Rembrandt, Bewitched, and me

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I’ve been wandering through the rooms of European painting for almost two weeks now. I’ve talked to some interesting people, watched visitors (are they alone or in groups? spending time in front of a painting or walking by them as if they were in an aisle at Trader Joes?), and have had guards watching me, particularly in room 225, where my protracted visits and notetaking probably make me look as if I’m preparing a heist. A museum is, of course, “peopled” with people. Among them are visitors, custodians, docents, and guards. Then, there are the silent ones, the painted ones: the portraits.

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This brings me back to room 225 and to a portrait called Young Woman at an Open Half-Door, painted by someone from Rembrandt’s workshop. The colors are typical of Rembrandt and his students: the overall composition is dark and the subject seems to slowly come out of the darkness as if by magic to greet you with quiet luminosity and graciousness. Do these subjects fade back into darkness after the museum closes? One would have to get locked into the museum (or carry out a heist!) to find out.

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If you stare long enough at this painting your eyes become adjusted to the dark and inevitably end up on the young woman’s necklace. My guess is that the beads are carnelian – they are too warm to be garnets. Like many paintings, the color that arrests your gaze is echoed throughout other parts of the painting, spreading outward like ripples in a pond. In this painting, the same red is found on part of her sleeve, part of the door, and on her lips.

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The necklace might have become the focal point for the painting had it not been for the young woman’s face. She is looking away from us, but not in a coy or shy way. It is as if she has just opened the top part of the door and has seen something suspicious that she wants us to see; she is showing us with her gaze. Is it a boy who has just stolen some milk? an old man bothering a young girl? or is it outside of the painting? a visitor on his cell phone? someone chewing gum? the flash of a camera? In many portraits there are the politics of voyeurism, but in this portrait her gaze makes me a partner in her vision game.

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Finally, the painting, like many great works of art, is mysterious. We aren’t sure who she is, nor do we know who painted her or what she is looking at. On top of that, by dint of my scholarly research, I have located an odd appearance of this painting in the 1960s television series Bewitched. It seems that Young Woman at an Open Half Door strangely showed up in the living room of Derrin and Samantha! I may be one of the first to have discovered this part of the painting’s travels from Rembrandt’s workshop to the Art Institute in Chicago. In that case, maybe the young woman is trying to warn Samantha about the impending visit of her overbearing mother Endora!

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For a chance to see the painting, click here or, better yet, visit room 225 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

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