Rembrandt in America: Self Portraits

Self Portraits

From very early in his life, Rembrandt used himself as a model to paint self-portraits.

Self Portrait 1629

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
Well, it's a free model. That's a help. He also could scrutinize himself, unflinchingly, for long periods of time. He wasn't under any kind of time constraint. Why he did so many self-portraits is really one of those questions which, you know, has resulted in separate studies, of course. I think analysis of self is a tremendously interesting challenge. It's not something that people necessarily do easily. I think Rembrandt was, in fact, very courageous in what he did with his self-portraits.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
The question of why Rembrandt created so many self-portraits is probably one that you could ask a lot of artists. He did more than most but he-artists, I think, are constantly examining themselves in one way or another. It might manifest itself in a totally different subject matter, but you can't always separate the artist from the artist's work. And for Rembrandt and his self-portraits, this sense of examination was always there.

Self Portrait 1634

And Rembrandt documented himself in prints, in etchings in particular, in drawings and in paintings more than any other artist that one can really talk about in terms of old master painting. And the results are just amazing. So we see him as a young, brash youth; we see him as an old, weathered-not beaten or defeated man, but still a proud man who has to show that, you know, he's suffered and had a long life that had certainly its ups and downs.

1639 Etching

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
The self-portraits began, interestingly enough, as what I call character studies. I think that you find this in the small drawings and the etchings-the early etchings in particular-where he tries to capture a certain kind of expression. And you know, this is very important for artists, particularly an artist who would aspire to greatness, whether it be Titian or Rubens or Rembrandt. And because they were interested in what we call history subjects- representations from the Bible, representations from ancient history or earlier history, and therefore the power of gesture and the ability to express certain emotions was your measure of success or failure. So if you were representing somebody who, in a battlefield, was suffering agonizing wounds, or Christ suffering during the passion, if you couldn't convey the intensity of that emotion, you were a failure as an artist.

Rembrandt Etching

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
I think you can see a remarkable progression in his self-portraits, the way he projects himself to his public. And it's interesting because one of the things that we should never lose sight of is that these self-portraits were intended for a public. Now, we could argue that that public was as simple as Rembrandt and his immediate family, but in many instances, you know it was for a much wider audience.

But as you get into these later self-portraits, they become much more intimate, much more candid, in a way, you know, much more intense, even though they're very discreet. He's remarkably objective about himself, you know, because he wasn'’t a terribly good-looking man and he clearly didn't age terribly well, quite frankly. But he doesn't shirk that. He goes for it-plunges right in, represents himself with sagging jowls and all, and just gets on with it.

Larry Wheeler, Director, North Carolina Museum of Art:
You see him as a senior artist, a senior human being, and his sense of himself at that point. You see the lines, you see the pain and suffering at the end of his life, you see the mournfulness, the sort of loss of youth, and you see all those things reflected in his face and in his eyes. And that's the miracle of Rembrandt, too; he never painted -he painted what he saw. He painted the soul of the human being, as he saw it. And what soul would he know better than his own?

Self Portrait 1659

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
The self-portrait of 1659 is one of the very, very developed ones and it's one where I think that he's still representing himself with great pride as an artist and as a person. I mean, he's wearing that rather flashy beret. The way the head is placed in space, the way it's turned relative to the body, the torso; the way the artist modulates the background light. There is such an amazing intensity in that portrait, but it's the fact that you cannot escape the significance of this visage as it's just held before your eyes with a kind of searing intensity. And the interesting thing is that he's also looking out at the viewer with a rather strong sense of assurance there. So it's not just a passive thing at all.

Tom Rassieur, John E. Andrus III Curator of Prints and Drawings, Minneapolis Institute of Arts:
Later on, one of his students said that Rembrandt said that we should look in the mirror and become actor and audience simultaneously, and this is what we see Rembrandt doing in some of his early pictures. He's looking in the mirror and pulling faces, making expressions that would be found in history pictures by the various figures who were involved in a given scene.

Self Portrait Etchings

So, Rembrandt might look in the mirror and make an expression that looks like it's astonishment, or concern, or laughter, whatever, faces that have some emotional content, and he would paint himself bearing these expressions. It's interesting that later in his career, in one of the very few letters that Rembrandt wrote, and even the fewer in which he expresses any opinion about art, Rembrandt says that in his paintings, he tried to create the greatest beweechgelickhijt, the Dutch word that means both motion and emotion. And we see, even in Rembrandt's early paintings, the desire to express emotion vividly and so he practices this in the mirror in order to be able to depict it, but also to feel it.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
So in many of his late portraits, there's a certain sense of timelessness and deep-felt emotions that he was able to bring to his own features or features of his sitters that, really, I think, also separate him from what any other artist at the time was doing. And many of these were done in this very coarse; one would almost say expressionistic style, but he kind of amps up the contrast of light and dark and the suggestion of kind of tendon and bone under the skin. And again, you really focus in on the features, look into the eyes, into a world that, again, in some cases show hardship and suffering, some cases a stronger spirituality, but all of these things are part of kind of Rembrandt's DNA at the end of his life that are just spectacular.