Rembrandt went broke too, you know. Maybe that’s the mark of a real artist. For even though he tried his best to be a businessman, all of his endeavors–his play big to win big gambles–went to shit in the end. And even despite having achieved the impossible for an artist: popularity in his lifetime. That popularity still didn’t translate into enough money to support his unquenchable aestheticist’s tastes–for he collected art as fervently as he created it. Although Rembrandt made money by being something of a shill (he, too, had to teach students his craft in order to pay for the costly lodging he had invested a staggering thirteen thousand guilders in, or the equivalent of roughly seven thousand dollars–quite a sum for the seventeenth century), the crushing weight of the debt was too much to surmount in the end.
Dorian (aware of the irony of being a portrait artist with that name) felt much the same as he used the remaining balance on his credit card to gain passage to the Rembrandt House in question, the edifice that eventually did old Remy in. Even in the shameless face of borrowing from friends and acquaintances, he couldn’t gather the means necessary to recuperate from all of his financial blows. Dorian could feel for the plight. Though he didn’t own a house or have a reputation that preceded him to, at the very least, have something to show for all of his debt-riddenness.
Dorian wanted to use his last sous (he preferred French terms for outdated money to Dutch ones) for the one painter who truly stood the test of time. As far as he was concerned, even more than the Renaissance Italians (of which Rembrandt was unabashedly influenced by). Lauded by Rodin and Van Gogh, titans of the art world have bowed to Rembrandt without question in the centuries since his death. But what they never seem to acknowledge is that possibly his greatest example was being able to live comfortably enough with the weight of debt on his shoulders while creating new work. For many artists of the present who suffer from undeniably indomitable debt, the thought of it at all hours of the day–how to get out of it, how one even managed to get into it in the first place–is too thought-consuming to allow one the essential clarity of mind needed to come up with something worthwhile. Rembrandt, conversely, seemed to thrive on being in a state of financial disarray, as though spurring him on to paint some of the most resonant images of abject poverty and sorrow known to man. This is what Dorian sought to understand in coming to visit the home that served as his creative hub, abuzz with the energy of years spent imparting his wisdom to others as he collected everything from Roman busts to giant seashells as subject matter for painting. Perhaps if he could apprehend something by osmosis from being in this environment, he could himself paint something before deciding to drown in the Herengracht canal as a means to avoid his creditors. Herengracht felt right for its proximity to the house, while also remaining just far away enough from it to show a bit of respect.
It was upon wandering up to Rembrandt’s studio–deliberately outfitted with just the right amount of light flooding in through the windows–that Dorian was struck not with some grand “from beyond the grave” epiphany imbued within him by Rembrandt’s spirit, but rather, the sight of what some men would still dare to call a “pretty little thing” attempting to teach hopeless Asian tourists about the different kinds of paints that Rembrandt’s assistants were forced to learn (among many other tasks now called “bitch work”) how to mix lest they be deemed unworthy of the apprenticeship that allowed them to earn their keep (because paying Rembrandt to learn from him wasn’t enough). She was earnest to a fault and Dutch to a tee (tall, blonde and somewhat stocky, but in a manageable way in terms of Dorian envisioning being able to handle her body on top of his). Dorian couldn’t take his eyes off of her and he feared she might notice if he kept looking with such intensity. Yet she appeared unbothered by his gaze, inviting him further into her soul by thrusting a jar of insect powder she informed everyone could be purchased from the local pharmacy, and was used in most of their lipsticks as a result of being a “natural” ingredient. And here people were always complaining about the artificial nature of things when they likely would’ve preferred it to this “fun fact.” Dorian couldn’t get over how frank she was about class disparity as it related to art’s production merely by touching on how the color blue meant that a rich person was paying for the painting. The more blues, the wealthier the buyer, for it was the most costly color of the age, imported from far off locales (namely Afghanistan) and often even more difficult to procure based on what country was at war with another and who was allied with who. The luxe pigment was reserved for those who could pay for it, hence it was not as prevalent as the muted browns of a large majority of Rembrandt’s work. A painting like “The Abduction of Proserpina,” with its large patch of blue used for the sky, thusly stands out all the more. Or so Mila patiently explained to the blank faces of the primarily Asian tourists standing before her. When she completed her one-sided discourse, she asked if anyone had questions. None of them did, shuffling uncertainly out of the room like the Franks might have also quietly done in their nearby attic to evade notice down below.
Taking a chance, figuring he had nothing more to lose what with his suicide plan in the can once he realized Rembrandt wasn’t going to save him, Dorian announced, “I have a question.”
Mila blinked at him. “Okay, what is it?”
“Do you believe that an artist can only create his best work when he’s rich or when he’s poor?”
She screwed the lid back onto one of the jars of insect innards she had used to gross out her audience. “I can’t say for sure.”
“What do you think? Aren’t you an artist?”
“Yes,” she said without pausing.
“Then which is better? For, I don’t know…let’s call it ‘galvanization.'”
“This very question undermines the nature of what art is supposed to be, no? You cannot come looking at it from this perspective of class. Either you have the will–always more substantial than the means–to make art, or you don’t. Everything else is secondary.”
As she finished her theory on wealth versus poverty as it speaks to art’s invention, the light beamed in through the center window with especial strength. Almost annoyingly so. Dorian shielded his eyes, and moved closer to Mila, magnetized by her self-assurance and sage-like qualities.
“Well, I…just wanted to say thank you. You’ve been very informative.” With that, he started to back away.
Mila grinned at his slow pace. “Are you sure that’s all you wanted to say?”
“Uh…” he stopped in his tracks, hesitated for a moment, then said, “Fuck it. Do you want to meet me for a drink later? I have no money and I can’t pay.”
She nodded in understanding. “It would seem you’re in a Rembrandt situation. Relying on the money of others when in a bind.”
“Sure. Except I don’t think I’m going to outshine my debt with a legacy of inimitable artistic output.”
“How do you know if you don’t try? And why should it matter? Comparing yourself to Rembrandt isn’t going to get you very far.”
“It got me as far as Amsterdam.”
She set her jar down and approached him, taking his hand in hers. “I will meet you for drinks later. And I’ll even pay. Just promise me one thing.”
She let go of his hand and motioned toward the canvas on what was a replica of Rembrandt’s easel. “If I give you the materials to paint, you will finish something by the time we meet tonight. Only then will I deliver on my promise. You have to pay me in art.”
Dorian was moved. Here was someone who didn’t think what he spent his time on was valueless. Believed that he should have been using it to actually support a livelihood that wouldn’t have rendered him destitute in the present. Who understood that an artist needs a leg up from a kind stranger every now and again in order to remember the drive to continue. So he consented to her terms, and would soon present her with her own portrait. It was, in effect, as though she had pulled the line from the Éric Rohmer/Jean-Luc Godard collaboration that found its cad of a hero, Patrick (Jean-Claude Brialy), telling Véronique (Nicole Berger), “Don’t kill yourself, let’s have a drink.” Subtracting the part where Mila was a two-timing Frenchman using an unwitting snafu to his one-liner advantage. Then he thought to himself that perhaps women were the reason the French masters could never outshine the Dutch ones (though the French would never concur). For Frenchmen had no empathy for women, so much as a carnal lust that manifested in the need to paint them (often as a paltry excuse to see them nude). And unlike the Dutch of Rembrandt caliber, you could never really count on a French person to have any money to lend, themselves all long ago committed to the belief that to starve is to be an artist. Try as he might, Rembrandt couldn’t evade that cliche either. So it was that, walking down the canal just before Madame Tussaud’s to meet Mila, Dorian felt reassured, if not still completely clueless about how to survive at the same time as pursuing “the artistic impulse.”