great pleasure of being invited back to ASU’s Delta Symposium this year. The theme was “cultural heritage.” I twisted this term almost out of shape in order to indulge myself and set Dylan and Rembrandt up together. I wanted to see if anything would happen that I can take back to Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels. These records bring me discontent.
Rembrandt could be the earliest modern artist to create a vast body of impersonating self-portraiture. He completed more self-portraits in paint and in ink than any other artist, and generally depicted himself in anachronistic costume or garments otherwise unconventional for a 17th century Dutch self-portrait by an established artist. He made himself a bystander of his visions: there’s his face on a fellow shocked at the stoning of St Stephen. He painted himself as the apostle Paul, as the prodigal son in a plumed hat, raising a glass of golden bubbly, a contented wench on his lap. He painted himself grimacing, he painted himself lush in fur and velvet, he painted himself upright and proud; he etched himself as a small man with a tired face, a dogged laborer with his paper and pen in front of a small prison-like window. He painted himself older than his years, then older, and even older.
Bob Dylan came of age at a wonderful time to be America’s greatest songwriter. 20th century American modernism combined regionalism and intellectual cosmopolitanism, radicalism and nostalgia, individualism and collectivism. It was a modernism with room for Woody Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg to both tower compatibly and also trace their roots back to Whitman. We’d have a hard time creating a better environment to radicalize American songwriting into the body of work Dylan’s provided, that repeatedly re-roots itself in the service of originality.
In terms of Dylan’s relation to the age that formed his art, he was first an acolyte, then master, then a world-unto-himself. This pattern resembles Rembrandt’s relation to 17th century Holland. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in the Dutch town of Leiden in 1606, and by the age of 14 was drawing with the brilliance and single-mindedness of a prodigy; just in time for the golden age of Dutch painting.
The spread of Calvinism in the Netherlands in the 16th century had aggravated ongoing violent conflict between the region and its Catholic colonizer, Spain. In 1609, a truce in this conflict meant victory and independence for Holland although historians don’t recognize the end of Spanish rule until the Treaty of Munster in 1648. The outcome, though, for the region was still an optimistic populace who could now take greater and freer advantage of the cultural and economic dynamism native to its hub, the great port of Amsterdam. There was a growing mercantile class with money, status, and vanity. While the Catholic Church and an extensive noble class were no longer the dominant sponsors of art in northern Europe, painting enjoyed enormous and lucrative popularity. Peter Mundy, an Englishman who visited Amsterdam in 1640, wrote
All in general striving to adorn their houses, especially the outer or street roome, with costly pieces, butchers and bakers not much inferior in their shoppes, which are fairely sett forth. Yea many times blacksmiths, coblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their forge and in their stalle.”
And portraits are a peculiar adornment: a portrait renders the sitter a distinctive, imperishable, and valuable object. Wherever the sitter in reality may be, alive or dead, their image and gaze become a fixture in a room. A wealthy and ambitious burgher can add himself and a Rembrandt to his holdings in one object.
Rembrandt’s early years as an artist were both conventional (i.e., study and apprenticeship) and successful. He moved to Amsterdam in 1620 to study with a fine teacher, Peter Lastman, returned to Leiden, which his growing ambition and reputation outgrew, and returned to Amsterdam in 1631/2, where he died in 1669. Neither success nor leaner times interfered with his prolific self-portraiture in all the media he mastered.
Since it’s Rembrandt’s one face I’m looking at as it ages through a few self-portraits, and I want the analogous change-in-time for Dylan’s work, I didn’t think a variety of songs would suit. So I picked Hard Rain because it is Dylan’s coming-of-age masterwork it’s a song that has aged with the listener and the singer, until ultimately maturing into another song.
1962’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall is an astoundingly strange song that’s an undisguised take on the medieval British isles ballad known as Lord Randall, which is presented in Child’s Ballads as Lord Rendal in 21 variations. All the variations share a frame: a young man, called Lord Randal, Lord Rendal, Lord Donald, King Henrie, also Willie, Billue, and Tiranti, returns to his mother who begins a dialogue with the question “where have you been?” In each variation, the 2nd line of each of the son’s answering couplets is a version of make my bed for I must lie down. Each dialogue unfolds a story of the son’s having been poisoned and thus returning home to die. There are tainted fish or eels, and while the culprit is repeatedly a woman, his young sweetheart in the most extensive and familiar versions, she may also be his stepmother, wife, or grandmother. In the longest versions, the mother prompts the son to list his legacies, sometimes ending with the curse of hanging and damnation for the lover who poisoned him.
The original ballad, then, is the story of a young man bearing thorough witness to his own murder, carefully distributing his possessions, indicting the woman who betrayed him, and insisting his mother make his deathbed. Dylan’s song turns Lord Randall’s death into a story of persistence and triumph but there’s a deeper way Hard Rain is rooted in these old ballads. The young men all know death is coming; there will be no rescue. They all know the identity of their murderer, and they all know they have been betrayed. What’s ultimately chilling and affecting in the ballads aren’t these facts but the dignity of the dying boy’s words. He presides over the last moments of his life by getting things exactly right. Lord Randal ballads teach that order and truth matter past one man’s death. Dylan’s Hard Rain, from its opening to its ostensibly heroic and redemptive ending, is also a ballad of getting things right.
The verses ingeniously narrate a coming-of-age. The first verse describing where he’s been is composed as a childlike counting song, and the final verse is no longer a catalogue of sights and encounters but a lyrical declaration of action. Where he’s been is impossible, terra incognita, seven forests and twelve dead oceans. He’s pushed himself past endurance, crawling on those crooked roads, but he’s young and made for ordeals. The glimpses of what he’s seen, heard, and whom he’s met, are to us cryptic and loaded. Foreboding, treacherous, gracious, unreadable. But to the boy, they are the best he can do as he recollects all he’s encountered–too much rushes by to describe more fully than these fragments, but he’s determined to get this world right.
The refrain announces that all of this world will be pelted by a hard rain. We gather the rain will fall on all he’s seen and heard, on everyone he’s met. He announces that he’ll go back out before the rain starts and he’ll visit the places where people are poisoned, and hungry, and imprisoned, and despairing, and death is implacable but a coward with a hidden face. Here in the lands of ordinary suffering is where he’ll go out into the rain to tell, think, speak, and breathe “it”– whatever it he meets. And telling, thinking, speaking, breathing is nothing heroic. It’s the plain catalogue of being conscious and accountable in the world. The final allegory of standing on the flood, losing the magic thread of faith, sinking beneath the water, climbing out under his own strength to scale the mountain, turn, make sure he’s got it right, then face all us “souls” with the song he’s learned: this is the work of choosing a life attentive to the world, getting it right, and then bringing it to us.
Hard Rain is sometimes incorrectly heard as Dylan’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis; the song was written too early. But the allure of hearing the hard rain as atomic and annihilating can still be satisfied through setting the song alongside the soft rains that preceded it. Ray Bradbury’s 1950 story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” may at this point be more familiar than Sara Teasdale’s 1920 poem of the same name that Bradbury reprocesses. Teasdale’s poem, subtitled “War Time,” is an anti-elegy for the First World War. She describes a fresh spring, birds and frogs and plum trees are all free and bright in a soft nurturing rain that’s falling on a world flourishing without concern for the presence or absence of mankind. No remaining living thing “will know of the war, not one/Will care at last when it is done.” If we “perished utterly,” spring would awake without us. Teasdale lightly and cleverly suggests that the world can restore itself to Eden once we play out the full measure of our fallenness and extinguish ourselves from the natural order. Bradbury reworks the same motif for the atomic age and with a much heavier hand than Teasdale’s: his brief story describes the gruesome running down and collapse of an automated house after the bombs have fallen and pulverized the house’s family into shadows on its walls. The house’s electronic voice recites Teasdale’s poem as it dies. Teasdale’s poem has a dark, chill irony, but Bradbury’s ugly story suits our post-atomic age–when we go, the world goes with us, no rains will be soft.
Dylan didn’t need a missile crisis to know this in 1962. And what I love about Hard Rain is that he’s moved past the childish bravura of Let Me Die in My Footsteps: he’s going out ‘fore the rain starts to fallin‘. He’s going to face down the suffering we’ve already got, get it right, and report back to us. In the time we all have together before some kind of hard rain comes.
A strong performance of Hard Rain is tiring: depending on where I am and how the world is, different fragments will be especially suggestive. Dylan’s quest may sound especially bold or dangerous or personal. At the end of a strong Hard Rain, I may feel pity, or I may feel heartened, or intimidated, or grateful. But each weak performance of Hard Rain is a quest that’s failed, and failed shamefully: A singer who’s indifferent to his own visions, who stands, sinks, and climbs automatically, and reflects nothing to me I couldn’t see for myself..
Dylan’s young mind and young vision wrote the song for his young voice: In the studio version on Freewheelin’, his enunciation is deliberate and precise. He has to show what he’s seen that I haven’t seen. The repeated word hard, and then the culminating rain, perform the work of the ordeal. The hards climb, I,2,3,4 , finally 5 steps up to meet rain’s one syllable which young Dylan stretches out to find two sounds in the vowel—ay and ee. It’s in the singing we hear the rain as the adversary, and Dylan still needs breath for the last four syllables, a gonna fall. As a young man, he wrote the line whose singing describes and overcomes the rain.
In the 1962 Gaslight performance of Hard Rain, you can hear a few men’s voices joining him in the refrain, in the small room. This is not anthemic: it’s a shared quiet dream, a folk tale, shared by a band of brothers. In the powerful 1963 Carnegie Hall performance, he calls out, highlights the refrain—as though inviting the audience to join him. He knows this song is something new, but what kind of song is it? When the refrain comes around the second time, he brings the line closer to himself. It sounds to me as though here he’s learned that he can’t share the singing of this: we can’t all know his song as well as he does. He really does have to do all the work.
This 1629 painting is arguably the first of Rembrandt’s self-portraits where skill, form, tradition, and singularity come together. He is 23.
This picture belongs to a genre in 17th century Dutch painting called a “tronie”, the depiction of an exaggerated facial expression or a recognizable character, a type. Painters used tronies as exercises in depicting readable feeling and character, often using themselves as convenient. Tronies were popular as readymade paintings: they added charm and dramatic interest to a room.
Rembrandt’s piece here is a tronie of expression, and as such both a useful exercise for the artist and a marketable product.
Nothing in the subject’s appearance speaks to rank or profession. The lace collar and the jacket can’t identify this young man as a soldier or a painter, as a scion or a burgher. His expression is reactive and fleeting; he’s not a study in contemplation, he’s not an allegory. There’s a world moving outside the painting, and this boy is part of it while not limited to any station. This is one arresting moment of conscious life in a young man’s face. Full light falls on only one quadrant of the face, the plane of the cheek is illuminated, while the expressive features, the eyes and mouth, are in shadow. Never mind: the open, forward life of this face is bright beneath the shadow. Light and dark are both momentary states, opportunities for the young artist. This painting’s shadowed eyes are in fact a crucial innovation in Rembrandt’s development. Art historian H. Perry Chapman emphasizes the “originality” of this move, Chapman exclaims ”this feature is so stunning visually…” Through the dark–because of the dark–we see the young artist stopping with us for just a moment, before he moves on.
And the two artists move on…
Two Hard Rains from the 70s, Bangladesh and Rolling Thunder, test the song’s staying power. If the singer can’t be a boy genius again, astounded by the world and claiming his voice, what can he see and then what can he give us?
Dylan’s unexpected appearance at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh occurred 5 years after he had performed onstage anywhere in the US, except for the one-off Guthrie tribute concert. It was experienced in the moment as a triumphant shock of a return to life. And the first song he performed was Hard Rain. You can hear that Dylan is nervous, and the other musicians are nervous. He sings in his rough country tenor, rushes some of the long lines without sacrificing too much precision. In the refrain, the repeated word hard is low and heavy, not soaring, and he pulls back on gonna fall. You can also hear the musicians working to find and stay in the groove of this long song. It’s not difficult to find the uncanny aptness of choosing Hard Rain for this moment: it offers images that seem ordinary while loaded with threat or wonder; performing it simply is the act of facing others with the song he knows well. The concert for Bangladesh had been publicized–and motivated–by images of foreign horror and tragedy at a time when distant suffering was not routinely visible. We weren’t used to looking at photos of hungry, immiserated people in a remote country. At the Madison Square Garden show, Dylan is facing the largest audience who’d ever heard him sing this song, most of whom wondered if they’d ever see him perform any song again. What comes through most clearly are the nerves and the work. He would get across that the world is indeed like this. The reflection at the end is humble and compassionate. In its awkwardness, the song that night was uncannily relevant.
A good example of a failed, albeit delightful, Hard Rain is from 1977, on the 2nd Rolling Thunder tour that was recorded—and filmed for television broadcast—at Fort Collins,Colorado. The melody is sped up and playful, the other musicians know their parts and get in the groove fast. In his Rolling Thunder persona, Dylan’s a circus master and the song’s images are more fanciful than prophetic. I see a masque, faux sinister, under the hard rain, which sounds perfectly endurable, just like the actual rain falling on Fort Collins. The delivery is full of taunt and relish, and Dylan’s voice is strong and also coarse. The lively, bouncy tempo is pretty far from the original melody, and the refrain sounds like an ordinary chorus, with the hards repeated for the toe-tapping rhythm, not for courage and climbing. Dylan sounds been there, done that, ready for something else. At the end I don’t want to be a soul, redeemed, I just want to be part of the carnival.
An especially present and alive self-portrait is this one from 1634. We take for granted that the unique charisma of the expressive face is the artist’s intent; instead the work is another exercise in expression, color, and composition. The use of light and dark here is more active than in the 1629 portrait, and Rembrandt is perfecting his peculiar immanent glow. Light infuses the surfaces here, it doesn’t fall upon them from an identifiable source like a window. Looking at this painting, your eye is never still despite its being a static composition of a single figure in no setting. The contrast between the rich black bonnet and the brightly glowing right side of the face. Then the deep black and the shades of black and brown in the costume. The scarf is draped, casting its own shadows on the chin and neck. The fur of the collar, though soft and thick and brown and black has to be distinct from the soft and thick hair of different shades of brown. The parted mouth gives us a sense of immediate active life: speech, breath.. The bonnet was common to 16th not 17th century artists, the furred collar and oriental scarf were not contemporary dress. We engage with the contrasts of textures and depths and in the liveliness of our attention we meet the sitter in his moment of intelligent thought, and an apparent awareness of the own wit. Not a young boy caught in the tumult of his inner life, but a man capable of irony and fine judgment.
My first live Hard Rain was April, 2005, at my very first Bob Dylan concert at the Beacon Theater on 74th St. I’d just begun La Vita Dylan, and I hardly knew the song; I don’t think I’d heard it all the way through once before hearing it live. This was back when he played that toy keyboard. He had to plant himself and hunch, and the effect was part puppet and part mad scientist. That Thursday night, he handed over every single word of the song. The blood dripping was horrible to see, the tireless bloody drummers were terrible to behold. I saw the face of all my own pessimism, black and none. I’m not much of a swimmer so the sinking was rough, and then to get up that mountain with him took a lot out of me. When he reached the mountaintop and turned, with light for me, I ‘d not felt so grateful in years. Then the strangest thing of all happened! The building absolutely roared! All around me other people were on their feet, arms up, roaring. In front of me was a man in his 50s, wearing a blue shirt and a tie, he was up and shouting. He came here from work, I found this remarkable–didn’t take off his tie. How can all these people hear what I just heard? And indeed they had. We were in it together.
Rembrandt was 52 when he painted this and, no, that was not elderly in the 17th century. In this painting, which we own here at the Frick, you can see the challenges of painting old flesh: it demands complex shadows, asymmetrical highlights, and an extensive palette of flesh and hair tones. An old man’s beard is different colors. The colors on an old face can’t be blended into smooth passages. As a viewer, you can’t take in an old cheek as a complexion, there are too many shadows. How many creases are in the forehead? What’s the name for the colorless grey of old eyebrows? What’s the name for the color of the shadow between the brow’s creases?
It seems hard to accept that this is a self-portrait. How could the old fellow in the painting have painted this painting? I see a man dreaming himself as a grand bulk draped in fine soft cloth. His broad hips are made for sitting. His body isn’t tense with power he’s wielded for decades; perhaps he’s simply overfed and slack with wealth. The slender stick emphasizes the large soft body and the left hand holds it loosely. It’s not a scepter or even a walking stick.
The outfit is anachronistic and also unrealistic: the yellow robe, or jerkin, and the white neckcloth are 16th century dress, the sash and cane would have been considered oriental accents in 17th century clothing. I’ve been reading a depleted regal character here, but the costume in this portrait is a near copy of that worn by the esteemed Dutch painter, Maarten Ryckaert in an engraving by Anthony van Dyck. It’s likely that Rembrandt adopted this look and pose as a way of representing himself as part of an esteemed tradition. Instead, 358 years later, I would guess the Frick doesn’t get one visitor a month who’s familiar with Maarten Ryckaert. And I have a small print of this Rembrandt painting over my bureau. It gives me always a jolt of tenderness mixed with awe. Mighty, extravagant, foolish, and enfeebled, this old man presents himself completely to my gaze and forbids all condescension.
Bob Dylan the old man sings Hard Rain, but I hear Ain’t Talkin as the old man’s Hard Rain. No more dialogue. And no impending doom. The calamity in Ain’t Talkin’ happens fast. The singer idles in a sick and enchanted dreamland. Alas, his languor is interrupted by an unseen assailant, and he wakes up in the real world. Here there’s no idling allowed. There’s endurance, there’s monotony. Not going in and out, no magic standing on water and emerging from the ocean, no mountains to climb. Just a road, and the walking is dogged, steady, and mundane. The world goes on around and by him. Landscapes, cities roll by. He does not see one thing at a time and remember how each looked.
There is no test. Nothing stops the walking, though. You walk and walk through all the mortal afflictions of any great Bob Dylan song. And that is the song. There’s nothing waiting to be reflected. Whatever needs to be known well is already around him, around us. There’s a mother here, as in the old ballads. He appeals to her for divine intervention before immediately confessing a lack of faith.
The refrain of Ain’t Talkin’ doesn’t soar. But it’s not hard to take grating. It’s rather lilting and companionable.The tune is never cold or unpleasant. Sure, walk with me a while. We’re all heading in that direction anyhow.
At its aged best, Dylan’s voice is mightily earthbound. It’s scorched and rocky. With this voice, the road itself in Ain’t Talkin’ becomes audible. In an indifferent performance of Ain’t Talkin’ ( which, come to think of it, are very few and far between) isn’t a different experience of the walking, but you can’t really feel the road beneath your feet.
Contrast Ain’t Talkin’ to Rocks and Gravel where the vocal—the long long exhale on the nnnn—plays out the stamina required to build that road. Not the same as walking it—which is what we feel now, with Ain’t Talkin.
A Frenchman who lived in Leiden for 20 years as a schoolmaster had this to say:
The Dutch in the midst of their Boggs and Ill-air have their houses full of pictures.
Amsterdam in the 17th century was a terribly unhealthy place. The plague swept through regularly and even with no understanding of microorganisms, people feared the diseased air. The cool, ventilating light of the Dutch painters we love was a precious fantasy for the burgher. Paintings brought characters, landscape, drama, narrative, into the presumably healthier air of one’s home. Whereas Vermeer’s light seems pure and blue and vitreous, Rembrandt’s light is sourceless illumination. It’s the way things look in themselves,
Dylan’s most recent turn, to standards familiarized by Frank Sinatra, are virtuosic performances of lives that I say never had the will or appetite to live Hard Rain. These characters flourish in the smooth, well-timed, affecting, fine voice which Bob Dylan has summoned for them. Ain’t Talkin’ and recent songs like Scarlet Town, Narrow Way, or Pay in Blood, share the sound of a harder lived life, many sinkings and clamberings up mountains–often not all the way to the top. I want Bob Dylan’s breath to get again the marvelous unreal glow of a late-life Rembrandt self-portrait — this is the way my own old head looks This is the way Isee the old world, born again and again, from these old eyes.
Is what I want.
Dickey, Stephanie S. Rembrandt Face to Face. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2006.
Chapman, H. Perry. Rembrandt’s Self Portraits: A study in seventeenth-century identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Hall, James. The Self-Portrait: a cultural history. London: Thames and Hudson, 2014.
Wright, Christopher. Rembrandt: Self-Portraits. New York: Viking Press, 1982.
Bailey, Anthony. Rembrandt’s House. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014 (reprint, 1978 ).
Ormiston, Rosalind. Rembrandt: his life and works in 500 images. Leicestershire: Anness Publishing Co., 2012.
White, Christopher, and Quentin Buvelot, eds. Rembrandt by Himself. The Hague: Thames and Hudson, 1999.