Photographer's Note


One of my favorite paintings, “The Old Rabbi”, hangs in the the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Painted about 350 years ago by Rembrandt, it shows that a great painter can put more life into his subject than the haggard tourists hanging out in front of the painting.

Three years ago, I was briefly at the Frederic Chopin Airport in Warsaw for a change of flight. Just behind me in the passport control line was the Orthodox rabbi seen in the photo. I immediately saw my opportunity for an incisive portrait. I explained to him that he reminded me of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of the Rabbi,” and I asked him if he would allow me to take his picture. Perhaps because he did not speak English (and I speak no Yiddish), he did not answer me. But the name of “Rembrandt” must have struck a sympathetic chord, he straightened his rumpled jacket and presented a subdued smile, and I quickly snapped a few photos. Then summoning one of two-dozen Hebrew words that I knew, I thanked him, “todah raba.” He smiled again, and disappeared into the crowd. (But of course, the Orthodox Jews don’t even like to speak Hebrew, preferring to speak Yiddish instead.)


The image is cropped in a nearly square format, not the best in presenting portaits, but I wanted to keep the subject’s pristine white shirt from creating a distraction. I made sure that the vertical centerline passed right through the subject’s eye (here his right). In 1998 Dr. Christopher Tyler, an English born psychologist living in San Francisco, made a remarkable discovery regarding single-subject portraits: in the preponderance of great portraits spanning the centuries, the centerline passes through one eye — not the nose, not the ear. It could be the leading eye (as in the case of this rabbi) or it could the trailing eye. All three portraits of young women painted by Leonardo (including in the most famous portrait in the history of art), in countless portraits by Rembrandt, in many paintings by van Gogh and even Picasso. It is a principle never taught in art schools, and yet one that the great artist discovers intuitively. I say "even Picasso," after all, had the great Spanish painter been taught the principle, he most likely would have put the eye of his subject somewhere near the right bottom corner, to be different! The New York Times reported Dr. Tyler's discovery using an array of nine portraits. I discussed the principle in my books, "Math and the Mona Lisa" published in 2004, and "Leonardo's Universe" published in 2009. Dr. Tyler and I are currently contemplating writing a book together.

Once I was sitting in the dining room of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey with good friends — the late Helen Dukas, who had been Einstein’s secretary; Ady Mann, a close friend and co-author from Israel; and Bea Shube, our editor from Wiley. In a light moment they declared me an “Honorary Jew.” I dedicate this image to my myriad Jewish friends on the first day of Hanukkah, December 12.

Incidentally, in Rembrandt's "Portrait of the Rabbi," to which I alluded in the first paragraph, the centerline passes right through the rabbi's left eye, the one in the shadow.

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Additional Photos by Bulent Atalay (batalay) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 6781 W: 471 N: 12170] (41261)
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