The writer of Ecclesiastes has ‘seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with’ (3:10), and asks ‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’ (v.9). He concludes ‘that it is God’s gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil’ (v.13)—and this rather spare philosophy just about exhausts what he has to share with the reader by way of encouragement.
If we try to imagine how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world, Rembrandt van Rijn’s poignant late portrait of himself at an easel seems to serve us well. Rembrandt holds us with a steady but dispassionate gaze. There is none of the self-confidence, optimism, or ambition of a younger man. His face is calm but care worn, his brow furrowed, and under his eyes are the bags, and at his neck the slight folds, which suggest advancing age.
He was fifty-four, and although he would live another nine years, he had already experienced many of the vicissitudes which led the writer of Ecclesiastes to his unblinkingly dismal philosophy of life. His early celebrity and success had faded; his dearly loved wife had died twelve years before, along with three of the four children she had borne; and Rembrandt had faced bankruptcy and the sale of his house and possessions.
The artist’s self-portrait suggests resignation more than anything else. There is little suggestion of consolation, comfort, or joy. Except perhaps in one regard. Though Rembrandt wears elements of the lavish costumes and props in which he often dressed both his models and himself, he presents himself to us quite unequivocally as a painter, fully engaged with his work. He holds a palette and brushes in his left hand, and his maulstick in his right, and on his head, bathed in a pure bright light of a kind which hints at benediction, he wears the simple white cap of a painter.
Withdrawn to the small world of his studio, we here see the artist calmly and unexpectantly pursuing his work in the face of what had and would yet beset him—in the spirit recommended by Ecclesiastes.