As the saying goes, “every painter paints himself.” And this couldn’t be truer than in the case of the Old Masters, when the closest thing to today’s version of a selfie was an artfully crafted oil-on-canvas composition. Rembrandt’s self-portraits made him one of the most prolific self-portraitists of the Dutch Golden Age.
With more than 70 self-portraits purportedly created by the artist during his lifetime (nearly 50 of which survive to the present day), these paintings and prints serve as a means to chart the course of one of the most prolific and popular painters of the seventeenth century. In this article we’ll sample seven of the most memorable. We’ll talk a bit about the technical expertise involved, while also situating these works along the trajectory of Rembrandt’s life and career.
Seven of Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits
Why Rembrandt? The Dutch master ranks among the most celebrated artists of his day, largely because he was also one of the most dynamic. A master of painting, drawing and printmaking, Rembrandt surpassed many of his contemporaries with his virtuosity and uncanny ability to work within a pan-European visual tradition in his subjects that spanned history paintings and Biblical narratives to refreshed portraits and landscapes. This masterful versatility comes into play in the portraits we’ll examine, so let’s prepare to flick through a “photo album” of Rembrandt over the years via his self-portraits.
Rembrandt Laughing, 1628, Getty Museum (Los Angeles)
One of the earliest self-portraits by the artist on record, this delightful oil-on-copper likeness, entitled Rembrandt Laughing, captures a sense of the Dutch artist’s youthful energy. Wearing the dress of a contemporary soldier, Rembrandt looks directly at the viewer while tilting his head back in carefree laughter to create a simple yet captivating likeness. This naturalism and sense of refreshing reality, which was growing in popularity in Northern European portraiture during this period, is indicative of Rembrandt’s willingness to embrace trends. The fresh brushwork combined with the delicate attention to detail showcases that, even in his 20s, Rembrandt was a master artist in the making.
Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed, 1630, Ashmolean Museum (Oxford)
With his eyes popping and his mouth firmly set, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed is his most emotionally evocative. This etching, which is as honest as it is dramatic, displays Rembrandt’s desire to explore the full range of human expression. Rembrandt most likely studied himself in a mirror’s reflection to capture his exaggerated countenance, in exploration of the range of human expression. This might have also been valuable research for future compositions, like his Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp (1632) or Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), in which each figure reacts in an array of emotions. Alternatively, this could have been prepared as a showcase for his students, who had begun joining his studio as early as 1627 to learn from the young yet accomplished artist. One cannot know Rembrandt’s exact inspirations, however, it becomes clear that even portraits as unique as this one can be read on many levels.
Self-Portrait with Saskia, 1636, National Galleries of Scotland (Edinburgh)
Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Saskia makes our list because it is a marvelous means to get a sense of the artist’s more tender (and humorous side). Perhaps created in tandem with the bawdier oil-on-canvas ‘Self-Portrait’ as the Prodigal Son, with Saskia (1635), this small-scale etching depicts Rembrandt in the foreground and his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, in the background. Their positions and expressions are characteristic of couples or marriage portraits of the era; what is unusual, though, is their dress, which exhibits the trends popular during the century before. From the frills of Saskia’s dress to the flounce of Rembrandt’s hat, both are sporting the fashions typical of the 16th century – some suggest this may nod to the notion that their love spans the ages. Note as well that Rembrandt doesn’t miss the opportunity to remind the viewer of his artistic prowess: his prominent left hand (really his right – recall that prints invert their imagery) rests with a drawing tool in its grasp.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Red Cloak, 1645, Staatliche Kunsthalle (Karlsruhe)
Rembrandt’s self-portraits of the 1630s frequently played with expression, costume and posture. The 1640s, however, witnessed a shift to a more conservative compositional format that would dominate Rembrandt’s self-portraits for the remainder of his career. This transition, demonstrated in Self-Portrait with Beret and Red Cloak, perhaps parallels the significant challenges that Rembrandt faced in his personal life at the time. Although 1642 would mark the creation of one of Rembrandt’s most acclaimed (and colossal) paintings, The Night Watch, it was also the year that Rembrandt’s beloved Saskia died from Tuberculosis. This devastating loss, combined with slowly mounting financial difficulties, is thought to have pushed the artist to temper his ebullience in these works. This self-portrait also marks a breaking point in Rembrandt’s career: until this point he had made self-portraits regularly, but it appears he did not make another self-portrait until seven years later (in 1652).
Self-Portrait, 1658, The Frick Collection (New York)
Perhaps the most impressive (and also the largest) portrait created by Rembrandt, his oil-on-canvas Self-Portrait reveals a regal version of the artist. He appears in three-quarters view wearing an elegant, regal outfit that echoes the magisterial garb typical of sixteenth-century Northern European painters. Presenting himself confidently, Rembrandt was nevertheless facing one of the darkest periods of his career at the time he executed this portrait. By the early 1650s, Rembrandt’s penchant for spending on art and antiquities collections – combined with his somewhat waning popularity on the art market at the time – resulted in his declaration of bankruptcy in 1656. This move forced the artist to sell many of the works in his collection and also to sell his home. While there is evidence to suggest that the artist would never fully recover from this financial upheaval, his Self-Portrait leaves no hint of these stressors.
Self-Portrait, 1663, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York)
Painted in his mid-50s, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait from 1663 unabashedly documents the artist’s ageing demeanor. He paints himself honestly: deep-set wrinkles on his forehead, creases at the corners of his mouth, graying locks and all. While his body may have ageing, though, the artist’s skill was not. A close assessment of the brushstrokes reveals that Rembrandt was still at the top of his game. The intensity of tenebrism, combined with delicate details and his haughty expression conveys a powerful figure of an artist still invigorated by the act of painting.
Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery (London)
Most scholars consider this to have been the last self-portrait created by Rembrandt (he would die in October of the same year). Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 bears strong parallels to the compositional format of his 1663 self-portrait. Once again, he assumed an off-center position as he gazed out at the viewer; the profile of his head accentuated with the utmost delicacy against the muted, yet distinct, background of the painting. What has changed, though, are Rembrandt’s features: the inquisitive, discerning expression he sported in 1663 has been significantly softened here, and the wrinkles that line his face have become ever more prevalent. There is no sign of his diminished confidence, though, or the slowing of his artistic production even with death on the horizon. A testament to this is the fact that he completed at least two additional self-portraits at approximately this same moment, the Self-Portrait at the Mauritshuis as well as the Uffizi’s Self-Portrait in Florence.
Reading Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits
Splendid for how they show Rembrandt’s exceptional handling of color, light, and texture, Rembrandt’s self-portraits also captivate for the visual documentation of the artist’s life. Rembrandt’s life was not without trauma or challenge, and yet his paintings, like these self-portraits, make one feel that his art motivated him to persevere. So, the next time you encounter a Rembrandt self-portrait, look closely and see what more you can learn about this remarkable artist.