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Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., “Rembrandt van Rijn/Self-Portrait/1659,” Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 16, 2024).

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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.[1]

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.”[2] Émile Michel, in his review of the exhibition, was even more expressive about the forcefulness of Rembrandt’s gaze through the heavy wrinkles that had come to age his face so prematurely.[3]

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.[4] Interpreting paintings on the basis of an artist’s biography is dangerous, particularly with an artist whose life has been romanticized to the extent that Rembrandt’s has been.[5] In this instance the inclination to interpret this image as a tragic one was reinforced by the thick layers of discolored varnish that had given the portrait a heavy, brooding quality. With the removal of the discolored varnish during restoration in 1992, the fallacy of such interpretations became particularly apparent. With the rich range of pinks and other flesh tones on his face once again visible, Rembrandt’s state of mind seems to have improved remarkably. While the thick impastos and bold strokes he used to model his face still create the dynamic vigor of the head, apparent now as well is the economy with which Rembrandt handled his paint: he has allowed a greenish gray Imprimatura layer to read as the shadowed area around the eyes. Finally, the firmness of his touch is accented by the wiry rhythms in his mustache and in the hair protruding from under his beret, which he has delineated by scratching the wet paint with the blunt end of his brush.

An added benefit from the restoration was the removal of Overpaint that had flattened the appearance of Rembrandt’s torso. With the three-dimensional character of this portion of the painting restored, the head seems far more firmly planted on the body than it had previously. The light that so effectively illuminates the head now also accents Rembrandt’s left shoulder and, to a lesser extent, his broadly executed clasped hands. The X-radiograph [see X-radiography] of the head, which reveals the vigorous, almost sculptural character of Rembrandt’s handling of paint, also indicates, through the density of the paint in the beret, that Rembrandt initially painted the beret a different color [fig. 1]. It may well have been white, for the upper ridges of a whitish paint layer can be seen through the overlying black paint.

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 [fig. 2]. The memory of Castiglione’s direct gaze and clasped hands, which Rembrandt first saw when the painting appeared in an auction in Amsterdam on April 19, 1639, must have remained deeply ingrained in his mind for the intervening twenty years.[6] This famous work had made a tremendous impact on Rembrandt, for he even made a rough sketch after it at the sale (Albertina, Vienna).[7] In that same year, 1639, Rembrandt etched a self-portrait that was in part inspired by Raphael’s image and in part by Titian’s portrait, then known as Ariosto, which was in Amsterdam in the Alfonso Lopez Collection (National Gallery, London).[8] In the following year, 1640, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait (National Gallery, London)[9] that reflected in composition and intellectual concept both the Raphael's Balthasar Castiglione and Titian’s Ariosto. In this 1640 Self-Portrait, Rembrandt, dressed in a fanciful historicizing costume, portrayed himself with all of the elegance and dignity of the renowned Renaissance men of letters thought to have been depicted by Raphael (Marchigian, 1483 - 1520) and Titian (Venetian, 1488/1490 - 1576).[10]

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.[11] Perhaps at this later moment of his life he was drawn to Raphael’s painting because of its self-contained composition, which he must have felt appropriate for expressing the quiet intensity with which he wished to imbue his self-portrait; perhaps he remembered the subdued colors of Castiglione’s costume or the effective way in which Raphael used the beret to frame his head. Clearly Rembrandt has adapted all of these aspects of Raphael’s painting in his self-portrait, while at the same time transforming the nature of his image through dramatic light effects and the rich impastos of his paint.

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,[12] and in the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood, c. 1665.[13] In all three of these works Rembrandt projects a strikingly positive self-image, in which allusions to his self-esteem as an artist are conveyed through pose, costume, and expression.[14]

Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.

April 24, 2014


center left: Rembrandt f. 1659



Purchased by George Brudenell, 4th earl of Cardigan [1712-1790, later George Montagu, duke of Montagu (new creation)], Montagu House, Whitehall, London, by 1767;[1] 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);[2] 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.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of the Works of the Old Masters. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1872, no. 181.
Rembrandt. Collection des oeuvres des maîtres réunies, à l'occasion de l'inauguration de S. M. la Reine Wilhelmine, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1898, no. 102.
Exhibition of Works by Rembrandt. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1899, no. 6.
A Loan Exhibition of Sixteen Masterpieces, Knoedler Galleries, New York, January 1930, no. 8.
The Thirteenth Loan Exhibition of Old Masters: Paintings by Rembrandt, The Detroit Institute of Arts, May 1930, no. 62.
Loan Exhibition of Paintings, Drawings and Etchings by Rembrandt and His Circle, The Art Institute of Chicago, 1935-1936, no. 6.
Rembrandt Tentoonstelling, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1935, no. 26.
Masterpieces of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800, New York World's Fair, 1939, no. 307.
Rembrandt in the National Gallery of Art [Commemorating the Tercentenary of the Artist's Death], National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, no. 19, repro.
Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth-XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA, State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, 1989, no. 13, repro.
Dutch Art and Scotland: A Reflection of Taste, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1992, no. 53, repro.
Rembrandt: His Pupils and Followers, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 1996, unnumbered brochure, repro.
Rembrandt By Himself, The National Gallery, London; Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis, The Hague, 1999-2000, no. 73, repro.
Rembrandt: Dipinti, incisioni e riflessi sul '600 e '700 italiano, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome, 2002-2003, no. 6D, repro. on title page.
Rembrandt's People, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, 2009-2010, brochure no. 3, repro. and cover.
Rembrandt in America, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011-2012, no. 34, pl. 9.
Rembrandt: The Late Works, National Gallery, London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2014-2015, no. 2, repro.

Technical Summary

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.[1] 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.


[1] Cross-sections were analyzed by the Scientific Research department (see report dated November 13, 1992, in NGA Conservation files).


Manuscript list of pictures at Montagu House, Whitehall. Boughton House, Northamptonshire, 1770: unpaginated.
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Vosmaer, Carel. Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn: sa vie et ses oeuvres. 2nd ed. The Hague, 1877: 358, 560.
Bode, Wilhelm von. Studien zur Geschichte der holländischen Malerei. Braunschweig, 1883: 542, 585, no. 197.
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Ackley, Clifford S., et al. Rembrandt's journey: painter, draughtsman, etcher. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Art Institute of Chicago. Boston, 2003: 308-309, no. 215, repro.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 198-199, no. 156, color repro.
Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. Vol. 4: The Self-Portraits. Edited by Ernst van de Wetering. Dordrecht, 2005: 94, 95 fig. 17, 96, 109, 110, 111, 115 fig. 54, 116, 129, 151, 189, 216, 244, 281, 282 fig. 289, 382, 474, 484, 492, 496, 498-507, 584, 601.
Rønberg, Lene Bøgh, and Eva de la Fuente Pedersen. Rembrandt?: The Master and His Workshop. Exh. cat. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, 2006: 45, fig. 8.
Zafran, Eric. Rembrandt's People. Exhibition brochure. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 2009: no. 3, 10-11, repro.
Keyes, George S., Tom Rassieur, and Dennis P. Weller. Rembrandt in America: collecting and connoisseurship. Exh. cat. North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Cleveland Museum of Art; Minneapolis Institute of Arts. New York, 2011: no. 34, pl. 9, 54-55, 134, 191.
Bikker, Jonathan, and Gregor J.M. Weber. Rembrandt: The Late Works. Exh. cat. National Gallery, London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. London, 2014: no. 2, 46, repro. (detail) 46, repro. 47, 297.
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.
Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. Dutch Paintings of the Seventeenth Century. NGA Online Editions,
Wieseman, M.E., Jonathan Bikker, et al. Rembrandt: The Late Works, Supplement with Provenance, Selected Literature and Bibliography. Online supplement to Exh. cat. National Gallery London; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. London, 2014, 6, 12-13.
Warner-Johnson, Tim, and Jeremy Howard, eds. Colnaghi: Past, Present and Future: An Anthology. London, 2016: 112-113, color plate 33.
Seifert, Christian Tico, et al. Rembrandt: Britain's Discovery of the Master. Exh. cat. National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2018: 123 fig. 141.
Gifford, E. Melanie. "Rembrandt and the Rembrandtesque: The Experience of Artistic Process and Its Imitation." In Tributes to Maryan W. Ainsworth, Collaborative Spirit: Essays on Northern European Art, 1350-1650. Edited by Anna Koopstra, Christine Seidel and Joshua P. Waterman. London/Turnhout, 2022: 338-339, color fig. 6b.

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