Rembrandt van Rijn:
Selected Self-Portraits

No artist has left a loftier or more penetrating personal testament than Rembrandt van Rijn. In more than 90 portraits of himself that date from the outset of his career in the 1620s to the year of his death in 1669, he created an autobiography in art that is the equal of the finest ever produced in literature even of the intimately analytical Confessions of St. Augustine.

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Rembrandt's Self Portraits

It wasn't until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scholars studied Rembrandt's oeuvre as a whole, that it was discovered how very many times the artist had portrayed himself. The number is still a matter of contention, but it seems he depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty extant paintings, about thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. It is an output unique in history; most artists produce only a handful of self-portraits, if that. And why Rembrandt did this is one of the great mysteries of art history.

Most scholars up till about twenty years ago interpreted Rembrandt's remarkable series of self-portraits as a sort of visual diary, a forty-year exercise in self-examination. In a 1961 book, art historian Manuel Gasser wrote, "Over the years, Rembrandt's self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted."

Many of these traditional studies focused particularly on Rembrandt's late self-portraits, as they reveal this rigorous self-reflection most profoundly. In an influential 1948 monograph on the artist, Jacob Rosenberg wrote of the ceaseless and unsparing observation which [Rembrandt's self-portraits] reflect, showing a gradual change from outward description and characterisation to the most penetrating self-analysis and self-contemplation. ... Rembrandt seems to have felt that he had to know himself if he wished to penetrate the problem of man's inner life.

More recent scholarship has shed additional light on Rembrandt's early self-portrayals. Quite a few, it is argued, were tronies--head-and-shoulder studies in which the model plays a role or expresses a particular emotion. In the seventeenth century there was an avid market for such studies, which were considered a separate genre (although for an artist they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings). Thus, for example, we have four tiny etchings from 1630 that show Rembrandt, in turn, caught in fearful surprise, glowering with anger, smiling gamefully, and appearing to snarl--each expressed in lines that themselves embody the distinct emotions. Rembrandt may have used his own face because the model was cheap, but perhaps he was killing two birds with one stone. The art-buying public--which now included people from many walks of life, not only aristocratic or clerical patrons, as in the past--went for etchings of famous people, including artists. By using himself as the model for these and other studies, Rembrandt was making himself into a recognizable celebrity at the same time that he gave the public strikingly original and expressive tronies. The wide dissemination of these and other prints was important in establishing Rembrandt's reputation as an artist.

Meeting Market Demand?

... art historian Ernst van de Wetering sets forth a view that has gained a number of adherents over the past few decades. The "self-portraits" (there was no such term in the seventeenth century) could not have been made for the purpose of self-analysis, he claims, because the idea of self as "an independent I who lives and creates solely from within" is one that arose only in the Romantic era, after 1800. In the literature of Rembrandt's day, he contends, personality was seen primarily as being bound to certain immutable types discussed in classical sources. He cites Hans-Joachim Raupp, an early exponent of this demythologizing view: When an artist of Rembrandt's day painted a self-portrait, he "did not step into the mirror with questions and doubts, but with a carefully planned programme."

Van de Wetering takes pages to build up his argument, but basically he sees that Rembrandt's "programme" in these self-portraits was to make paintings for which there was a ready market. (He points out that a detailed inventory of Rembrandt's possessions made in 1656, when he faced bankruptcy, included no portrayals of the artist by himself.) In self-portraits, artists in Rembrandt's day and previous eras sometimes included a painting in the genre for which they were best known, as an example of their style. In the case of Rembrandt, he was most noted for his eccentricity of technique and for his tronies and depictions of one or a few figures. So, in making his self-portraits, which van de Wetering contends were probably all seen as tronies in their day, Rembrandt was making the kind of images art buyers expected of him, which had the added attraction of being depictions of their maker and exemplars of his unusual technique.

Rembrandt's Self-Portraits
By Susan Fegley Osmond

January,  2000

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