Since times immemorial, art has been a way of reflecting and interpreting the reality surrounding people in their daily life. In order to comprehend the reality in all its variety, artists have striven to depict as many objects and phenomena as they could only find.
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One of the most intriguing subjects for reflecting upon via art is human being, and this fact is confirmed by the vast amount of works of art depicting people. In painting, portrait as a way of contemplation on the human nature has enjoyed enormous popularity for centuries on end.
Artists of various époques, styles, and nationalities have depicted people of all possible ages, social backgrounds, and occupations. Among portraits, the genre of self-portrait appears most attractive due to the specific quality of the artist’s self-reflection present in the paintings.
The present paper focuses on the works of one of the most famous portraitists in Baroque period, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), whose oeuvre cannot be imagined without a multitude of his self-portraits.
Against the background of the general popularity of portraits in the seventeenth century, the gallery of Rembrandt’s self-portraits stands out as an exciting encyclopedia of the evolution in the artist’s personality. This artistic transformation can be observed through tracing the changes in the elements of the techniques, the style, and the tone in Rembrandt’s paintings.
The art of portrait in Baroque
After the rejection of any individualism and the resulting oblivion of the portrait genre in the art of the Dark Ages, the era between the late Middle Ages and the seventeenth century celebrated the renascence of portraiture. The commonly known anthropocentrism that dominated the Renaissance art resulted in a dramatic increase in the artists’ interest to human personality, which in its turn found reflection in the genre of portrait.
Creatively responding to the growing popularity of portrait, artists elaborated on the genre; as a result, a whole range of sub-genres emerged, featuring “full-length portrait”, “three-quarter-length portrait”, and various kinds of “head-and-shoulder portrait”. Within those sub-genres, different poses and positions of the sitters were practised, with the most widespread being the “profile view”, the “three-quarters view”, the “half-length” and the frontal, or “full-face view” (Schneider 6).
In addition to developing variations within the genre of portrait, by the seventeenth century artists had sufficiently expanded the range of their subjects, depicting not only the aristocracy and the clergy, but also members of many other social groups. “Merchants, craftsmen, bankers, humanist scholars and artists” themselves sat for portraits and thus appeared in the public eye (Schneider 6).
The latter addition to the subject range appears especially revealing for our discussion, since it means that artists started to openly depict themselves and thus emphasize their own social significance.
The tendency to individualism and personal identification in painting reflects the general interest to personality in the art that continued the anthropocentric ideas of the Renaissance and developed throughout the Baroque époque. In the literature of the period, one can observe a definite interest to various kinds of autobiographic narrative, and more and more self-portraits appear among the paintings as a kind of autobiographic sketches made by the artists (Schneider 113).
It is noteworthy, however, that the notion of self-portrait as such did not exist at the time, and what we now call a ‘self-portrait’ would then be described as the artist’s “own picture & done by himself” (van de Vall 98).
Rembrandt’s vast heritage in self-portraits
Although the genre of self-portrait was popular and widely practised by most artists in the Baroque period, Rembrandt remains unsurpassed in terms of the quantity of autobiographic images: apart from multiple etches, over forty paintings of himself have survived up to the present time (van de Vall 98).
A popular cartoon depicts Rembrandt as “a rather plump, jowly artist, palette and brush in hand, turning from his easel and calling [to his girlfriend]: “Hendrickje, I feel another self-portrait coming on. Bring in the funny hats” (qtd. in Wheelock 13). However, there is probably much more behind the multitude of Rembrandt’s self-portraits than a mere wish to try on another fancy headwear.
The reasons for emergence of this many Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be searched for in two directions. On the one hand, the artist could have used his own body as a material for exploring the complexity of human nature on the whole. On the other hand, Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be viewed as an opportunity for self-investigation and revelation of the artistic inner self. In addition, there might emerge still another interpretation: since Rembrandt’s self-portraits were meant for the market and sold, they could serve as a way “to gain honour and immortality and thus fame, and to appeal to a public of buyers and connoisseurs” (de Winkel 135).
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Such commercial intent can also be interpreted more deeply, since through looking at the artist’s self-portrait the connoisseurs of his work could admire both the artist’s personality and his excellent technique (van de Vall 99). In each separate case, the intent behind Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be deduced individually, since in various periods of his life the artist produced astonishingly different samples of autobiographic paintings.
Conventionally, Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be grouped according to the three chronological periods: the early years in 1620s, the middle years spanning the next two decades, and the late years starting from the late 1640s. Each of those periods can be characterized by a certain purpose that inspired Rembrandt to paint his self-portraits, as well as features stylistic peculiarities indicative of deep internal motives underlying each painting.
The evolution of style and meaning in Rembrandt’s self-portraits
The early years
The époque of Baroque brought about an obvious progress in exploration of the emotional side of personality. While the masters of the Renaissance observed the ways to render the inner emotion through pose and gesture, the art of Baroque expanded the artistic techniques by adding facial expression to the wealth of expressive means. Thus the interpretation of feelings in painting could be dramatically intensified and varied.
In his early self-portraits, Rembrandt definitely explores the multiple effects of facial expressions. Face becomes the focal point of his compositions, performing the key function of feeling representation. “Alarm, worry, torment, fear” — those are but a few of emotions depicted in etchings and paintings of the 1920s (Schneider 113).
Experimenting with his own face in front of the mirror, Rembrandt worked out a whole list of facial features, the interplay of which could render a widest possible range of emotions: “a forehead, two eyes, above them two eyebrows, and two cheeks beneath; further, between nose and chin, a mouth with two lips and all that is contained within it” (qtd. in Bruyn, van Rijn, & van de Wetering 165).
A brilliant expert in facial anatomy, Rembrandt apparently taught his pupils to closely observe one’s own face: “thus must one transform oneself entirely into an actor (…) in front of the mirror, being both performer and beholder” (qtd. in Bruyn, van Rijn, & van de Wetering 165).
One of the most significant facial features possessing an extreme expressive power was viewed by the seventeenth-century artists — and Rembrandt himself — in the mouth and the musculature surrounding it (Bruyn, van Rijn, & van de Wetering 165). This being a difficult facial element to depict, Rembrandt spent years perfecting his skill in constructing various facial expressions with the help of different mouth positions.
Experimenting with the shades of colors and the play of light and shadow, Rembrandt seeks for the most successful rendition of most varied emotions. Self-portraits with open mouth let him place in the teeth as an additional expressive touch. A mouth open in a cry of astonishment, surprise, despair, joy, or without any obvious reason — all this diversity can be seen in Rembrandt’s early autobiographic sketches.
As a result of his multiple experiences with facial expressions, by 1630s Rembrandt had worked out an encyclopedia of human emotions that he could apply in his later works. Such, for example, is the famous laughing face which occurs not only in the early self-portraits, but also in those of the late years (Bruyn, van Rijn, & van de Wetering 165).
A remarkable feature of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits is that — however renown the artist is for his ingenious depiction of clothes — there is hardly any attire in his early sketches. The reason for this can be found in the fact that during the initial period of his artistic work, Rembrandt appears to work in the tradition of a so-called tronie.
By this word is meant a picture that focuses on a certain detail of face, without emphasizing the unique personality of the sitter (de Winkel 137). Therefore, familiar and recognizable stereotypes were depicted, such as a wrinkled old man, a soldier, or a pretty young girl.
Since the image stopped at the level of the sitter’s shoulders, not much of clothing could be fitted in the picture. Rembrandt’s depicting himself as a tronie can be seen as a way of de-individualizing the image in terms of clothes. However, this lack of outward information was compensated by a splendid rendition of facial expression.
The middle years
As Rembrandt gradually gained social recognition and enjoyed considerable success as a commercial artist, his self-portraits demonstrate a tendency to a multitude of experiments.
It appears quite laborious to investigate all the range of techniques he employed in his paintings of 1630s, since it is extremely wide. The reasons for this can be found in the fact that Rembrandt ran a series of workshops at the time, and due to time pressure he often had to resort to assistants’ help in finishing the paintings.
Such can be the case with some of the self-portraits as well: while Rembrandt outlined the composition in general, especially talented apprentices were allowed to work on details of body and clothes in order to speed up the process (Wheelock 19). While the result of such collective work demonstrates excellent painting technique, it is difficult to assert whether some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits are his own works or workshop productions.
Against the background of social success, Rembrandt gained the opportunity to experiment with a large number of altering roles and social positions in his self-portraits.
Making use of the general understanding of clothes as a way of creating the desired image of self, Rembrandt juggled an endless number of costumes and attributes creating a new character in every painting. The question of which image reflects ‘the real’ Rembrandt of the time still remains unsolved: was it a prosperous burgher, a learned gentleman, or an insightful artist that he really was?
In terms of costume in Rembrandt’s self-portraits, one can single out three main tendencies: self-portraits in contemporary clothing, in antiquated costume, and in working dress.
It is quite rare that Rembrandt depicts himself in a formal pose and a fashionable dress. The reason for such preferences in attire can be viewed in the fact that Rembrandt wanted to show his difference from the average customers that ordered their portraits from him. Unlike other artists who depicted themselves in the same sumptuous robes as their customers, Rembrandt positions himself independently from the general crowd.
Taking into consideration that the artist was wealthy enough at the time to allow rich garments, such reluctance to mix with the general style can be viewed from the perspective of social inappropriateness of exuberant clothing for lower estate. Despite the exception provided to talented painters for breaking social stratification, Rembrandt apparently prefers to preserve the distinction of his class (de Winkel 147).
Perhaps one of the details that immediately springs to one’s mind when thinking about Rembrandt’s self-portraits is the beret. Indeed, in the self-portraits of the middle period, the painter used this kind of headwear most frequently. The more surprising is the fact that in the seventeenth century beret was an outdated type of clothing, either worn by servants or used as a part of official scholar costumes (de Winkel 164).
It can be therefore suggested that by widely using the outdated beret in his self-portraits, Rembrandt demonstrated a connection with the famous engravers of the previous century, Lucas and Dürer, highly appraised by him (de Winkel 188). Thus Rembrandt’s historicism and reverence for the art of the past can be deciphered through one small detail of costume.
Depicting himself in a working dress, Rembrandt demonstrates yet another peculiar way of distinguishing himself from the generally accepted standards.
As of the seventeenth century, there existed no specific occupational dress for the artists of the time, and yet Rembrandt appears in a working dress now and again in his self-portraits (de Winkel 151). Not only can working clothing be noticed on the paintings of the middle years, but it is also the dominant attire in Rembrandt’s late self-portraits.
Taking into account the peculiarities of Rembrandt’s late style (to be discussed below), this deviation from the rules and appearance in everyday clothes can be interpreted as the artist’s statement of individual freedom and non-conformance to the generally accepted standards.
The late years
As compared to the flamboyant images of the middle years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits of the late period demonstrate a dramatic change in tone and style. An “increased sense of gravity and serenity” dominate the portraits of the impoverished artist who enters “a brutally honest phase in his life” (Stein & Rosen 116).
Critics remark on the especial “fuzziness” and “lack of sharpness” in the images (van de Vall 93). Although this quality can be ascribed to the artist’s worsening eye-sight, there can be yet another explanation. By alternating the areas of sharpness and blurredness in his self-portraits, Rembrandt creates a lifelike effect of really looking at a person.
This effect corresponds to what happens in normal communication, when people tend to alternate direct look and side glances at the interlocutor. Therefore, the “moments of blindness or unfocused seeing are just as essential as moments of sharp sight” for perceiving the image (van de Vall 105).
Another peculiar quality that strikes the viewer in the late Rembrandt’s self-portraits is the authenticity with which the painter renders the eyes in his face. Having gathered the experience of his whole life, Rembrandt reveals himself as “a virtuoso of vision, both with regard to what he saw and also with regard to the way in which he represented seeing” (Durham 14).
“Believable eyes, living eyes, seeing eyes, even eyes looking at something we cannot see” are impeccably rendered by Rembrandt with a highest professionalism ever reached in the history of painting (Durham 14).
His look pierces the viewer of his late self-portraits, as if extending the frame of the picture and letting the image step out of it. Through this mastery of the eyes, Rembrandt renders the message of an extremely deepened spirituality he achieved in the last period of his paintings.
During the Baroque period, the genre of self-portrait enjoyed its golden age in the studio of Rembrandt van Rijn. Through his many autobiographic works, one can trace Rembrandt’s astonishing evolution from an artist experimenting with the expressive potential of mimics, through an artist playing with his social positions, to an artist deeply submerged in the spirituality of painting.
Thus, self-portrait for Rembrandt becomes a way to reflect not only the outward changes but also the crucial inner transformations in the artist’s world.
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Stein, Murray, & Rosen, David H. Transformation: Emergence of the Self. Texas A&M University Press, 2005. Print.
van de Vall, Renée. “Touching the Face: The Ethics of Visuality between Levinas and a Rembrandt Self-Portrait.” Compelling Visuality: The Work of Art in and out of History. Eds. Claire J. Farago and Robert Zwijnenberg. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 93–111. Print.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. “Rembrandt Self-Portraits: The Creation of a Myth.” Rembrandt, Rubens, and the Art of Their Time: Recent Perspectives. Eds. Roland E. Fleischer and Susan C. Scott. University Park, Center County, PA: The Pennsylvania State University, 1997. 12–35. Print.
de Winkel, Marieke. Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. Print.
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