Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669, Carcass of Beef (Flayed Ox), 1655,

Louvre Museum, Paris, France



 Rembrandt van Rijn's butchered "Carcass of Beef" (also known as the "Flayed Ox"), 37 x 27, hangs, skinned in a dark shed, dominating the center foreground of the painting.  From an artist's point of view, what may initially strike the eye is the sensational use of the substance of paint to equate with, and construct, the substance of the carcass.  The variegated, thick impasto brings the carcass massively and magnificently into existence, particularly when contrasted with the thinner paint of the background.  Rembrandt has sumptuously developed the planes and forms of what, to most people of his day – and ours – would be merely a dead animal of utilitarian use, a source of physical nourishment (if we are aware today of the deaths that take place to feed us).  He sees in a dead beef -- turns it into -- a miracle of artistic beauty, and poetic and spiritual profundity.


 Rembrandt is the pre-eminent artistic master of painting the physicality of existence, the physical substance of being, whether here or in portraits and figure compositions.  It is a physicality, beautiful in itself, in which he discovers the universal spirituality of being.   Within this density of form, Rembrandt sees and understands, has the human insight and artistic genius to express, divinity, the universal truths of existence, in flesh (fabric and armor, for that matter), whether human or animal.


 Rembrandt has reached his highest artistic level in this work of a hanging carcass of beef, braced open at the chest to cure by letting air in the cavity.  He paints the rough and ragged carcass, the revealed rib cage, slabbed and ridged drying meat, and knots of lumpy fat; the knobby elbows, joints and bones of sinewed legs (once strong enough to support this massive body, now trimmed of their hooves), the hide and head, of course, removed as well.


 The artist paints this raw and drying thing with the reverence and respect with which he painted all things, including the crucifixion of Christ.  For, this painting of a slaughtered ox or beef, hanging upside down in a darkened storeroom, can't help but be likened to a crucifixion, with the spreading rear legs like arms affixed to a cross.


 The warmth of color, the resonance of light and the deep feeling painted into the carcass and the painting as a whole, speak of several issues.  The carcass is both horrible and holy.  Rembrandt gives us the raw and blatant fact of death – the death that comes to all things that live.  He does not back away from death and the idea of dying.  In a way, he embraces it here, as if a means of resolving its pain and fear.  He has dealt with death in the loss of his first wife, Saskia, and at least two of his children.   


 He seems to find an element of transcendence in death by means of light, as if light's radiance somehow imbues a fearful physical fact with divinity.  In the mundane world of food and eating, the death of this beef will provide physical life for those who consume it; as those who "consume" Christ, in belief, gain immortality.


 Into this room with the suspended carcass, the head and body of a woman peer or start to pass through a door in the rear.  In terms of the painting's composition, she is placed directly next to the loin of the body (though well behind it), dwarfed by its immensity, as she is humbled by her incipient awareness of its connotations.  It's as if she has stumbled upon a hallowed event, the scene of a ritual, where the truth and meaning of life lie open and naked for all to see.


 She is about to enter the room, the realm of understanding and insight into the nature of the world.  Hers – and through her, ours – is the dawning awareness of the ravenous nature of life and death that uses up all life that ever lived.  The carcass -- in its naked rawness, denuded of any surface blandishments of skin, hair, head, eyes, ears, tail and feet that once roved the pasture, the cow pulling grass into its mouth with its tongue -- is clearly a monument to death and the timeless process of life and death.


 But, there is a holiness in the glowing richness of the light emanating from its dense corporeality that is echoed in the hesitant reverence of the tiny woman's slightly bowed head.  As our surrogate, she is able to acknowledge and share with us the majesty and mystery of being represented by the carcass, as we develop our own insights and feelings in response to this painting.


 We have only to compare the artistic, poetic and spiritual radiance of Rembrandt's painting with any of several paintings of sides or carcasses  of beef by Chaim Soutine, a Rembrandt admirer in early 20th Century Paris, two hundred sixty-five years or so later, to see how despairing Soutine's vision is compared to the Dutchman's.  There is no redemption or hope of redemption.  Soutine has bathed his side of beef in blood, creating chopped, carved forms by anguished strokes of paint in a diagonally sliding composition whose subject is more a tortured victim of 20th Century dictatorship than the epic redemption of Man.  Soutine's painting speaks of both his era's despair at loss of meaning and purpose in living, and his personal desperation (Soutine painted the beef in his apartment studio, bathing it daily in blood from the butcher shop to keep it "fresh."  As it rotted, the stench drove his neighbors to vociferous complaint).


 Rembrandt's painting of the carcass of beef is horrible, ugly, beautiful, transcendent, life...contradictory, but ever-present and unavoidable.  But beauty and truth seem to dominate here (perhaps a harsh truth, but redeemed by the magnificence and majesty of paint become flesh...flesh become paint...flesh become light).  Horror and death are redeemed by this icon of red and golden flesh that glows with richly radiant light from out of a dark background in a simple storage room.  This extraordinary vision hangs from rough-hewn, cross-braced poles notched into a ceiling beam, steadied by blocks at the bottom between the poles and the floor.  A timeless, transcendent event occurs in the most ordinary of the birth of a Messiah in a manger.


 Rembrandt's painting may be seen by visiting the following web address:


 One of several versions by Chaim Soutine of a carcass of beef may be seen at the following web address:


Copyright by Don Gray


Don Gray Art  •  Art Essays & Art Criticisms