Artist in His Studio, by Rembrandt van Rijn: Painter and Canvas in Dialogue
The easel, right foreground, dwarfs the young artist,
who stands a few steps back, in shadow, well-dressed
but ready for the work of painting. Who will know him?
The canvas propped on the easel appears formidable,
and the young man is overwhelmed, entering as he is
into art history, the great tradition, the competition
to outdo and improve, let alone to prove himself.
It’s all a prop, a show, teetering on the unknown.
He’s a young explorer, assessing a brave domain.
Behind the easel, a hallway yet to be filled with art,
but canvas and easel block the way until completion.
Is it you? Is that you? I didn’t know you could talk!
I didn’t know you could paint! Are you sure you can?
I am sure—I know it. Show me. Where are your tools?
Behind me. Draw! Draw? This isn’t a duel. It’s not
a standoff or a showdown. Yes it is—it’s you against me,
me against you. There’s no drawing—I’m going to paint.
But this is a showdown, and you know it. Paint!
When I paint, you will cease your talking,
but you will talk forever. Forever? How so?
I will counter with my own paradox:
My canvas expanse now shows only silence.
You will talk forever in many languages,
in the tongue of whoever is looking at you.
I’d like to see that. Step forward, Mr. Painter.
Keep talking—I want to capture your voice.
Why are you dressed up? You look formal.
Painting can ruin a gentleman, rarely make
his fortune. One splat will stain your fine robe.
This is how I see myself and how I want
to approach you, before beginning my work.
You have a long way to go, even to reach me--
the gap from me to where you stand is great.
I will make great strides in this painting.
When I’m ready, I shall step up to the task.
I offer you a good stretch of canvas to fill
with details and visions. A moment of drama!
You look like that young painter everyone
is talking about, that Rembrandt fellow.
I’m not Rembrandt, but you see I’m a painter.
You look like him nonetheless. Perhaps I am
his alter ego. No, you look like a child playing
dress-up, but somewhat spooked and awed.
I am not afraid. I may be cautious. What you see
is reverence. I’ll admit I can discern some pluck.
Don’t begrudge me. After all, you are only a canvas,
a signboard propped up by planks. You are a blank.
Still, you cannot get around me. You have to paint--
paint on me something great, something everyone
will talk about and learn from. Then you can pass
by me and go down the hall to claim your place
in the great artists’ Kunsthalle. I’m your ticket,
your passport, blank only for now. That’s my plan.
But aren’t you a van? Doesn’t that tussenvoegsel
mean you’re landed gentry? So why are you painting?
Or is that the significance of your outfit finery?
You weren’t born for this, but you chose it.
It chose me. I know what I must paint now.
Tell me. I will find out soon enough. Let me
guess as you swab! Let me keep talking.
I promised you would. You can talk all you want
and tell others for years—for centuries--
about this encounter. You’ve entered the arena,
the ring, center stage. All are quiet, waiting.
Like me, they want to see what you can do,
they want to feel it for themselves. They want
to project. Show them. What is it you see?
I see great scenes, decisive moments, telling,
instructive, inspiring—spectacular plays
of light and dark. Paint one. On me. Now!
I’m not there yet. Get on your way. Step up
to the task, step forward. Fling paint on me. Brush!
Leonardo said that random blots, drips, and splashes
can contain battle scenes, land- and seascapes,
and amorous encounters. I will paint those all--
plus portraits. I am ready. I am part of it.
I will hold your paint as you guide and apply it.
You are holding it well. It’s already done.
What do you see? Don’t hold your tongue.
I see you. I see me! That’s just how it was.
Captured. But is my backside really that big?
Javy Awan has worked as an editor for national professional association publications. His poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Potomac Review, Midwest Quarterly, and Innisfree Poetry Journal. He lives in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Ekphrastic Review
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