Portraits of a Pulsating Life: Georg Simmel’s Encounter with Rembrandt


Rembrandt and Saskia in the parable of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt, 1635

by David Beer

In May 1913, German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote to the poet and essayist Margarete von Bendemann to express his joy at seeing some ‘magnificent Rembrandts’. The encounter got him thinking. His gushing praise might place him in the category of an enthusiastic fan, but Simmel’s interest went far beyond a mere affection for Rembrandt’s portraits. The following year, Simmel moved from Berlin to Strasbourg, taking up his first proper academic post at the age of 56, and developed an increasing interest in how to conceptualise life. Uncertain times in Europe and the wrench of leaving his beloved Berlin had an impact on both his writing and thinking. Life, experience and modernity had always been preoccupations for Simmel, but something changed. In pursuit of inspiration, Rembrandt’s portraits proved to be source of ideas and insight as Simmel sought out a new conceptual palette. These paintings seemingly gave Simmel a template for how to think about life. Suddenly, inspired by Rembrandt, the theories he had been wrestling with began to take shape.

Rather nervously, Simmel began work on a book about Rembrandt. He wasn’t quite sure of his approach and nor, having only tangentially written about art and art exhibitions in the past, was he confident in his analytical and aesthetic eye. His nerves didn’t actually settle until the book was published and began to sell well – it was eventually the best-selling of his books during his lifetime. The root of Simmel’s anxiety was the unusual nature of the volume he was working on. Cutting across bodies of knowledge and roaming around disciplines, this was an unconventional venture. On the surface it is a long essay in the philosophy of art, look more closely and something else is going on. As Simmel wrote in a letter to Salomon Friedlaender in October 1914, the book he was working on was to pose the ‘problem of life in art’.

Eventually published in 1916, Simmel’s book Rembrandt is a creative engagement with method and with the knowledge of life itself. Rather than using theory to analyse art, it uses art to question theory. The art becomes a source for thinking about knowledge and for questioning the formation of ideas concerning the limits and depiction of life and mortality. The book scratches at the art, probing at existing understandings of life, the life-course, experience and biography. In general terms, Simmel uses Rembrandt’s paintings to highlight what he sees as an inadequacy with the way that individual and social life are understood. These inadequacies are numerous, and what Rembrandt’s art serves to do, for Simmel, is, like the complex lighting in those paintings, illuminate the individual in their entirety and in their context. The message Simmel gives is simple: don’t pull things apart to understand them. He warns that by looking at isolated features we no longer see how those features combine to lend the individual and the social context their uniqueness. He adds that by looking at parts in isolation we are likely to find lots of other instances, it is the relation of fragments to one another that Simmel then places at the centre of his philosophical insights.

For Simmel, Rembrandt’s art avoids breaking life into parts, it doesn’t dissect, it instead seeks to capture the whole and to picture the individual in relation to the experiences that shape them. Rather than dealing in types, it deals in the combined characteristics of the figure. His point is that sociology and philosophy often break that life apart, whereas Simmel seeks to keep it whole and to leave it in its setting. By breaking things apart, he argues, we lose a sense of the relations of the different properties that make up that moment or that individual. On this point Simmel notes Goethe’s distaste for reading glasses, he didn’t like things that led him to focus in too much on detail at the expense of a fuller picture.

Simmel develops this broad argument across the pages of Rembrandt. Building on his earlier work, Simmel focuses upon the relational properties within and beyond the individual life. Rembrandt, it would seem, provided Simmel with a glimpse of how the individual can be captured without dissecting the bits that constitute them and their lived experiences. Simmel’s argument was that Rembrandt’s portraits may only capture a moment, but in that moment they manage to infer the whole life. Simmel, who was starting to age and whose health was beginning to fail him, thought that the portraits of older people were particularly adept at telling a story. The portraits gave an impression of the life-course, life events and even future biographies. All of these forces, properties and expectations were etched into the features depicted.

Amongst a range of other qualities that Simmel highlights, it was animation that he noted as a particularly valuable property of Rembrandt’s portraits. Rather than fixing the individual in time or freezing the movements of their life and experiences, Simmel imagines that Rembrandt sought primarily to capture motion. Simmel, who is known for his impressionistic approach to theory, had a vision of life as ‘pulsating’, ‘relational’ and being defined by ‘flows’ or ‘streams’, as such he wanted to try to find ways to capture that rhythm and animation. His problem was that, in his view, philosophy and sociology had a tendency to remove that animation, to miss life’s pulsating qualities and to fix insights in time rather than giving a feel for their mobility. Rembrandt’s portraits, although depicting a single moment, had, Simmel suggests, a kind of animation. Simmel reflected on what gives these fixed images a sense of motion. He leaves unresolved exactly how sociology or philosophy might replicate that animation, instead he uses it as a warning. His message is clear: sociology and philosophy should avoid isolating properties and missing the whole, they should explore the interrelations of things and, alongside this, they should seek to preserve rather than remove the animation of social life. Simmel was seeking a sociology or philosophy that didn’t dissect, but that captured the ‘pulses’ of social life within the mobile forces, flows and entanglements of socially defined experiences. Rembrandt’s portraits afforded Simmel with the possibilities for asking such questions and provided him with some avenues for at least partially resolving these problems.

Art was not peripheral to Simmel’s social thought. It is his interest in Rembrandt’s portraits that shaped his ideas and his final book The View of Life. His encounter with Rembrandt’s portraits is at the root of the method and perspectives found in his life philosophy. These forms of knowledge about life and worlds intersect as Simmel worked at trying to understand how the individual can be viewed in relation to the social tensions of their time. Some of the points Simmel raises from his analysis of Rembrandt, which go much further than I’ve been able to explore here, are likely to be contentious, yet these portraits were undoubtedly a source of inspiration that enabled him to develop and articulate his theories of life. Rembrandt’s artistic depiction of individuals were able to escape the limits that Simmel observed in philosophy and sociology. Freed from the boundaries of convention and the constraints of fixed structures of knowledge, the portraits gave Simmel a new perspective. The art bolstered and revved-up his analysis, Simmel suddenly was able to identify the perspective he sought to develop. Badged as an essay in the philosophy of art, his book was rather an exploration in the art of philosophy.

Often overlooked, Simmel’s 1916 book on Rembrandt tells the story of a thinker looking for inspiration. The turmoil of crushing inhuman times in Europe motivated Simmel to enrich the human properties of his thinking. Rembrandt is a text that showcases a thinker freed from the limitations of conceptual frames. In his final book, which followed two years later, Simmel went on to write on how life frequently seeks to break through the boundaries of form. His encounter with Rembrandt informed those later arguments and also give him the impetus to break the boundaries of disciplinary thinking. The art helped to make that possible. In the brush strokes and characterful lines of Rembrandt’s portraits Simmel stumbled upon a way to sketch out his thoughts on the incessant rhythms of pulsating life.


About the Author:

David Beer is Professor of Sociology at the University of York. His recent books are The Data Gaze and Georg Simmel’s Concluding Thoughts: Worlds, Lives, Fragments.