After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.
Rembrandt painted, drew, and etched so many self-portraits in his lifetime that changes in his appearance invite us to gauge his moods by comparing one image to another. Such a biographical reading is encouraged by the way in which the artist confronts the viewer directly. Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1659, after he had suffered financial failure despite so many years of success. His spacious house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat and other possessions had been auctioned the previous year to satisfy his creditors. In this late work, the deep-set eyes that bore into those of the viewer seem to express inner strength and dignity. Interpreting paintings on the basis of an artist’s biography is nevertheless dangerous, particularly with an artist whose life has been romanticized to the extent that Rembrandt’s has.
The light that so effectively illuminates the head also accents Rembrandt’s left shoulder and, to a lesser extent, his broadly executed clasped hands. Rembrandt’s pose was inspired by Raphael’s famous portrait of Balthasar Castiglione, which had appeared in an auction in Amsterdam in 1639. Following Raphael’s prototype, Rembrandt used the pose, costume, and expression to present himself as a learned painter.
The face is familiar, as is the penetrating gaze with which the sitter stares directly out at the viewer. No question, it is Rembrandt, late in his life, at a time when he has suffered through the cruel indignities of failure after so many years of success. Indeed, this portrait, painted in 1659, dates to the year after Rembrandt’s possessions and his house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat had been auctioned as a result of his insolvency. It may well have been one of the first works he painted in the small house on the Rozengracht, in the painters’ quarter of Amsterdam, where he had moved when his fortunes and his prospects were at low ebb. In the following year Rembrandt set up a business agreement with his son Titus and Hendrickje Stoffels, the artist’s companion in the last decades of his life, that prevented him from being sued by any of his dissatisfied creditors for recovery of debts.
Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), 462–465, doc. 1660/20.
Rightly or wrongly it seems almost impossible to ponder this work without interpreting it in light of what is known about Rembrandt’s life. This inclination is felt in part because of the extensive biographical information that has come down to us, through which we we are able to feel a closer contact with the man and his life than we do with most artists of this period. It also seems possible to interpret Rembrandt’s mood in such paintings because he painted, drew, and etched so many self-portraits that changes in his appearance can be measured and analyzed by comparing one to another. Even more significantly, however, we read these images biographically because Rembrandt forces us to do so. He looks out at us and confronts us directly. His deep-set eyes peer intently. They appear steady, yet heavy and not without sadness. As Hofstede de Groot remarked in reference to this painting when it was shown in the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in Amsterdam, “It would be difficult to find in any of his paintings a pair of eyes that peer at us more sharply or penetratingly.”
Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, Rembrandt. Collection des oeuvres des maîtres réunies, à l'occasion de l'inauguration de S. M. la Reine Wilhelmine (Amsterdam, 1898), 13. “Het zou moeilijk wezen in al zijn schilderijen een paar oogen aan te wijzen, die ons scherper en doordringender aanzien.”
Émile Michel, “L’Exposition Rembrandt à Amsterdam,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 20 (December 1898): 478–480. “Sous l’influence d’une vie trop casanière, une graisse malsaine envahit les chairs flasques et boursouflées; des rides nombreuses et profondes sont creusées sur son large front.... Avec leur paupières épaissies, les yeux, devenus plus petits, ont conservé leur étincelle et sous les sourcils en broussaille, le regard interrogateur et pénétrant du peintre persiste, obstiné, ardent comme le charbon sous la cendre. Sans l’abattre, les soucis et les malheurs n’ont fait qu’épurer en lui la passion de son art qui le soutient et cet amour de la nature qui lui permet de découvrir des trésors de beauté et de poésie là où les autres passent indifférents.”
While the observations of Hofstede de Groot and Michel seem entirely appropriate to the image, too often this painting has been subjected to overly romantic interpretations, in which authors have tried to read into this somber image Rembrandt’s own reflections upon the profound tragedy of his life.
Perhaps the most insupportable claims about this painting were suggested by John Walker (John Walker, National Gallery of Art, Washington [New York, 1976], 270), who wrote, in part: “[Rembrandt] saw a mouth and a chin weak, infirm of purpose, manifesting that flaw in his character which had ruined his life. His hands are grasped as though in anguish at the spectacle of a self-ruined man. There exists no painting more pitiless in its analysis or more pitiful in its implications.”
For the nature of these myths see Seymour Slive, Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630–1730 (The Hague, 1953) and Jan Ameling Emmens, Rembrandt en de Regels van de Kunst (Utrecht, 1968).
An added benefit from the restoration was the removal of
Although Rembrandt’s pose seems so appropriate to the forcefulness of his gaze, quite surprisingly, it was inspired by Raphanel’s portrait of Balthasar Castiglione
The painting was acquired by Alphonso Lopez, a Portuguese Jew who lived in Amsterdam from 1636 to 1640. See Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van der Meulen, The Rembrandt Documents (New York, 1979), 177, doc. 1639/8. Lopez had a large collection that included Titian’s Ariosto and Flora (see Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and George Keyes, Rembrandt’s Lucretia [Washington, 1991]). He was also known to Rembrandt since he bought directly from the artist his early Balaam and the Ass (Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings, vol. 1, 1625–1631, ed. Josua Bruyn et al. [The Hague, Boston, and London, 1982], A2).
See Ben. 451, from the Albertina, Vienna.
See inventory no. 1944, from the National Gallery, London. For the etching, see: Adam Bartsch, Catalogue raisonné de toutes les estampes qui forment l’oeuvre de Rembrandt…, 2 vols. (Vienna, 1797), 1: no. 21.
See inventory no. 672, from the National Gallery, London.
For a discussion of the relationship of Rembrandt’s self-portraits from 1639 and 1640 to Raphael and Titian, see Eddy de Jongh, “The Spur of Wit: Rembrandt’s Response to an Italian Challenge,” Delta: A Review of Arts, Life and Thought in the Netherlands 12 (1969): 49–67; and H. Perry Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity (Princeton, 1990), 72–78.
In Rembrandt’s 1659 Self-Portrait, all compositional references to Titian’s portrait have disappeared, particularly the stone parapet upon which the artist rests his arm in the 1639 etching and the 1640 painting.
J.L.A.A.M. van Rijckevorsel, Rembrandt en de Traditie (Rotterdam, 1932), 150, however, did suggest the additional influence of Titian’s Portrait of “Ariosto” (National Gallery, London, inventory no. 1944) on Rembrandt’s 1659 Self-Portrait. The illusionistic format of self-portraiture was put in the context of the northern portrait tradition by Stephanie Dickey during a Rembrandt symposium held at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in January 1992.
Most fundamentally, however, Rembrandt returned to Raphael’s prototype because he found in it a vehicle for expressing his perception of himself as a learned painter, a theme that in one way or another underlies a number of his late self-portraits, particularly his magnificent paintings in the Frick Collection, c. 1658,
See inventory no. 06.1.97, from the Frick Collection, New York.
See inventory no. 57, from the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood.
For a discussion of various interpretations of these paintings see H. Perry Chapman, Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity (Princeton, 1990), 94–95, 97–101.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014
center left: Rembrandt f. 1659
Marks and Labels
Purchased by George Brudenell, 4th earl of Cardigan [1712-1790, later George Montagu, duke of Montagu (new creation)], Montagu House, Whitehall, London, by 1767; by inheritance to his daughter and sole heiress, Elizabeth, duchess of Buccleuch [1743-1827, née Lady Elizabeth Montagu, wife of Henry Scott, 3rd duke of Buccleuch and 5th duke of Queensberry, 1746-1812], Montagu House; by descent through the dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry to John Charles Montagu, 7th duke of Buccleuch and 9th duke of Queensberry [1864-1935], Montagu House; sold 1928 to (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., New York), on joint account with (M. Knoedler & Co., New York); sold January 1929 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 28 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA.
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- Clark, T.J. "World of Faces," review of Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery London, 2014-2015, London Review of Books 36, no. 23 (4 December 2014): 16, 17, color repro.
The original support, a tightly, plain-woven fabric with fine threads, has been lined. The tacking margins have been removed and a coating of white lead has been applied to the back of the lining. The double ground consists of a thick, reddish brown lower layer and a very thin, light gray layer. The design was then sketched in a transparent brown underpaint layer intentionally left visible in the proper right sleeve and in the nostrils, mouth, and neck bordering the collar. The exposed areas of the brown sketch are abraded, which has diminished their significance.
The figure was painted with opaque, broad, flat brushstrokes, while the background and hands were thinly painted. The hair has been articulated by fine brushstrokes and lines incised with the butt end of a brush into the still-wet paint. The highlights of the face were first created overall with heavy short strokes of richly impasted paint, with individual brushstrokes swirled wet-into-wet rather than blended. Once dry, the paint was reworked with unblended, short, distinct strokes of darker colors following the initial brushwork pattern. These were softened with half-shadow mid-tones. Strokes of white paint under the beret indicate that Rembrandt initially planned a lighter color beret than the present black one.
While the face and hands are largely intact, much of the figure and the background at the left have suffered from abrasion. The painting underwent treatment in 1992 to remove discolored varnish and overpaint. The blackish paint to the left of the figure and a patchy semi-opaque coating, applied in a prior restoration to disguise abrasion, were left in place.
 Cross-sections were analyzed by the Scientific Research department (see report dated November 13, 1992, in NGA Conservation files).
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