(National Gallery of Art, Washington)

    Old reproductions of Rembrandt’s The Mill, based on photographs taken before its recent cleaning, show the painting as the nineteenth century must have known it. Here is the Rembrandt the Romantics loved: a lonely windmill standing above a shadowy river landscape, all outlined against the moody, yellow tones of a sunset sky. And who is that boatman at the lower right? Could it be Charon ferrying souls across this somber Styx? The work was an emblem of mortality and melancholia, a slow, darkly Romantic piano etude translated into paint.

    What a shock, then, to walk into the Dutch rooms at the Washington National Gallery, pass a selection of typically dark and golden Rembrandts, and come upon this painting: the same familiar mill now standing against a swath of blue and white sky redolent less of autumnal sunset than of a crisp spring afternoon. Now that the old discolored varnish has been removed, a sky that once looked as yellow as urine–and may have influenced Turner’s experiments in yellow–boasts clouds as translucently white as a Turner snowstorm. Is this a gain or a loss? The river has certainly improved now that it reflects a blue sky and no longer resembles a gigantic puddle of piss, but we have also lost the painting that was so influential for so many years. We cannot see the Mill that Turner and Constable saw; we cannot know the work that art historian Wilhelm Bode proclaimed "the greatest picture in the world."1 This different, brighter, cleaner Mill is the only one we have. This is what we have to work with. And if we pay close attention to it, we might find that it harbors meanings as complex and profound as the sentiments of any Romantic sunset.

    After recovering from the unexpected beauty of the sky, we come down to earth and notice that the space of Rembrandt’s landscape is relatively shallow. Beside the works of such contemporaries as van Goyen, the Ruisdaels, Hobbema, or especially Philips Koninck with his extensive vistas of flat Dutch land, The Mill seems almost claustrophobic. There’s a bit of recession on the right across the river, and we can just discern the tower of a distant church, but our view of the landscape is blocked both by a screen of trees and by the consistently dark tonality of the background. More dramatically, any attempt to follow the curve of the river into the distance ends immediately at the sharp cliff edge of the windmill’s hill. This collision of background and middleground, like a suture in the painting, forces our attention to the front. Rembrandt doesn’t let us drift off into pastoral reverie. The point of the painting is this mill, this path, this patch of river. It’s an unpretentious place, like something seen on a country walk and jotted down in a sketchbook. It’s an ordinary scene, but Rembrandt focuses our attention on it in a way that suggests enormous significance in the ordinary, profound meaning in the everyday.

    I’m drawn to the mysterious moment at the lower right corner of the painting: the passing boat and the washerwoman crouching at her work. The woman’s actions create large, circular ripples on the surface of the river, but the boat passes silently by without making a wave. Gliding smoothly out of frame, the boat is strangely cropped in a manner that makes us think of Degas (the comparison isn’t too far-fetched; this whole scene has the immediacy of an Impressionist moment), and the boatman has his back to the riverbank, his face to the future. The National Gallery’s online "Conservation Notes" tell us that Rembrandt originally painted a bridge across this river. Later, he apparently had second thoughts, painted over the bridge, and added the boat. Thus a symbol of connection, of human interaction, was replaced by this image of disconnection, of the space that separates human beings. The circular waves are like signals sent out into the world, unacknowledged by the passing oarsman. The five foreground figures, read from left to right, could be an allegory of the Three Ages of Human Alienation: the parent and child on the path are still connected, but the child begins to rush ahead; on the bank, the man and woman are emphatically separated by space, position (one stands while the other crouches), and the fact that they do not face each other; at the right edge, the boatman drifts in solitude. The gap between boat and shore, this small patch of rippled water, is a subtle yet powerful symbol of human disconnection, of the unbridgeable gulf between individuals.

    Our eyes travel from the foreground up the zigzag path to the windmill. The sight of a mill standing atop a promontory, its blades turning in the sun, would have brought a host of associations to the mind of a thoughtful seventeenth-century Dutch viewer. Windmills were used in reclamation projects to pump water from the land, enlarging and enriching the Dutch nation. More commonly, they were used to turn the heavy millstones that ground wheat and barley for those staples of the Dutch diet, bread and beer (Rembrandt’s father was a barley miller). So the mill is both a symbol of Dutch ingenuity and of the necessities of life. Additionally, its role in the battle with the sea gives a nationalistic, militaristic slant to its meaning. For as Simon Schama tells us in The Embarrassment of Riches, the Dutch drew a parallel between "the defense against the "tyrant" sea [and] the defense against the "tyrant" Spain."2 The windmill, a soldier in the former battle, could thus come to represent those other soldiers fighting for Dutch independence. And there is something sentry-like about Rembrandt’s mill, standing above a bend in the river, dominating the surrounding land. But this mill is also, and no less importantly, an ordinary sight. Windmills punctuate seventeenth-century Dutch landscape painting because they dotted the actual landscape. Rembrandt takes this common sight from the lowlands and literally elevates it, raising it to the sky. Its sails turning in the breeze, its stones grinding wheat into flour, the mill is as much a symbol of motion and change as the river that flows below. It stands in sunlight, but one of its sails is already shadowed, and ominous dark clouds are moving in. This brilliant light is but an interval. "[W]e have an interval," says Walter Pater, "and then our place knows us no more."3 The black, encroaching clouds reveal the fleeting nature of this sunlit moment and suggest the brevity of human life. The windmill, its sails spinning from light into shadow and back again, symbolizes the crucial elements of time and chance in this life, the truth Ecclesiastes knew:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.4

The sunlit sails turn like fortune’s wheel, and the stones grind away like time. This ordinary windmill becomes in Rembrandt’s hands a complex symbol of mortality, mutability and contingency–life, death, change and chance.

    The river that runs through this painting is, if possible, even more complexly meaningful than the mill. The river separates foreground and background, and yet it also connects all the various spaces of the painting, even reflecting the colors of the sky. It both disconnects and communicates, parts and joins: passage across the river is difficult, but barges can glide from city to city with ease (the pedestrian’s barrier is the boatman’s highway); the man in the boat rows off, but the other four figures are coming together at the river’s edge. I think all of this represents a complex and specifically Dutch understanding of water in general. While it was the basis of a maritime economy and essential for the internal movement of goods as well as for agriculture, water also meant to lowlanders the everpresent danger of inundation, of burst dikes and massive, apocalyptic floods. Water to the Dutch was creation and destruction, life and death. And while Rembrandt’s mill, in its position of power over the river, may remind us of the pumping mills that drained the land and tamed the water, we should also recognize the river’s power–a power strong enough to audaciously open this painting and float the boat out of frame. The river is constantly flowing, and like the sails of the mill and the darkening sky, it is a symbol of mutability, the principle of constant change in life. It is the Heraclitean river in which no traveler can step twice because it changes with every passing second. Everything is moving, in space and in time. That’s one of the lessons of this frozen moment glimpsed on the way. From the wavering reflections in the water to the dark clouds being blown across the sky, everything changes.

    Heraclitean flux, the brevity and contingency of life, the mutability of all things, the difficulty of genuine human contact... A lot of baggage for a picture of a windmill by a river, but it’s all there on the canvas. The Mill is constructed of earth, water, air and the fiery light of the sun. Elemental things. Ordinary things. Rembrandt’s genius finds the poetry in them: the universal in the specific, the profound in the seemingly mundane. It’s all on the canvas. And something else is on the canvas, too. The dark clouds at the top are darker than Rembrandt painted them, because the pigment has discolored with age. Elsewhere, patches of blackest black appear to have darkened to deadness. Imagery and information are being lost. We can either lament the decay or step back and see this as Rembrandt’s final, unintended lesson. The painting’s own deterioration reinforces its theme. Everything indeed changes.


1. National Gallery of Art, 70.

2. Schama, Embarrassment, 42.

3. Pater, Renaissance, 153.

4. Ecclesiastes, 9:11.