Thursday, June 13, 2013


Rembrandt Self-Portrait with Velvet Beret, 1634
Current Loc Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Very few artists of the modern period have left as many self-portraits as Rembrandt van Rijn. 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 these 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 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. 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 Self-Portrait, 1659
Current Loc National Gallery of Art
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Detail of Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1659

Rembrandt's Self Portrait with Turned Up Collar (1659) is one of almost fifty surviving self depictions, Rembrandt is the true father of the introspective self portrait. These are invaluable, not only for their realism and self commentary, but also as evidence of Rembrandt's experimentation with various techniques and media. Rembrandt was in effect announcing himself to the world. It was this confidence that earned him patrons that were to make him the most famous painter in Europe for a number of decades. In the latter part of his career, Rembrandt's fascination with evolving the art of painting did not gel with changing fashions, as the increasingly affluent Dutch demanded Art that was fanciful and decorative. The gritty thoughtfulness of Rembrandt had become irrelevant and the Dutch master spent his twilight years in financial distress. (Rembrandt and the evolution of artist as subject, by Hasan Niyazi at
While most artists produce a handful of self portraits if any during their lifetime, Rembrandt depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and several drawings. Many scholars agree that a Rembrandt self portrait reflects his journey of self discovery. During his time in Amsterdam during the 1630's he began to paint himself with more light. He portrayed himself in many different ways; elegantly dressed and honoured with gold chains, as a fashionable middle class burgher donning a wide-brimmed hat and an expensive cloak and again as a beggar. During his marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh he portrayed the two of them in different scenarios. A 1636 etching depicts himself as an artist whose loving wife looks on at him while he creates. In another he is the prodigal son and Saskia is a temptress. In a 1640 Rembrandt self portrait, he portrays himself as the accomplished man of means who can stand alongside great creators of the past. He was at the pinnacle of success during this, not only creating great works of art but also collecting creations of other great artists of his day. During the 1640's he stayed away from self portraiture. One by one each of his three infant children would die within the first few months of life. His fourth child would to everyone's surprise survive an infancy the others could not. The birth and survival of his son Titus was one of the biggest joys of his lifetime. Just when life seemed to be getting better his wife would also be taken from him. One short year after the joyous birth of their son, Saskia died and so did his desire to paint the reflection he saw staring back at him in the mirror. He returned to self portraiture in the later 1640s and 1650s with a different style. These were mainly etchings that portrayed more sensitive inward looking images. A Rembrandt self portrait painted in 1652 in which he wears his definitive beret depicts a more serious Rembrandt. In this painting he is facing front with hands on his hips wearing a plain brown robe. This was created during a time when his popularity was fading. He was experimenting with a more elegant Flemish style of painting that was not very popular. He was suffering financially during this time and had to declare bankruptcy. A few self portraits were sold just to keep his head above water. One in particular in 1659 is dark and sombre as the only illuminated feature is his face. His expressionless face seems to indicate how empty he was feeling during this time.

Rembrandt van Rijn Self Portrait (Altman)
Self-Portrait (with Black Beret), 1660
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Self Portrait (Altman), 1660 was painted when the artist was 54, it has been noted as a work in which may be seen "the wrinkled brow and the worried expression the troubled condition of his mind". Part of the Benjamin Altman Collection, it has been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 1913. This was a year of anxiety for him. He had just been declared bankrupt. He saw his collection of art treasures disposed of at auction and himself deserted by his pupils and his friends, with no studio of his own in which to set up his easel. In this portrait we have a work of mature years, when he brought all the skill and resources of a lifetime to its creation. The lift of the eyebrows that wrinkle his forehead is that of whimsical impatience, yet the spark in his eyes denies defeat. The mouth is drawn and the mark of undeserved neglect is evident in the premature wrinkles, but a certain merry pride lurks in the tilted cap and raised head. A pang of pity shoots through us, only to be replaced by one of keen satisfaction that he, the neglected, is remembered and they, the aristocrats, are forgotten. Though this great artist lived several years longer, they were years of misery, and he painted only one more great work, "The Syndics of the Cloth Hall," now in the Ryks Museum in Amsterdam. His great reputation suffered an almost total eclipse, although to-day he is probably the most popular painter that ever lived. Yet he never lost his courage, and as we see him in this portrait he carries his head bravely and wears his hat jauntily, as if in defiance of the evils that engulfed him. Heretofore we may have felt acquainted with Rembrandt the painter, but now we know Rembrandt the man; for just so he must have looked to his neighbors in the troublous year 1660. Technically this portrait shows Rembrandt at his best. The hat, a rich black, and the background, a warm green, are smoothly painted. The shadows in the face are thin, warm, and transparent, while the lighter parts, as on the cheek, are laid on with a well-loaded brush, suggesting the texture of the flesh and made to glow with color. Over a red waistcoat Rembrandt wears a heavy, brownish coat.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Rembrandt Self-Portrait-1661

Detail from Rembrandt Self-Portrait, 1661 

Rembrandt Self-Portrait, Circa 1662
Current Loc Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

In the last year of his life he painted the last of his self portraits. One shows himself standing in his studio with his palette and brushes in hand. He will always be known for being the master of the self portrait. His legacy is an experience of self discovery through art that artists and art lovers worldwide have had the privilege to enjoy.

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