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Rembrandt Through His Own Eyes

Today marks the would-be 404th birthday of prolific Dutch painter/etcher Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, who was born in Leiden in 1606, and passed away in Amsterdam on October 4, 1669.

Cynthia Freeland is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston. Her most recent book is Portraits and Persons, and in the excerpt below, she considers Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, and speculates as to why he was so attracted to this art form.

Rembrandt was a particularly prolific self-portrait artist. Susan Fegley Osmond informs us that,

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.

There are numerous speculations about Rembrandt’s preoccupation with self-portraiture. “From youth to old age, Rembrandt scrutinized himself before the mirror, painting, etching, and drawing his changing physique and physiognomy as well as the varying psychological states that reflected the fluctuating fortunes of his life.”

A first concern that seems evident in these works, as with the previous artists I discussed, is Rembrandt’s social status and his identity as a gentleman. This concern shows up in his elegant garb, cloaks, hats, armor, and even in the poses in some of the images. Along with this is a concern with his artistic status and success.

Another conjectures about at least some of the images is that they are studies for paintings. Rembrandt used himself because he was a cheap, readily available model when he was planning certain sorts of composite history paintings or biblical portraits. This might account for the self-portraits showing extreme facial expressions, ones for instance where he is laughing or fearful. But these may also have been examples of a  genre called “tronies” which were popular at the time and had a good market.

At a deeper level, we can sense that Rembrandt is seeking to formulate and reveal a conception of his own psychological identity, the unique person that he was. This fits with the view expressed by Arthur Wheelock Jr., who notes:

[Rembrandt] was a singularly complex individual, who from an early age seems to have fostered the image that he was different from other men, and that neither his talent nore his success depended upon others or upon the good fortune that came his way.

Wheelock later comments,

Rembrandt’s earliest self-portraits are of particular interest because they demonstrate that the myth of Rembrandt as isolated genius did not first emerge in the Romantic era…but was fostered and developed by the artist himself.

Along these lines, art historians compare Rembrandt to more recent artists who have used the self-portrait as a form of experimenting with self-formation by trying on various identities (Rembrandt as the Andy Warhol of the seventeenth century!).

Like Cézanne more than two centuries later, Rembrandt employed the self-portrait as part of an effort to fashion the self, a self that took on multiple forms as the Dutch master progressed from youth to old age.

Apparently, the identity of the artist-patriot seemed most agreeable to the youthful Rembrandt. As he matured, however, armor, patriotism and all of the glamorous associations of war would lose their general appeal, and other identities would more powerfully attract his unsettled self.

Beginning in 1629, Rembrandt embarked on a new trajectory and began to fashion different identities in independent self-portraits. It was as if he was searching for a fit–a persona that would best alight with his propensities at the time.

His appeal is perhaps to be found in his ability to paint “between the lines” to give the viewer the tools to see through the every self-images he constructs. Thus when he poses one sees the artifice, and when he reveals one is smitten with the sincerity of the disclosure…

A fourth and final hypothesis that may apply to some if not all of the self-portraits is that they represent a psychological journey in which Rembrandt shows increasing concern about mortality and aging. Thus his latest portraits appeal in particular, and make a striking contrast with the rather boastful earlier images, because of their apparent honest, even almost brutal, self-scrutiny. Platzman concurs:

Most noteworthy for the history of the genre was Rembrandt’s journey from thee narcissistic self-absorption of his youthful portrayals to the vulnerable self-admission of his late confrontations with his person. In fact, Rembrandt’s ability to communicate across the centuries is undoubtedly due to the perceived honesty of his self-examination.

To sum up, there are four possibly competing, possibly compatible explanations or analyses of the prolific self-portraiture Rembrandt engaged in throughout his life. First, he was advancing a view of himself as a successful gentleman, at the same time as he was acquiring commissions, forming a successful studio, setting up a vast household in Amsterdam, etc. Second, he was both working on, and at the same time more or less arguing for, his status as a successful artist. Third, he was trying on different versions of himself to see which would fit best. And fourth, he was exploring his countenance as a way of facing and coming to terms with his own aging and mortality, impelled no doubt by the losses he had faced of both wives and of his beloved young son Titus.

The Rembrandt oeuvre might seem to fit fairly well with the narrative theory of the self, since on several of these hypotheses we could say that his self-portraits, taken as a body, constitute a sort of self-narrative. Thus it is not surprising to find that a position saying something just along these lines has been articulated. Osmond puts it this way:

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.

Osmond is making the proposal that a series of self-portraits done over a lifetime amounts to an autobiography. Of course, this is qualified since the phrase referring to Rembrandt’s “an autobiography in art” is compared to St. Augustine’s autobiography in literature. But just what is the difference? Is there one? Surely if Rembrandt had left us with an actual autobiography it would not be likely either to be preferred to or regarded as somehow more authentic or revealing than his sequential self-portraits. In fact the self-narration view does not actually equate the sort of narrative that constitutes a self with an autobiography. I would put the difference by saying that the one (narrative self-constitution) is done prospectively as an ongoing process and the other retrospectively. The self that is constituted by living out a narrative must reflect and assess on a pre-existing whole in order to produce an autobiography.

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