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Rembrandt van Rijn
 
 
 

Self-portrait
1640
 
 
 
born July 15, 1606, Leiden, Neth.
died Oct. 4, 1669, Amsterdam

in full Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn Dutch painter, draftsman, and etcher of the 17th century, a giant in the history of art. His paintings are characterized by luxuriant brushwork, rich colour, and a mastery of chiaroscuro. Numerous portraits and self-portraits exhibit a profound penetration of character.

For most modern observers Rembrandt's art has attained a kind of universal familiarity and popularity. Yet the biblical scenes and the self-portraits that today form the hallmark of his art were by no means typical of Dutch pictures of the 17th century; more commonly, his contemporaries produced landscapes, still lifes, or genre scenes of daily life that never held great interest for Rembrandt. In his own era Rembrandt achieved greatest fame as the most fashionable portrait painter of Amsterdam during the 1630s, but he was eventually eclipsed even during his own lifetime by younger rivals, including some of his own students. Another major field of accomplishment lay in the medium of etching. Rembrandt commanded high prices for his prints even during his lifetime, and his technical mastery had a lasting effect on printmakers for centuries.

If any quality typified the works of this great artist, especially in his youth, that quality would be a personal ambition to rival the dominant artists of Europe, particularly Peter Paul Rubens from nearby Antwerp. But the tides of fashion in Holland and Rembrandt's own temperament seem to have frustrated much of his ambition and left him increasingly isolated and idiosyncratic in his final years. There is actually a kernel of truth to the apocryphal legend of Rembrandt's rejection by the leading patrons of Amsterdam, although this loss of favour was gradual and never total. As a result of his increasing isolation, however, Rembrandt achieved a particular personal independence that doubtless contributed to his distinctive and evocative suggestion of the timeless human world of quiet yet deep emotional states. The silent human figure remained the central subject of Rembrandt's art and contributed to the sense of a shared dialogue between viewer and picture, which still is the foundation of Rembrandt's greatness as well as of his popularity today.

Early years in Leiden

Rembrandt's youth does not help much to explain either the derivation or the character of his art. The artist's father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller, a reasonably prosperous man; the family of his mother, Neeltje van Zuytbroeck, were bakers, but more important, they remained Catholics at a time when Leiden had adopted the Protestant creed. Indeed, Rembrandt's father was the only member of his family who became a Calvinist rather than remaining a Catholic. According to a Leiden chronicle written during the artist's lifetime (by Jan Orlers, 1641), the young Rembrandt was sent to a Latin school and directed toward the local university, the very first to have been established in Holland (1575) and a major centre of learning. But because the young man's proclivities led toward art, he was apprenticed during the period 1619–22 to the local painter Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg. Little of the work of van Swanenburg can be identified today, and his art seems to have left scant influence on Rembrandt, but the fact that he, too, was a Catholic might have affected the choice of van Swanenburg as a master. Moreover, van Swanenburg's father had also been a highly successful painter in Leiden and had trained Rubens' master, Otto van Veen. Thus, this tutor held out a potential set of connections for the young Rembrandt.

But Rembrandt's chief training came from the Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), who had spent time in Italy (1603–1606/07) and had returned to Amsterdam to become the leading painter of biblical, mythological, and historical pictures. Although Rembrandt seems to have spent only about half a year with Lastman around 1623, he fully absorbed the lessons of his master. From Lastman he learned the importance of painting lofty subjects in a broad format with careful attention to the ancient costumes, dramatic gestures, and compositional groupings of the full-length figures. The earliest Rembrandt pictures, including “Stoning of Saint Stephen” (1625), “Palamedes Before Agamemnon” (1626), and “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1626), clearly derive closely from both the themes and the pictorial formulas of Lastman. The baptism of the eunuch, for example, had already been painted by Lastman in a broad format a few years before (1623; Karlsruhe); Rembrandt's version of the scene from Acts is transposed into a vertical format, but it retains most of the same figures, costumes, and accessories, yet condensed into a tighter, more dramatically lighted mass. Another close comparison of both theme and form is provided by Lastman's 1622 panel and Rembrandt's denser, vertical 1626 panel of the same subject, “Balaam's Ass and the Angel.” Recent research links the “St. Stephen” and the “Palamedes” with commissions from the young Rembrandt in Leiden by a local humanist named Petrus Scriverius, whose estate cites two large pictures by Rembrandt; otherwise the early patrons of these pictures are unknown today.


The early Rembrandt paintings already reveal the artist's ambition to rival the leading painters in Europe. Not only did he concentrate on the most learned and morally serious subjects but he also strove for the historically plausible settings and costumes that distinguished the pictures of Lastman and such painters in Rome as the German émigré Adam Elsheimer. Also evident in these early paintings are Rembrandt's nascent fascination with dramatic personal responses and with spotlight effects of light and shadow. If anything, these elements came to dominate his art in the succeeding decade. In particular, Rembrandt's exposure to a group of artists from nearby Utrecht led to an abrupt emulation of their sharply drawn chiaroscuro, or painting in light and dark. These Utrecht painters, led by Gerrit van Honthorst, had recently returned from Rome, and their art enjoyed not only local popularity but also strong favour in the courts of northern Europe. Hence, when Rembrandt painted such religious works as “The Presentation in the Temple” (c. 1627–28) or “Christ at Emmaus” (1628), he sought to emulate the drama of lighting and gesture of Elsheimer, Caravaggio, and, now, van Honthorst and to place himself firmly into the international world of art. A measure of the self-concept of Rembrandt around this time is the small but dramatic “Young Painter in the Studio” (c. 1629), which shows a full-length shadowy figure of an artist situated against the back wall and dwarfed by a massive panel lying on its easel in the foreground. This panel, seen from behind, lies in shadow, with only its near edge glowing with light. The overall effect is one of heroic confrontation within the very act of creation.
That Rembrandt had attained eminence as an artist by the end of the 1620s can be discerned from a famous reference, dating from 1629/30, in the autobiography of Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of the Prince of Orange. Huygens singles out Rembrandt as well as his young Leiden friend and colleague, Jan Lievens (1607–74), for special praise in terms of their future promise as artists. Rembrandt is lauded for his penetration to the essence of his subjects and for his effects in small format. In particular, the 1629 panel “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” is held up as a model for moving gesture and emotion, worthy of the finest works of Italy or even of antiquity. Huygens' chief regret is that Rembrandt and Lievens never traveled to Italy for further study of the past masters.


Only in recent years has Lievens begun to receive attention commensurate with that paid to Rembrandt, although the careers of the two artists developed in tandem for many years. Lievens, too, journeyed from Leiden to Amsterdam for a two-year apprenticeship (1618–19) with Lastman. Indeed, it may well have been the example of Lievens that led Rembrandt to study with Lastman, and the influence of Lievens remained essential. Probably through Lievens came the exposure to Utrecht painting, which was to influence Rembrandt's art. In the late 1620s Lievens' art so closely resembled Rembrandt's that scholars are still debating the proper attribution of some panels. For example, Lievens' “Capture of Samson” (c. 1627–28; Amsterdam) appears to have been the stimulus for Rembrandt's “Capture of Samson” (1628), and both works emulate the same subject as painted by Rubens (1610; London) and circulated throughout Europe in prints from an engraved version. In similar fashion Rembrandt and Lievens maintained a pictorial dialogue concerning the subject of the raising of Lazarus, beginning with Rembrandt's c. 1630 panel (Los Angeles), followed by Lievens' 1631 canvas (Brighton) and etching, and ending with Rembrandt's masterful, dramatic, and large etching of about 1632. Rembrandt even seems to have predated some of his works to make them seem earlier than the comparable Lievens compositions. In 1632, however, Lievens departed for England, where he most likely became acquainted with Anthony Van Dyck, whose art redirected his own and led him to a later career in Antwerp between 1635 and 1644 before he returned to Amsterdam.

As part of the same ambition to paint historical pictures, both Rembrandt and Lievens also experimented with studies of heads, or what the Dutch call tronies. Often these figures wear exotic millinery and receive dramatic poses and lighting, but they are not portraits. Rather, they seem to have served as possible models or practice pieces for the character heads to be included within larger histories. Many of the pictures with the same models that were known in the 19th century as Rembrandt's “father” or “mother” are actually such studies of heads, with special attention to the rendition of stuffs, of lighting, and of facial expressions or features. Many of the early self-portraits also seem to have been variants of the tronies formula, in which Rembrandt simply used his own features in lieu of those of another model and dressed himself up in military or fashionable garb: plumed hats, golden chains, armour gorgets. Some of the heads of the older models reappear virtually without change on the numerous prophets and apostles (including the luminous 1630 “Jeremiah”) that Rembrandt produced in 1630–31 in his later years in Leiden; this was a kind of picture that he left off doing until his final decade in the 1660s.

Rembrandt already enjoyed the attention of pupils and followers during his early years. His first disciple was Gerrit Dou, who emulated still another category of pictures from Rembrandt's oeuvre: his genre scenes, or depictions of everyday activities. Rembrandt had already created such scenes in his 1626 “Music Lesson,” a work that also features archaic costumes and suggestions of lustfulness. Dou, also a Leiden native, the son of a glass engraver, became a pupil of Rembrandt in 1628 and continued this kind of subject but with overtones of seriousness and moral instruction and with an enamel-like fineness on a minute scale that was highly prized by collectors.

Having attracted the attention of the influential Huygens at court in The Hague, Rembrandt made inroads with the ruling House of Orange, chiefly with Prince Frederick Henry, for whom he painted in 1632–33 two scenes of Christ's Passion, the “Raising of the Cross” and the “Descent from the Cross” (both in Munich) as well as a portrait of the princess Amalia van Solms that was to have been the pendant of a van Honthorst portrait of Frederick Henry. The Passion scenes were ordered for the Prince by Huygens and are closely linked to the model of Rubens, again known to Rembrandt chiefly through an engraving. At the time Rubens was the leading artistic force in Europe, and as a cultivated diplomat as well as a consummate painter he was especially favoured at princely courts. Thus, to emulate Rubens' “Descent from the Cross” for his own princely patron was for Rembrandt the highest act of artistic self-assertion. Rembrandt even went so far as to produce his own 1633 etching of his picture in emulation of Rubens. One striking feature about both of Rembrandt's Passion scenes is that the artist gave his own features to participants within the scene; in the “Raising of the Cross” he even employed modern dress and a focused light to underscore this personal involvement, meant perhaps to express his own meditative spirituality.

The letters from Rembrandt to Huygens concerning the Passion series survive, and they document a second phase of artistic production between 1636 and 1639, when three more pictures were made for Frederick Henry. The letters document the progressive disenchantment with Rembrandt by Huygens and the Prince, but one of them also contains a rare personal testimonial from Rembrandt concerning his artistic aims. The letter underscores the artist's commitment to evoking “the greatest and most natural emotion” for his religious subjects. In this respect he is close to Rubens, who also was dedicated to the evocation of energy, drama, and emotion. Rembrandt's works in comparison present less of the heroism and beauty of Rubens' scenes but emphasize instead dramatic nocturnal lighting, humble figures, and intimate, lifelike reactions of his religious actors. These were basically the same elements that Huygens had already singled out for praise in Rembrandt's earlier pictures, and they continued to inform his religious art during the 1630s.
 

Early years in Amsterdam

Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in late 1631. He already had a dealer in that city, Hendrick Uylenburgh, and his prospects at court were eclipsed by the domination of van Honthorst. Thus, the prosperity of Amsterdam, a capital of capitalism and a virtual city-state, drew him inexorably. In part through his introductions from Uylenburgh, Rembrandtquickly became one of the most fashionable and well-paid portraitists in Amsterdam. He was able to impress the regents of his adopted city, that clan of mercantile patricians who formed the centre of political power and influence. A mark of Rembrandt's early success was his commission to paint “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), a commemoration of the annual anatomic demonstration to the city's guild of surgeons by its praelector, or chief surgeon. This large-scale group portrait by Rembrandt has been justly celebrated ever since for its departure from the rule of showing a coordinated row of portrait heads. In contrast Rembrandt animated his subjects through a pyramidal composition and his mastery of dramatic lighting to focus attention on the actual process of the lecture itself. At the same time he enlivened the faces of the listeners with a rich variety of expressions of attention, investing them with the same suggestive pictorial psychology that would remain his trademark. Many of the same features can be found in Rembrandt's portraits of individuals or of husbands and wives painted shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam. Although Rembrandt had painted very few portraits while at Leiden, his first four years in Amsterdam brought him some 50 portrait commissions, most of them quite well paid. Inasmuch as Nicolaes Tulp was not only a surgeon but also an alderman and a member of the Amsterdam town council, he was an influential man within the regents' group. Also popular with the regents was Uylenburgh, the art dealer with whom Rembrandt lived briefly and also entered into commercial partnership. Many of Rembrandt's portrait sitters (e.g., Marten Looten, 1632) appear to have been Mennonites, religious conservatives, whom he met through Uylenburgh and who were well connected with the Amsterdam regents.

Rembrandt also portrayed a number of religious leaders of Holland during his first decade in Amsterdam: the Remonstrant Johannes Uytenbogaert (1633 panel and 1635 etching), the Calvinist Johannes Elison (1634), and the Mennonite Cornelis Anslo (1641 double portrait panel and etching). This last figure was a renowned preacher, and Rembrandt's portrayal emphasizes Mennonite reliance on the spoken word. In general his renditions take up the traditional challenge to the pictorial arts to render life without the aid of the spoken or the written word, as if in response to the challenge written in verse by the greatest of 17th-century Dutch poets, Joost van den Vondel:

That's right, Rembrandt, paint Cornelis's voice!
His visible self is second choice.
The invisible can only be known through the word.
For Anslo to be seen, he must be heard.



Yet, in addition to these portraits and the numerous pendant pairs of portraits during these early Amsterdam years, Rembrandt also clearly yearned for recognition, after the model of Rubens, as a painter of both mythologies and biblical stories. About the time of his move from Leiden, he produced his most extensive group of mythologies, beginning with “Andromeda” (c. 1630), which stresses the pathos rather than either the beauty or the heroism of the nude victim. A large “Pluto and Proserpina” (c. 1632) was clearly made for Frederick Henry at the same time as the Passion pictures, and both its scale and its frenetic energy attest to its relationship to the idiom of Rubens, although there fined execution still harks back to the Leiden of Dou. More typical, however, of Rembrandt's tendency to demythologize is the way he renders such subjects as “Rapeof Europa” (c. 1632) or “Rape of Ganymede” (1635). The former places a seraglio of exotically clad, small-scale women in front of a shoreline that includes a Dutch harbour scene. The latter scene is even more prosaic, showing a mewling toddler instead of the seductively beauteous youth of legend. Not only is the eagle elevating the child upward against a leaden-gray sky but also the frightened boy urinates reflexively in his horror. The artist seems almost to have taken pains to violate conventions of beauty and decorum in such a work, as if to engage in persiflage rather than homage to the classical heritage. Scholars still debate whether this work holds Neoplatonic significance as a mythic analogue to the union of the Christian soul with the divine or whether its irreverence lies closer to the homophilic traditions of the subject.

Encyclopædia Britannica

 
 
 
 
Self-Portraits
 
 


Self-Portrait
1629
Oil on panel, 15,5 x 12,5 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich


Raising his head, the young man turns it briefly to one side. His tangled, flying hair falls over his brow and the nape of his neck. His soft lips are slightly opened, his eyebrows raised. The movement that he makes brings his face into the ray of light falling over his left shoulder. For a moment, his cheek and the tip of his nose are lit up above his white collar. The shaded eyes meet those of the observer, without fixing themselves upon them, as if they had become aware of something, as if they were searching for something. The open countenance appears lost in thought, given up to the world around it. The very small format nonetheless reveals a highly effective interplay between the light and dark elements. The application of paint is varied, carefully smoothed transitions being visible alongside spontaneous brushstrokes, scrapemarks, smudges and dabs.




Self-portrait
1639


 


Self-portrait
1640
Oil on canvas, 102 x 80 cm
National Gallery, London


Dressed in furs, brocade and velvet, a man rests his forearm on a barrier, in such a manner that his elbow with its sumptuously heavy stole projects forwards. The face, in half-profile under the sweeping cap, reveals a hint of noble melancholy. Its gaze is directed towards the observer, yet keeps to itself. The precisely composed figure stands out against the neutral, predominantly bright background as an individual, present form. The posture of the portrait's subject and the perfection of the manner of painting call to mind the work of other great artists, such as that of Titian or Raphael. "Rembrandt f. 1640", written in a broad hand, may be read on the barrier to the right.




Self-Portrait
1669
Oil on canvas, 86 x 70.5 cm
National Gallery, London



Simeon with the Christ Child
in the Temple
1666-1669
 

The old man wears a gown and cap of dark velvet of a reddish-violet hue broken towards brown. His hands are folded in front of his body, his facial features composed. His gaze, resting upon the observer, notices him, meets his eyes, communicates with him, enquiring. Resignation and expectation, scepticism and familiarity, lack of fulfilment and contentment with his lot are present in equal measure in the tranquil countenance. His brow and the cap's white border are lit up against the background, which disappears to the right into a darkness of immeasurable depth. The figure appears near, and yet also unapproachably distant. Its atmospheric surroundings pull the observer in. The lines delineating the eyes, the bridge of the nose, and the side curls are finely distinguished; in contrast, the surrounding contours disappear in such a manner as to give the impression of incompleteness. The colour of the garment is simultaneously comprehensible and incomprehensible: it can be defined — and yet defies definition. As with the fulness of expression contained in this figure, so with the colours and forms: they, too, do not appear here as something enduring. That which creates such a vivid impression upon the observer escapes any defining concept, going beyond the realm of words. The open structure, with its almost uncompleted appearance, nevertheless asserts itself as one that is finished, one in which the observer directly and completely participates.

Three figures, three styles, three worlds. The change in Rembrandt's painting, taking place over a creative span of forty-four years, is one of an extremely far-reaching nature. The richest display of unparalleled artistry in painting and virtuosity results directly from what are sometimes almost clumsy or wild beginnings - although a closer look reveals them to be most eloquent - until a pictorial form finally develops, the enigma of which remains unsolved to this day. The succession of paintings, together with the no less important etchings, point to a restless searching. Each picture, every version of the same picture, represents a new experiment, referring back and looking forward, with new qualities constantly coming to light. The great abundance of freehand drawings provides evidence of unrestrained creative powers allowing of no submission to any step-by-step process. This development nevertheless constitutes a unity: from beginning to end, Rembrandt was to remain true to those tasks and motifs which he had originally adopted. In retrospect, this development can be seen as following a consistent course.

This becomes particularly clear when one examines different versions of the same subject-matter. For example, the seventeen different sketches and arrangements of Simeon with the Christ Child alone offer a succession of new versions.


Self-Portrait with Wide-open Eyes
1630
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam




Self-Portrait, Bent Forwards
1628

Furthermore, the series of self-portraits - surely not the result of the artist's later occasional financial straits preventing him from coming up with the fee for a model - is without equal. These pictures should not be seen merely as a portrayal of Rembrandt in the various stages of his life, nor do they simply reveal the variety of possibilities by means of which he could convey facial expression - although he did experiment with this in impressive ways as a young man. The series is still capable of causing astonishment as one of the most radical self-portrayals in the world of painting. The portraits referred to above include one of his earliest, one from the middle years of his life, and one of the last pictures that he was to produce. On looking at the pictures for the first time, the observer is immediately struck by the diversity of this personality through the manner in which the artist depicts himself as a young man, presents himself in mid-life, and achieves the effect of a personal contact in the final year of his life. If one wishes to get closer to Rembrandt's art, however, it is more important to examine the pictorial qualities by means of which these differentiated inner qualities first become comprehensible.

These portraits give us an insight into a career which outwardly consisted principally of constant work with no spectacular incidents. Rembrandt lived in Leiden during his apprenticeship and initial years as an artist, thereafter spending the rest of his life in Amsterdam; unlike other artists, he never travelled to Italy. The climax of his civic prestige was overtaken by the death of his first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, in 1642, while legal disputes and a bankruptcy created difficulties for him. However, he was enabled to enjoy a number of years of undisturbed creative work thereafter through Hendrickje Stoffels, his mistress, and his son, Titus. He lived in a secluded manner, but not in isolation, and received commissions from cultured friends and collectors.
After times of mystification, Rembrandt's circumstances and his work have been the subject of extensive research. The conditions under which his pictures were produced, his clients, those depicted in his portraits - all these have been investigated; his subject-matter has been related to the art of that time; his painting technique has been reconstructed. Most important, those works originating from Rembrandt's own hand have finally been separated from what soon became an equally high number of pictures attributed to him - for whatever reason — and accepted as such until very recently. The fact that questions still remain, among them those in the field of motif interpretation, for which research has failed to find an answer does not suffice to explain the present interest in his art, something which was not sparked off until the beginning of the 20th century and has yet to die down. The latest knowledge made accessible by the 20th-century art world appears to have served merely to heighten, rather than diminish, this fascination with Rembrandt's painting.
Rembrandt's complete works have a characteristic nature all their own, yet it was only in the course of his development that the effect of his pictures, so totally his own, unique in the history of art, would take on such a nature. It is those qualities of the later works requiring the observer's active involvement that are still to be discovered today.
It is the intention of this little book to point to the effect upon the observer of Rembrandt's painting. What follows will concentrate accordingly upon the pictures. A process of selection proved necessary; nor was it possible to embark upon any comparisons with other painters. If attention is to be focussed upon the qualities in question — albeit only in broad outline — then there is space here to go into only a few examples in depth.

An attempt will be made to follow Rembrandt's development via the observation of his pictures. Suggestions will be put forward in this context with regard to the reader's own observation of the pictures - after all, if it really is a question here of observation, then nothing can replace the experience gained when the observer himself sees a picture.
A division into three parts emerges here, one which might appear to be behind the selection of the self-portraits considered above. Reality is far more complicated, however. Many phases can be distinguished, but it is almost impossible to separate them from each other. One characteristic merges with the next. Individual observations can be used merely as an opportunity to notice the change taking place in an overall context, the analysis of which would have to remain ever in question.
In interpreting a picture as a representation of something, one usually fails to notice its effect upon the observer from a purely visual point of view. However, an attempt to follow Rembrandt's artistic path by means of an observation of his pictures cannot afford to pass up an understanding of the subject(s) portrayed in those pictures. If the observational qualities of Rembrandt's pictures are to be clearly grasped, it must first be quite plain to what extent the purely visual elements in a picture — the depiction of a particular event, for example — convey to the observer the underlying meaning of the work in question. It is only through a precise and thorough examination of the concrete details, together with a reflection as to what it is that makes one or the other feature recognizable, that the pictorial qualities themselves can be appreciated — not in some general, unfocussed manner but each in the quite individual form in which it is effective. Accordingly, the following examination will take a course such as will first go into Rembrandt's manner of representation, in particular the structural conception of his pictorial scenes. This in turn will gradually render essential a direct discussion of the pictures' purely visual qualities. A mandatory passage through those elements which can be appreciated in the pictures will be necessary to clear the observer's gaze, so that he can then see with the same awareness where it is only a question of seeing - namely, in the later work.
The development that Rembrandt's paintings undergo is no path from the incomplete to the perfect, from the approximate to the precise, from the sketched to the accomplished; nor does it follow the reverse course. It completely converts everything comprehended in the picture — the symbols, the narrations, the figures, the spatial dimension, the light, even the temporal event -into the observational reality of the picture: in short, it changes comprehension itself into vision. This art thereby touches upon the fundamental certainties of recognition. The experience of Rembrandt's art appears more relevant than ever before. It can reveal itself today as a never-ending challenge to make oneself conscious of the chances offered by the observational act. Rembrandt - a never-ending experience.


Self-Portrait Open-mouthed
1630





Self-Portrait with Cap, Laughing
1630





Self-Portrait with Knitted Brows
1630




Self-Portrait drawing at a window
1648




Self-Portraits
1650; 1652; 1660




Little Self-portrait
1656-58
Oil on wood, 48,5 x 40,5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna





Self-Portrait
1658
Oil on canvas, 133,5 x 104 cm
Frick Collection, New York





Self-Portrait
1660
Oil on canvas, 80,5 x 67,5 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York




Self-Portrait
1669
Oil on canvas, 59 x 51 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague

 
 
 

Self-Portrait with Lace Collar
1629
Oil on canvas, 37,7 x 28,9 cm
Mauritshuis, The Hague


Very few artists of the modern period have left as many self-portraits as Rembrandt. His lifelong study of his own physiognomy, his desire to keep a pictorial record of his constantly changing physical and psychological features, can be taken as a sign of his interest in autobiography and as proof of the belief he nurtured, in spite of the many crises and setbacks he suffered, in the uniqueness of the individual.
Different kinds of autobiographical narrative - memoirs, for instance, or episodes from lived experience interspersed in fictional texts (as with Grimmelshausen), or regular diary entries - were becoming increasingly important in seventeenth-century literature. "Affective individualism" (Lawrence Stone), which had begun to penetrate every aspect of bourgeois experience, had entered poetry, too. Petrarch had anticipated this centuries before with the interest he provoked in his biography: "You will wish to know what kind of person I was."
In the seventeenth century, this humanist motto was generally seen in a confessional or religious light. Rembrandt is known to have maintained frequent contact with members of many different confessions, religious groupings and sects (Jews, Mennonites, Socinians etc.), and it is probably not far wrong to assume that qualities which all these groups had in common - their ethical awareness, their intensely emotional character, and even their potentially oppositional nature - had a profound influence on Rembrandt's character.



Self-Portrait
1633




Self-Portrait
1631


On the other hand, it would be quite wrong to see Rembrandt's self-portraiture entirely in the light of his religious introspection. Indeed, his method reveals somewhat more affinity to doctrines of emotional expression which influenced contemporary academic art theory. In his early self-portraits, and in a number of smaller etchings which, significantly enough, are almost entirely devoid of ornament, allowing the artist to concentrate exclusively on the face, Rembrandt experiments with constantly changing facial expressions, working his way through the full gamut of human feelings and their physiognomic equivalents until, at one end of the scale, all that remains is a grimace. The face, the focal point of the personality, is given symbolic status: it represents human feeling.
Rembrandt thus acts out and gives visual form to different emotional states: alarm, worry, care, the torment of fear; or he portrays himself as someone staring with desperate, distracted eyes, with his hair standing on end (1630), or as a person laughing and showing his teeth. While Charles Le Brun (1619-1690), the Director of the Academie Royale founded in 1648, reduced the various forms of emotional expression to a schematic code in his posthumously (1698) published tract "Methode pour apprendre a dessiner des passions, proposee dans une conference sur l'expression generale et particuliere" (Method of learning how to draw the passions, proposed during a lecture on expression in general and particular), Rembrandt plumbed the depths of human emotion and discovered, by practical experiment, the means of its visual representation.


Self-Portrait as a Young Man
1634
Oil on canvas, 61 x 52 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


Rembrandt was not, therefore, giving vent to his own feelings. He was not interested in revealing his "innermost being", but rather in exploiting his own mimic abilities to produce an encyclopaedia of the human feelings. He fashioned an instrument of empirical psychology out of his theatrical, indeed comic, ability to slip into and simultaneously observe a wide range of emotional states: an example of the valuable contribution made by the fine arts to the development of a modern science whose subject was the study of different forms of human individuality.
While the examples of his work mentioned above, especially those of the early period, presented a range of physical reflexes or expressive reactions to emotional states, his portraits of the middle period go beyond spontaneous physical expressiveness to experiment with a number of conventional poses and gestures. The pose in his self-portrait of 1640, imitates Titian's so-called "Ariosto" portrait, with the sitter's sidelong glance and his bent arm resting on a parapet. Another self-portrait, executed in 1659, now in the Mellon Collection at the National Gallery, Washington, imitates the type of pose established by Raphael's portrait of Castiglione. Rembrandt purports here to paint himself as a "gentiluomo" (nobleman, gentleman), or "cortegiano" (courtier).



Rembrandt
Self-portrait
1640




Self-Portrait
1659
Oil on canvas, 84,5 x 66 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington



A third form of self-expression explored by Rembrandt is the use of ornamental devices, attributes and costumes to define status and present a calculated, or desirable, image of the self. Thus Rembrandt leaps from one role to another, constantly altering his social position. Sometimes, he appears as a beggar with outstretched hand, sitting on a rock (1630); there is perhaps good reason, too, for a number of his self-portraits to turn up surrounded by sketched scenes of beggars. At other times, we find him posing as a sophisticated gentleman with reinforced collar, chain of honour, precious stones or other attributes of rank; on one occasion, he paints himself as a prince with a scimitar (1634, etching. In the same year, interestingly enough, he portrays himself as a burgher wearing a beret). Yet another guise is that of the oriental sultan in a turban, executed in full-length; in this painting, the histrionic artificiality of the scene is underlined by the presence of an alternative costume in the shape of Roman helmets lying on a table behind him (1631, and c. 1631).
It would, of course, be possible to interpret the enormous variety of roles and poses in Rembrandt's self-portraiture psychologically, seeing them as examples of megalomaniacal wishful thinking, or as the sign of a frustrated social climber, or as a form of imaginative compensation for the suffering he experienced during various critical periods of his life. Some of this may well be true. Beyond mere wish-fulfilment, however, the majority of the approximately ninety self-portraits show Rembrandt mentally reflecting on social structures whose new permeability, flexibility and dynamism were the result of the bourgeois revolution in the Netherlands. Economic aspects played an important role here, too, although not in the superficial sense of a trademark representing the artist's business interest in marketing his own subjectivity, as Svetlana Alpers has suggested.153 Rembrandt's work elucidated the nature of macro-economic structures to the individual who sought an imaginative grasp of the new social reality.




Self-Portrait as Zeuxis
1669
Oil on canvas, 82,5 x 65 cm
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne





Self-Portrait in Velvet Cap and Plume
1638

In his final self-portrait, executed in 1669 (Cologne), Rembrandt appears stricken by age, stooping, in a state of melancholic mirth. This reverts to the subject of his early physiognomic studies; and yet here, for the first time, Rembrandt's imagined role appears consistent with his real mood. Appearances are deceptive here too, however; it would hardlv be permissible to assume the painting represented a proclamation of Rembrandt's true state of mind. For once again, Rembrandt presents us with a visual puzzle, disclosing no more than he conceals. Albert Blankert has found evidence to suggest that Rembrandt portrayed himself here as the Greek painter Zeuxis, after an anecdote related by Karel van Mander: "It is said that Zeuxis put an end to his own life by suffocating on his own excessive laughter one day while painting the likeness of a funny old wrinkled woman... It was this which the poet meant when he wrote: 'Are you laughing too much again? Or are you trying to emulate the painter who laughed himself to death?"
On the left of the self-portrait there is the blurred shape of a face, probably the likeness of an old woman. The patches of light on the shaft and pommel of the mahlstick denote a studio setting.
Considering the large number of portraits he executed of himself in different roles, very few show Rembrandt at work, or even suggest the nature of his profession. Apart from two self-portraits executed in 1636 and 1648, one of which shows him from the side, drawing (with Saskia in the background), while the other shows a frontal view of him alone, engaged in the same activity, but standing near a window in a dark room, only two paintings from his later period refer to his work as an artist (1660 and 1667/68). But here, too, the artist concentrates on rendering the face, while his painting utensils are only vaguely suggested. In one of the paintings, in which Rembrandt shows himself actually working at the canvas, his utensils are just visible in the darkness of the setting; in the other, where he seems poised between two bouts of work, his brush and palette have been rendered immaterial to the point of transparency by repeatedly scraping them with the brush and rubbing in left-over paint, while the face, marked by age, is trenchantly modelled in pastose layers of strong colour. The self-portrait in the Frick Collection, showing him sitting majestically on his throne, was probably conceived as a "portrait histone" (portrait showing the sitter in significant historic costume). Here, too, Rembrandt appears to have adopted a role: the ruler casually holding up a sceptre in his left hand, which is resting on the armrest of his throne. However, since the sceptre can hardly be distinguished from a mahlstick, the impression that we are looking at a self-portrait showing Rembrandt as a painter is probably justified.
Unlike Aert dc Gelder, who treated the Zeuxis subject (1685) as a full historical canvas, Rembrandt's self-portrait (at Cologne), by keeping direct allusion to the story itself to a minimum, places emphasis on the representation of the face. The un-reflected and disrespectful satirical treatment of deformity has vanished under Rembrandt's treatment; what remains is a vulnerable depiction of the ugliness age has brought to his own features. Rembrandt's laughter does not poke fun at anybody, not even at himself. Too exhausted even to defy his own frailty, it is an expression of the stoic equanimity with which he resigned himself to approaching death.


Self-Portrait in Oriental Costume, with a Dog
1631
Musee Petit Palais, Paris




Self-Portrait
1633




Self-Portrait
1634



Portrait of the Artist at His Easel
1660
Oil on canvas, 111 x 90 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris




Self-Portrait
1661






Self-Portrait
1661
Oil on canvas, 114 x 94 cm
English Heritage, Kenwood House, London

 
 
 
 

Music Lesson
1626
Oil on wood
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
 
 
 
 

Esther Preparing to Intercede with Ahasuerus
1633
 
 
 
 

Rape of Ganymede
1635
Oil on canvas, 171 x 130 cm
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden
 
 
 

 
 
 
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