This essay looks to Rembrandt’s late religious portrait The Apostle Bartholomew (1661) for a counterpoint to the affirmative materialism characteristic of much criticism today, a trend especially evident in recent vitalist revivals of Lucretius. Against the tendency of contemporary thinkers such as Stephen Greenblatt and Jane Bennett to celebrate the generative powers of recombinatory materialism, and against the tendency of art professionals to scrutinize every material aspect of a painting in order to preserve its physical state across time, Rembrandt’s Bartholomew presents the possibility of a mere materialism—a materialism that, without answering to our needs, allows for loss to be nothing other than loss. Taking advantage of its traditional subject matter (martyrdom by flaying), the painting calls attention to the vulnerability of skin and thus to the deterioration of material surfaces. This susceptibility to damage includes the painting’s own chemical surface, its pigments subject to darkening and decomposition under the influence of ordinary environmental elements: light, air, humidity. This essay also considers the Romantic era provenance of The Apostle Bartholomew, which happened to belong to a materialist in the Lucretian tradition, the English antiquarian Richard Payne Knight. In his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (1805), Knight’s reduction of painting to an austere optics devoid of emotion brings him very close to the impersonal materialism of the Rembrandt painting he owned, but his insistence on the timelessness of Rembrandt’s materialism—immune to degradation because of Rembrandt’s technical mastery and choice of durable pigments—indicates the prevailing blind spot of his aesthetic theory. Knight’s reified materialism is not anomalous; similar principles continue to guide the practice of art conservation today.


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pp. 411-443
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