I sometimes think that every museum label should carry a disclaimer: “Warning. The title you are about to read may tell you more about the historical reception of the painting than it does about the painting itself.”
Google “Rembrandt” and “philosopher,” for instance, and the first thing you will see on your screen is the image of a painting that now hangs in the Louvre. The painting, which is titled Philosophe en méditation (philosopher in meditation) and dated 1632, shows an old bearded man seated in an interior, with a large open book on the table beside him. Golden light from a window illuminates his figure, while the rest of the interior is plunged in shadows. To his right is a winding stair that disappears into a dark recess and the bent form of an old woman tending a fire. Though you won’t be able to see it on the screen, the indistinct form of another woman is also disappearing up the stair.
Ever since this painting arrived at the Louvre at the end of the eighteenth century, commentators have been tempted to associate its “philosophe” with the contemplative artist who created him. One nineteenth-century French poet simply decided that Rembrandt was the philosopher. Another saw “the very genius of Rembrandt” in the figure and attributed the picture as a whole to the artist’s wish for “an interior in which to house his mysterious thought.” In the mid-twentieth century, the writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley described the painting’s “symbolical subject matter” as “nothing more nor less than the human mind” itself.