“The Man with a Golden Helmet” and My Father

Aesthetic Realism shows that art can teach us how to see people justly, deeply.  This is so, I’ve learned, because in a good work of art an object is seen aesthetically, as a structure of the same opposites that constitute reality itself.  Eli Siegel stated: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Through studying this principle in relation to one of the majestic portraits of the world, I changed the way I saw my father, Sam Weiner.

What was immediately striking to me when I first saw the “Man with a Golden Helmet” is the juxtaposition of this man’s ornately carved, gleaming headpiece to his deeply thoughtful face. Dressed in a tunic, and surrounded by darkness, he is looking downward, and perhaps contemplating his own mortality. His heavy-lidded eyes, weathered skin, and gray beard evince a person who has lived much. There is a relation here of dignity and uncertainty; nobility and weariness, that is very moving.

Rembrandt’s deep, compassionate way of portraying this man is so different from how I once saw my father.  I didn’t see Sam Weiner as a mingling of dignity and uncertainty, and that he himself was pained because he couldn’t make sense of these different aspects of himself.  I also didn’t grant him a full existence that included a past, questions about love, a feeling about justice, concern about money, and much more. Instead, I made the mistake many sons have: I chose to think of him as only hard and mean, except for the times I saw him as unsure, which I then used to feel scornful and superior.

Look at this man’s pensive face.  On the right, he is in deep shadow, has a down-turned lip, and is so inward that he appears almost apparition-like. The outline here is tenuous, and he seems to be sinking into the darkness.

In contrast, his face on the left has the warm, penetrating light that Rembrandt is renowned for.  I think the highlights on the bridge of his nose, moustache, and parts of his cheek accent the self-questioning in his eye even more. And unlike the agitated contour on the right, the one here is more tranquil.  Though these two sides have their dissimilarities, the artist tenderly and subtly conveys a self in its fullness—as a relation of determination and unsureness, outward and inward.

In the classes that I had the good fortune to attend with Eli Siegel, as he talked to other fathers and sons and to me, I realized that the Sam Weiner I was so sure I knew was not really him at all. Mr. Siegel wanted me to understand him, including where he questioned himself, as a means of respecting him more. He gave me a new chance to feel close to my father.  In one class, he asked me questions that encouraged me to relate my father’s anger and uncertainty:

ES: Do you think when your father quarreled with your mother, he felt his knowledge of women was insufficient?

SW: He must have…but I never thought of that.

ES: Do you think your father had some reason for self-doubt?—Did he know how to use his doubt of himself?

SW: No.

ES: Do you?

SW: I don’t.

I thank Mr. Siegel for having me see the depths of my father as real, and that we were more alike than I had ever wanted to acknowledge.  After this, Sam Weiner said often that he cared very much for the way he was seen by Mr. Siegel, that he felt respected.

In this painting, there is not a hurtful division between determination and something like self-doubt.  The helmet and the man’s face can seem very different; his headpiece arcs upward while he looks down.  Yet, they have the same shape, except the forms are inverted.  Parts of his helmet and face are bathed in glistening light; the other parts are shaded, and here, their edges complete each other.  Some of the helmet’s coruscating metal is reflected in the man’s countenance; likewise, touches of his reddish-brown skin tones appear in the headpiece.

The artist’s delineation of this helmet is one of the most bravura instances of opulence and swirling intricacies in a work I have ever seen.  And note how that curved line in the middle of his helmet leads us upward to–tousled, delicate plumage.  Are these feathers, like the man himself, a mingling of dignity and uncertainty?

Pointing to a beautifully, rich relation of opposites in this work, the critic Jakob Rosenberg wrote: “This contrast between the splendor of the helmet and the subdued tonality of the face makes one deeply conscious of both the tangible and intangible forces in [the] world, and of their inseparable inner relationship.”

What does this “inner relationship” consist of?

Look at his forehead where his helmet and face meet, and what is it we find?  Intangible deep shadows that I believe represent the mystery of reality that is in him and surrounds him. And so unlike myself of once who refused to grant my father any mystery or depth, here the artist lovingly honors them.

In The Right Of, Mr. Siegel wrote: “Rembrandt was busy showing deeply that a grieving thoughtfulness was at one with human radiance.” Whether Rembrandt painted this himself or it was done under his supervision, we do see these two things here: “grieving thoughtfulness” and “human radiance.”

My study of Aesthetic Realism did change how I saw my paternal parent.  I came to love my dear father, Sam Weiner.  And at a time in his life when he was deeply uncertain because of worry about his health, we became even closer because I think he felt my hope was to respect him more and see him with dignity.  For this, I’m very grateful.