'Notice that Aristotle’s gaze lies not upon the bust of Homer, but in an unfathomable distance beyond it'

Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, 1653, 561/2in by 533/4in, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bridgeman Images.

A. C. Grayling says:
‘Although this is not among Rembrandt’s better known works, it displays all the best characteristics of his manner, including the richness of subject matter that transforms the technical genius of his paintings into far-reaching worlds of meaning. Notice that Aristotle’s gaze lies not upon the bust of Homer, but in an unfathomable distance beyond it. He is lost in thought, he is contemplating the contrast between the poet’s immortal reputation and the worldliness of the weighty golden chain. Art, Rembrandt is saying, transcends all else.’

The philosopher Prof A. C. Grayling is Master of London’s New College of the Humanities, which opens this month.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘This picture was painted for a Sicilian nobleman living in Messina, Don Antonio Ruffo (1610/11–78). Although Ruffo was an avid and international collector, who had amassed 364 paintings by the time of his death, he rarely left his native city. In this instance, the commission was arranged by the agent Giacomo di Battista.

Until 1917, when newly published Ruffo documents were connected with the painting, the man represented had been variously identified as a writer, a philosopher, a savant or perhaps one of the poets—Ariosto, Tasso or Virgil. The documents revealed it was first recorded as a half-length figure of an unspecified philosopher, suggesting that Ruffo did not have a particular subject in mind and probably asked only for a half-length figure on a canvas of a certain size.

In 1661, he commissioned two more works from Rembrandt, one of Alexander the Great. A year later, he stated his dissatisfaction with the portrait of Alexander in a letter to the Dutch consul in Messina, complaining it was not as good as the Rembrandt he had of Aristotle. Thus the identity of the man in this picture was revealed. Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor; the medallion on his chain bears the image of his pupil. Chains were an established reward for princely service, and were received by Rembrandt’s Flemish contemporaries Rubens and Van Dyck. The 19th-century French painter and writer Eugène Fromentin wrote of Rembrandt: ‘If he is of his time, he is never altogether of it.’

This article was first published in Country Life, September 19, 2012