The AGO’s new etchings exhibition, comparing portraits by Rembrandt to Lucien Freud's, is an artistic conversation spanning more than three centuries. Both men worked to reveal the human soul. Their honest, unflattering kindred styles remain alive.

Subtitling this exhibit, “True to Life,” the AGO offers viewers a chance to see how even ugliness can be beautiful, if the artist explores what is really in our hearts, rather than what we want people to see.

“They don’t simply record the exterior of their subjects,” explains curator Brenda Rix by phone. “Rembrandt and Freud seem to be able to convey the emotional life of the sitter. This was a demanding process. Freud has people sit for hours and hours, for months. He doesn’t have them pose in any way. He searches for their essence.”


Freud is 87. Rembrandt died in 1669. Nonetheless, their work has a lot in common. They both regarded etching and print-making as art, like painting or sculpture. Their portraits have a weird magnetic quality, as if they have been etched from the inside out. This makes viewers often unconsciously try and peer into the etchings, as if they were 3-D. Prettiness is unimportant; the subject’s humanity is the thing.

Both men composed lots of self portraits, with deep eyes and unhandsome expressions.

“Freud calls his portraits, “naked people,” not “nudes,” because nudes are paid models,” says Rix. “Rembrandt also painted ordinary people. In his Naked Woman Seated on a Mound, you can see scars and blemishes. She’s robust, not a goddess. In the 17th century, that was shocking.”

Freud and Rembrandt seem disinterested in conventional portrait painting, where someone pays an artist to capture their image, except probably taller and thinner. Top portrait painters have traditionally been very well compensated.

• True To Life opens up on Saturday at the Art Gallery of Ontario and runs through to March 23.

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