Rembrandt's Self-Portrait and the Art of Reflection

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait and the Art of Reflection

"Ich lebe ganz mit Rembrandt" ("I live my days entirely with Rembrandt")
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1774

N o artist’s face is so instantly recognizable as Rembrandt’s. He recorded his own physiognomy in a great variety of moods and costumes in some eighty paintings, etchings and drawings, and charted its changes with remorseless self-examination, from an ambitious and self-confident youth of 22, to a careworn and prematurely aged old man of 63.

It is fitting that such a complex and demanding artist as Rembrandt should have left us with some eighty painted, etched and drawn images of himself, so that we are challenged to look at the artist as we seek to understand his artistic personality. This self-depiction of a confident and successful young artist recently established in Amsterdam is one of the last painted self-portraits by Rembrandt left in private hands, and may be the last that is likely to come to the open market. Bridging the gap between the character studies of the earlier self-portrait heads from his Leiden period, and the elaborate fancy-dress portraits of his subsequent Amsterdam self-portraits of the 1630s, it is a considered and sober self-depiction of the artist just beginning to enjoy the fruits of success as the leading portrait painter in Amsterdam, keen to be seen as the social equal of his affluent and formally dressed clients.

Although Rembrandt’s self-portraits appear to us today to form a consistent series recording almost the entire span of his career, there is no reason to suppose that they were intended as a series, or that there was a common motive in their creation. Rembrandt’s early painted, etched and drawn self-portraits from his Leiden period are often as much character studies and exercises in the depiction of moods and the fall of light as anything else, although they do already reveal an interest in self-examination and self-projection. Rembrandt must have become famous for his self-portraits early in his career, because by the time he had established his studio in Amsterdam – around the time that he painted this self-portrait – he was clearly producing them for sale to clients, certainly in response to demand. His output of self-portraits for sale expanded greatly in the succeeding years but fell off rapidly after the beginning of the 1640s. Visiting an artist’s studio was already a popular pastime among the art-loving classes, and in the 1630s not only did Rembrandt paint himself, his pupils also painted portraits of him, the latter no doubt as training exercises, but certainly intended for sale as well.

At this phase in his career, most of these self-portraits were sold as tronies: that is to say character studies in exotic costumes borrowed from what must have been a well-supplied dressing-up box. Some were not initially painted as such, but turned into tronies and made more exotic, sometimes by assistants, to make them more appealing to buyers. At this date Rembrandt probably also painted self-portraits to give potential clients an idea of how he would portray them if they commissioned a portrait from him.

This self portrait is one of only two in which the artist depicted himself dressed as a well-to-do young man. He is clad in black, with a white ruff and a felt hat, the crown encircled by with a hatband decorated with gold. So dressed, he does look very much like the sitters in his formal portraits from around this date, and especially small-scale panels such as the 1632 bust-length portraits of Maurits Huygens and Jacques de Gheyn III, painted to remind one friend of the other. Both portray the sitter hatless, and though larger than the present picture, are of modest scale, each circa 30 x 24.5 cm. The Jacques de Gheyn portrait in particular shares a number of characteristics with the present work. The sitter is set before a neutral green background, which is subtly lit so that the light is strongest around his head. The portrait of Maurits Huygens has a close relationship with the present picture in a different way: according to tree-ring analysis conducted by Peter Klein, both are on wooden panels made of Baltic oak cut from the same tree, and so presumably from the same consignment of oak panels to Rembrandt.

The present self-portrait is signed and dated wet-in-wet Rembrant · f t: · / 1632, and can thus be dated to a brief period at the end of the year. Other paintings dated 1632 and signed in this way include the famous Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp in the Mauritshuis, quite plausibly a work from late in 1632 since the dissection of cadavers was generally done in the winter months (for obvious reasons), and the Rembrandt and workshop pendant portraits of Jean Pellicorne and his son Casper and Susanna van Collen and her daughter Anna, in the Wallace Collection. Paintings from 1633 signed in this way include Daniel refuses to worship the Idol Baal/Bel in the J. Paul Getty Museum, and Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee missing from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. Although he probably maintained a workshop there for a while, Rembrandt was less often in Leiden after the death of his older brother Gerrit, followed by that of his mother in the autumn of 1631, so may have abandoned the monogram ‘RHL’ after his move to Amsterdam, or he may simply have felt that he should sign with the name by which he was by then widely known. The alternative spellings are not unusual for the time. He signed documents in the 1620s ‘Rembrant’, and this form of his name appears in one undated etching (B. 38) ‘Rembrant van Rijn’. The artist’s name appears as ‘Rembrant’ in documents from earlier in his life, such as in a census of the Leiden district of North Rapenburg of 18 October 1622, and on 15 June 1628 Joan Huydecoper noted that he had bought a tronie from ‘warmbrant’, later amending the spelling to ‘Rembrant’.

It is unclear why the present self-portrait is on a small scale. It is smaller than any of his formal commissioned portraits, so it would not have served as an obvious model to show a prospective patron (although Rembrandt’s Amsterdam contemporaries such as Hendrick Pot painted formal portraits on a similar scale). It was clearly very swiftly painted and has a sketch-like quality: the background with a reserve for the head was laid in first, but the paint of the background was still soft when Rembrandt added the signature and date wet-in-wet, presumably having just completed the work. Perhaps he had a suitable small panel with no other purpose planned for it, but such a lack of rationale would be uncharacteristic of Rembrandt at this date, especially in the medium of paint. It seems quite likely that he painted this self-portrait either in The Hague, when executing other commissions for clients there, or possibly in his Leiden workshop, by the early 1630s an easy commute from The Hague.

"[The] great topographer of the human face"
Robert Hughes, 2008

Shortly afterwards, in the spring of 1633, his soon-to-be betrothed, Saskia van Uylenburgh, returned to her native Leeuwaerden in faraway Friesland to visit her relatives. Thus, an intriguing possibility is that Rembrandt painted this small-scale, easily portable work for her to take with her, both as a keepsake and to show to her suspicious Mennonite relatives that her smartly-dressed intended was a prosperous and suitable husband and her social equal.10 In the same year, 1632, Rembrandt painted Saskia’s aunt Aeltje Uylenburgh and Aeltje’s husband Johan Cornelisz. Sylvius Van de Wetering answered his own question about the purpose of the present work by remarking that ‘there must have been a market for self-portraits of the well-known and highly promising young Rembrandt’. The numerous Rembrandt self-portraits dating from the mid-1630s certainly appear to have been painted for sale, perhaps as a souvenir of a visit, since to visit an artist’s studio was already a fashionable occupation in The Netherlands in the 1630s, as indeed it remains today, both by art-lovers (the expression liefhebber was already current) and by prospective sitters.

The London drawing is much more interesting, since it extends to full bust-length, and shows the artist with his torso turned away from us, his cloak wrapped over his right arm. When drawing on the etching plate with a burin, Rembrandt would have seen himself as orientated in the present painting, reversed in printing. In working up the resulting second state of the print in black chalk, he had to continue with the reversed orientation but when the result, in the form of the London workingup of the etching, is itself reversed, its connection with the present painting becomes obvious The British Museum drawn-over etching bears no relation to the finished states of the print but it does illuminate a two-way relationship with the present painting. In the depiction of his head, the early states of the etching up to 1631 are a key precedent for the way Rembrandt depicts himself in this painting: there are no painted self-portraits in which Rembrandt portrays himself in this way before 1632: set formally, not grimacing or striking a pose but with a tranquil expression, and in a fashionable à la mode felt hat, not a beret or fur hat from the dressing-up cupboard, and a white ruff, not a fur collar. If the signature and the age originally inscribed on the London drawn-over etching are correct, however, implying a date of execution of 1633, Rembrandt must have had the present painting of a year earlier in mind when he completed the etched head in black chalk: the ruff and black cloak complementing the fashionable hat, the ambitious Leiden youth transformed into the successful Amsterdam man-about-town.

Old Master Paintings
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