Rembrandt Painted Himself With Total Lack of Vanity

It is unlikely that the arguments still circulating about Rembrandt’s motives in producing so many self-portraits-a larger number, in fact, than any other artist we judge to be important-will ever be resolved to the satisfaction of either his admirers or his critics. For the arguments about Rembrandt’s motives are, for the most part, really arguments about what it meant for an artist of his extraordinary powers to concentrate so much attention for so many years of his life on painting or otherwise depicting himself. That he was compulsively devoted to this project of self-portrayal is beyond doubt. That it yielded him some of his greatest paintings is also beyond doubt. Yet we can only speculate as to why, of all the masters of Western painting we admire, Rembrandt elevated the self-portrait to a place of central importance in his life’s work.

It was not to be expected that the exhibition called Rembrandt by Himself , now in London at the National Gallery, would provide us with any definitive answers to this question. Yet precisely because this is the first comprehensive exhibition ever to be devoted to the self-portraits, Rembrandt by Himself does afford us a richer experience of this achievement than anything we have encountered in the past. And it is worth being reminded of what the scale of that achievement encompasses.

In the catalogue for the Rembrandt by Himself exhibition, the Dutch scholar Ernst van de Wetering writes that the artist is known to have “painted himself before the mirror on at least 40 occasions,” to have etched himself some 31 times, and to have also produced a smaller number of self-portrait drawings. There is thus no comparable corpus of self-portraits with which Rembrandt’s may be usefully compared. “This segment of Rembrandt’s oeuvre,” writes Mr. van de Wetering, “is unique in art history, not only in its scale and the length of time it spans, but also in its regularity. New self-portraits appeared almost annually, and sometimes several times a year. In addition, it is a category that encompasses some of his most impressive paintings and etchings.”

It was a project that engaged Rembrandt’s keenest interest from the outset of his career. The Small Self-Portrait etching that we encounter in the first room of the exhibition-it is scarcely larger than the engraving of George Washington that is reproduced on a dollar bill-dates from around 1627-28, when Rembrandt would have been 21 or 22. The subject’s hair is abundant and unruly, the chin is almost lost in shadow, yet the eyes fix us with a gaze of uncommon gravity. The early panel painting called Self-Portrait as a Young Man from the same period (circa 1628) is more of an exercise in the mastery of the chiaroscuro that Rembrandt would later transform into his most powerful medium of expression. Here the contrasts between light and shadow are more facile than they would afterwards become, with much attention lavished on the highlights in his curly hair, which the young Rembrandt clearly found a subject of absorbing interest. (Was it for this reason, perhaps, that in virtually all of the self-portraits of his maturity his head is adorned with a variety of headgear that lent themselves to more considered painterly interests?) The only hint of pictorial things to come is in the unexpected display of painterly impasto with which the lobe of the ear is executed, a feature that elevates this lowly anatomical detail to a higher level of interest than either the eyes or the mouth.

Still, in the early examples to be seen in Rembrandt by Himself , we are already given a vivid sense of an attitude toward self-depiction that would remain unchanged through all the glories of the later paintings. There is that total lack of vanity, that complete absence of the will to self-aggrandizement, that is one of the most remarkable features of Rembrandt’s genius. Whatever his costume may be and whatever disfigurements may be visited upon his countenance by age and personal misfortune, he remains in his self-portraits a homely, somewhat plebeian, very earthy presence to the very end. There are no airs, no pretense, no posturing, but instead an existential candor for which the reworkings of the thickly painted surfaces-which in the last self-portraits show obvious evidence of constant revision and correction-are the perfect pictorial correlative.

By the time we arrive at the late self-portraits-especially the Self-Portrait With Two Circles (circa 1665-69), from the Kenwood House Collection, and the Self-Portrait at the Age of 63 (1669), from London’s National Gallery-the affective force of the painting has ascended to a plateau of feeling that nothing else in the medium has ever been able to match.

Many writers have gone down to defeat in their attempts to account for this artistic feat. Even so fine a critic as Roger Fry produced something of a muddle when, toward the end of his life, he attempted to deal with Rembrandt in strictly formalist terms and found to his chagrin that the painter’s magic continued to elude him. In my own reading, the writer who has come closest to describing the spirit of Rembrandt’s pictorial sensibility is the 19th-century painter and novelist Eugène Fromentin, who, in the final pages of his great book on The Old Masters of Belgium and Holland seems almost to get inside the skin of the artist himself.

This is one of the key passages: “He decomposed and reduced everything, color as well as light, so that, while eliminating from appearances everything that is manifold, condensing what is scattered, he succeeded in drawing without outlines, in painting a portrait almost without apparent features, in coloring without color, in concentrating the light of the solar system into a ray. It is not possible in plastic art to push farther the curiosity of a being about itself. For physical beauty he substitutes moral expression; for the imitation of things, their almost entire metamorphosis; for examination, psychological speculations; for clear, learned or simple observation, the perceptions of a visionary, and apparitions so real that he is a dupe of them himself.” There is a lot more, of course, and for anyone interested in Rembrandt it is worth looking up.

Rembrandt by Himself remains on view at the National Gallery in London through Sept. 5, and will then travel to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, where it is on view from Sept. 25 to Jan. 9.