Two of the most talked-about paintings at the Timken Museum of Art capture the eye — and the mind — by shining a light into the soul of their subjects.

I asked John Wilson, the museum’s executive director and subject of our Q&A profile this week, to delve into the meaning of the two artworks.

One’s a 1657 portrait thought to be of St. Bartholomew by Rembrandt van Rij (better known as just Rembrandt).

The other is a 1530 portrait known as “Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress” by Italian artist Bartolomeo Veneto.

“Portrait of a Lady in a Green Dress,” by Bartolomeo Veneto, 1530. | Courtesy of Timken Museum of Art

What strikes you about the painting of the woman in the dress?

I really love her because this is a total power picture. She is probably some member of a Mantuan court (in Italy). She is giving you this look of total authority.

She is letting you know that she can afford to buy anything that she wants. This whole costume just exudes money, like the jewels in her headpiece, a sort of turban, which has got fake hair. She can afford to buy fake hair.

The equivalent of modern-day hair extensions.

Yes, exactly!

She has falcolner-type gloves. Is she a falconer?

It may be ceremonial, like you would wear camo today even thought you’re not a soldier, or wearing a Chargers jersey. Falconry is a sport, so she’s wearing it to sort of say, “I can do this if I want to.”

What else do you see?

She doesn’t just simply have sleeves. She can afford to buy so much of this expensive fabric that it’s all bunched up. She thinks so little of it that she can afford to slash it and have stuff underneath it that she’s pulled through.

She has a shirt from Persia, which says “I can buy imported stuff.” This is such a display of conspicuous consumption that it’s almost laughable.

I see a hint of coquetteishness in her expression.

She’s looking right at you. I see her looking with a shrewd and skeptical look. She’s wondering: “What are you really about?” “What do you want from me?”

Or maybe “what do I want from you?”

Yeah, “what can you do for me?”

We don’t know who she is?

There’s been some recent research by a graduate student at UCSD who’s suggesting that she’s probably somebody in the court of Isabella d’Este in the court of Mantua.

She looks Spanish to me.

Veneto was Venetian, and there was a strong cultural connection between the Venetians and the Spanish. Looking at the art history and the costume history, this is pretty much a pure Italian painting.

Portrait thought to depict St. Bartholomew, by Rembrandt van Rij, 1657.| Courtesy of Timken Museum of Art

What grabs people about the museum’s crown jewel, the Rembrandt portrait of St. Bartholomew?

Even if you don’t know the story of St. Bartholomew, that he was murdered by being skinned alive, you know that this guy is thinking about something.

He is somebody contemplating an serious issue. Is it because he knows he’s going to be martyred? Is he underwater on his mortgage? We can all look at that picture and realize it’s an emblem of deep, worrisome thought.

You walk in closer and you go from the universal understanding to realizing that Rembrandt has made this with the tools of a stick with hair tied to the end that’s been dipped in a gooey colorful pigment suspended in oil, and he slopped it around on a piece of canvas. You can see how’s created this by building up areas of paint, he’s used the blunt end of the brush to scrape furrows into the brow to emphasize this worry, he’s mixed colors in ways that are just unbelievably rich.

It’s art in the highest possible form.

For more about the Rembrandt portrait, check this Union-Tribune story about it from 2010.

— Interview conducted and edited by RANDY DOTINGA.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at and follow him on Twitter:

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