Rembrandt Self Portrait
While most artists produce a handful of self portraits if any during their lifetime, Rembrandt depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and several drawings. Many scholars agree that a Rembrandt self portrait reflects his journey of self discovery.
Early Self Portraits
His early self portrait etchings emphasized real fascinating facial expressions which were always cast in shadows. His study with chiaroscuro (light and dark) became a defining trademark for this artist. The mysterious nature of his paintings caught the attention of the art world at large as his reputation as an eccentric genius spread among collectors.
The Amsterdam Years
During his time in Amsterdam during the 1630’s he began to paint himself with more light. He portrayed himself in many different ways; elegantly dressed and honoured with gold chains, as a fashionable middle class burgher donning a wide-brimmed hat and an expensive cloak and again as a beggar.
During his marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh he portrayed the two of them in different scenarios. A 1636 etching depicts himself as an artist whose loving wife looks on at him while he creates. In another he is the prodigal son and Saskia is a temptress.
During the 1640’s he stayed away from self portraiture. One by one each of his three infant children would die within the first few months of life. His fourth child would to everyone’s surprise survive an infancy the others could not. The birth and survival of his son Titus was one of the biggest joys of his lifetime.
Just when life seemed to be getting better his wife would also be taken from him. One short year after the joyous birth of their son, Saskia died and so did his desire to paint the reflection he saw staring back at him in the mirror.
Return to Self Portraiture
He returned to self portraiture in the later 1640s and 1650s with a different style. These were mainly etchings that portrayed more sensitive inward looking images.
A Rembrandt self portrait painted in 1652 in which he wears his definitive beret depicts a more serious Rembrandt. In this painting he is facing front with hands on his hips wearing a plain brown robe. This was created during a time when his popularity was fading. He was experimenting with a more elegant Flemish style of painting that was not very popular.
The Later Years
He was suffering financially during this time and had to declare bankruptcy. A few self portraits were sold just to keep his head above water. One in particular in 1659 is dark and sombre as the only illuminated feature is his face. His expressionless face seems to indicate how empty he was feeling during this time.
In the last year of his life he painted the last of his self portraits. One shows himself standing in his studio with his palette and brushes in hand.
He will always be known for being the master of the self portrait. His legacy is an experience of self discovery through art that artists and art lovers worldwide have had the privilege to enjoy.