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.1 Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (15 July 1606– 4 October 1669) was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history. His contributions to art came in a period that historians call the Dutch Golden Age. Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for twenty years he taught many important Dutch painters. Rembrandt’s greatest creative triumphs are exemplified especially in his portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits and illustrations of scenes from the Bible. His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity. In his paintings and prints he exhibited knowledge of classical iconography, which he molded to fit the requirements of his own experience; thus, the depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Because of his empathy for the human condition, he has been called “one of the great prophets of civilization.” It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scholars studied Rembrandt’s legacy as a whole, that it was discovered how very many times the artist had portrayed himself. The number is still a matter of contention, but it seems 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.2
Most scholars took several tens of years to interpret Rembrandt’s remarkable series of self-portraits as a sort of visual diary, a forty-year exercise in self-examination. In a 1961 book, art historian Manuel Gasser wrote, “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.”3 Many of these traditional studies focused particularly on Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, as they reveal this rigorous self-reflection most profoundly. In an influential 1948 monograph on the artist, Jacob Rosenberg wrote of the ceaseless and unsparing observation which (Rembrandt’s self-portraits) reflect, showing a gradual change from outward description and characterization to the most penetrating self-analysis and self-contemplation. Rembrandt seems to have felt that he had to know himself very well; if he wished to penetrate the problem of man’s inner life. More recent scholarship has shed additional light on Rembrandt’s early self-portrayals. Quite a few, it is argued; in where tonies (head and shoulder) studies in which the model plays a role or expresses a particular emotion. In the seventeenth century there was an avid market for such studies, which were considered a separate genre (although for an artist they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings). Thus, for example, we have four tiny etchings from 1630 that show Rembrandt in turn, caught in fearful surprise, glowering with anger, smiling gamefully, and appearing to snarl; each expressed in lines that themselves embody the distinct...
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