Death from Laughter: Rembrandt and Zeuxis

The ancient Greek painter Zeuxis lived an unconventional life and sufffered an equally unconventional death; he died from laughter.

The story is simple. Zeuxis excelled in the art of imitating nature. His painting captured the essence of whatever he drew. This ability served him well and brought him fame and glory. That was until he made the portrait of an old woman who was extraordinarily funny-looking (no idea how or why).

Zeuxis finished her portrait and took a good look at it. His work had captured the essence of what was making the woman funny. Once more he had achieved perfection but that would soon work against him. After a few moments he burst out laughing and that was it; he choked and died. We can say that Zeuxis had just created the visual version of Monty Pythons’s “Funniest Joke In The World”…

The story of Zeuxis’s death might or might not be true. Ancient grammarians enjoyed making up deaths that fitted the lives of great figures (philosophers, artists politicians etc).

Maybe the death of Zeuxis was a way of illustrating his arrogance, as he was always bragging that he was the best painter in Greece. Maybe the grammarians made up a death where this arrogance combined with his legendary painting skills turned against him in the least expected way. Maybe this is a story of how Zeuxis suffered a happy death; laughing while doing what he liked the most, painting. Maybe none of the above.

Self-Portrait, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, c. 1668, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud

Centuries after Zeuxis’s unorthodox death, Rembrandt painted one of his famous self-portraits. This time though there was something different in it. Rembrandt was laughing. Why? The question is answered as soon as we notice that Rembrandt is holding his brush and that on the far left corner there is an old woman. It is evident that Rembrandt has painted himself as Zeuxis in his final moments (although some scholars disagree with this interpretation and even that Rembrandt is laughing in his portrait) .

It is a matter of fact that the latter self-portraits (he madearound 90 of them) of Rembrandt become increasingly darker (in terms of mood). This one came a year before his death. It stands out from the rest in that the Dutch artist makes not effort to conceal his old age and in that there is a more expressionist feeling to it. The colours are more vivid and emotionally charged and the same goes for the brushstrokes.

At that point in his life, Rembrandt had sold his house and lost his fortune. His fame was the only thing he had left after his son died sometime in 1668 (I don’t know if it was before or after this painting). I think that the choice to paint himself as Zeuxis in his last moments was not coincidental. Maybe he anticipated his nearing end and in this painting he expressed his wish to be remembered. Like the Old-Master of the fifth century BCE, Rembrandt hoped what every artist hopes, that his art will be seen and his name immortalised. It is also possible that he expressed another wish in this painting. The wish that he will find a painless, even happy, death doing what he has been doing his whole life, creating art. In both cases the portrait was an expression of the artist’s inner fears as he approached his end and fought to ensure that his legacy will remain intact.

An even more entertaining hypothesis would be that the ugly but funny old woman symbolises the death that is now barely visible on the edge of the frame. The painter sees death and laughs in her face, because through art he has achieved immortality.

These are just a few ideas I had while looking at the painting. Even if none of them is true it is interesting to see the dialogue between two artists of drastically different contexts.

2 thoughts on “Death from Laughter: Rembrandt and Zeuxis

  1. Antoni, haha, delightful post. Read every word. Your speculations are welcomed, it’s nice to hear your reflections on paintings. I think your post is helpful for people: to allow themselves to make free associations and trigger internal connections.

    Liked by 1 person

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