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Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery

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The art repertoire of Rembrandt van Rijn, the great seventeenth-century Dutch painter, contains nearly ninety self-portraits, creating a forty-year autobiography of self-exploration. His innate propensity to study his own image was reinforced by the social and cultural atmosphere of his time, and his efforts to distinguish himself from his contemporaries. Upon looking into the face of a Rembrandt self-portrait, one can perceive his extraordinary aspirations, his attainment of power and status, and the misery that he found in his last years.

In examining Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, and comparing it to an early work done at age thirty-four, his purpose in creating these paintings can be ascertained, as can the effect of his position in life when they were done. During the seventeenth century, there was a rise in individualism or the concept of the human being as autonomous and self-governing. Under this idea, “man (as opposed to God) makes and shapes the world in which he is primary” (Chapman, 4).

The value of the individual and his own uniqueness is derived from Renaissance Italy and the Reformation, which created a fundamental shift toward a man-centered view. The growth of individualism “marked a radical reordering of society that prompted many to turn inward and closely examine their lives, values and beliefs” (Chapman, 5). This introspection assumed the mode of the autobiography, a new literary form, and the self-portrait.

It is through self-portraiture that Rembrandt is able to portray “extreme traits of the emerging and anxious individual, trying to make sense of, or accommodate himself to, a rapidly changing world; and the mature Rembrandt attains an uncommon degree of autonomy” (Chapman, 6). So why did Rembrandt choose to depict himself in over fifty paintings? Early on in his career, as a young man in Leiden, he may have been influenced by the disadvantageous conditions that heightened the artists’ determination to elevate their professional status.

Leiden, not belonging to the guild of St. Luke, did not afford the local painters protection from outside competition, and they may have subsequently been prompted to create self-promoting works. These works would also, in turn, hopefully raise respect for the field. Rembrandt’s desire to produce his earliest self-portraits may have been affected by this artistic consciousness. Another influence may have been “his desire to capture . . . the greatest and most natural emotion”, which was Rembrandt’s “sole utterance on his artistic aims” (Chapman, 17).

Rembrandt and his contemporaries, “with their intensified concern to make visible the deepest recesses of the human psyche”, may have realized that the best way to capture extreme emotion is in their own faces (Chapman, 17). Rembrandt “portrayed himself because he could make the faces he wanted, and could study the familiar structure of his own head distorted by anger, laughter or indignation” (Clark, 14). And he believed that people should be painted as one find’s them in the Bible, and thus he was determined to “set down every shape, area, tone and color exactly as he saw it” (Clark, 26).

And he thus began with the person he knew best – himself. Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606, the ninth child of a miller and his wife who were quite wealthy. The parents had ambitions for their son and sent him to Latin school and then to Leiden University, but he preferred a career in art, so in 1622 he began a three-year apprenticeship with a local painter who ultimately left no trace on his art. Around 1626 he set up as an independent painter in Leiden. There he began attracting the attention of art lovers and collectors.

Around 1628 — when he was producing self-portrait etchings that emphasized facial expression — he made a painted self-portrait that is as remarkable for what it does not reveal as for what it does. A study in chiaroscuro (light and dark), that was to become the defining feature of Rembrandt’s art, it presents a face mostly obscured in darkness. The eyes, often seen as the windows to the soul, watch from a realm of shadow. They reveal nothing, as if to say that the individual is and will remain a mystery.

One of the most renowned of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is Self -Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640, National Gallery. At this point in his life, he had moved from Leiden to the large, prosperous city of Amsterdam where he lived and prospered under the roof of Hendrick van Ulenborch and eventually married his agent’s cousin, Saskia. While he often portrayed himself in an array of imaginary roles and guises, his formal self-portraits “concern the ideal of the virtuoso artist” (Chapman, 55). They have been read as both evidence of his social climbing, as well as his concern with his own artistic aspirations.

Specifically in Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, Rembrandt distinguishes himself from the fashionable portrait modes by making deliberate reference to Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-1515, Musee du Louvre, and Titian’s Portrait of a Man, National Gallery. In alluding to Titan’s painting, thought to be of the poet Ludivico Aristoto, Rembrandt is placing painters at the level of poets, who were seen as the true liberal artists, and attempting to reclaim the lost ideal of the painter. Rembrandt attempted to portray his social station, his profession and his divergent style in Self-Portrait at the Age of 34.

He “distinguishes himself as an artist by a wearing a particularly lavish version of his by now character beret” (Chapman, 71). His costume is drawn from the early sixteenth century, and gives him a more historicized, romantic look that separates him from the everyday. His expression is one of bland self-satisfaction, as he is now a prosperous up-and-coming painter. In the decade following his above-mentioned painting, Rembrandt painted very few self-portraits. This was a difficult period for him, as his wife died in 1642 and left him with his son Titus.

After becoming involved with his son’s nursemaid, Geertge Dricx, their relationship ended in lawsuits and her eventual committal to a reform institution. His first self-portrait came in 1948 with Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window, which was much more mundane in attire, and lacking all embellishment. “Rembrandt has now rejected the gentlemanly role for himself, choosing instead to appear as a professional who derives his pride and dignity from his craft” (Chapman, 83). Due to reversals in the First Anglo-Dutch War, there was a general economic depression that led to near financial collapse in Amsterdam.

In 1656, Rembrandt was declared bankrupt, and was eventually forced to sell his collection of art works. Rembrandt also lost some of his clientele and his popularity waned, though he would not alter his artistic approach to suit the art market. In his painting entitled Self-Portrait, 1660, Louvre, Rembrandt has become old, though only fifty-four, as an illness has left him a changed man. In this work, “he seems to have recognized all that was tragic in human life and set it down with humility and resignation” (Clark, 30). He seems to have accepted what life has given him.

And he is faced with even more tragedy when in the following years his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels and son Titus both died before him. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery, is dated to his last year alive, and pertain more to the concerns of old age than his earlier works. In his face one can see the misery and senility that have affected him, as well as the ravages of age. “In his nearly white hair and in his face deeply lined with wrinkles we perhaps glimpse traces of the ordeals he has lived through.

Yet these paintings hardly seem to show man complaining that he has been wronged and has suffered great hardship. If anything, they mask his cares, in order to voice his self-esteem. Despite his age, they still powerfully project inner confidence and self-esteem” (Chapman, 130). And after a lifetime’s work of untraditional painting, Rembrandt draws on his Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640, National Gallery, to paint this work. X-rays of his later work reveals he originally was holding a palette and brushes, which he painted out to be replaced by clasped hands, as in the earlier painting.

Rembrandt again romanticizes his image, as his clothing is not modern, but old-fashioned. But now his attire seems to resemble house clothes with colors more subdued, and his image is simpler and less pretentious. Rembrandt was a highly independent artist and used his self-portraits to set himself apart from his contemporaries. They prove his individuality as an artist and as a person, not being afraid to hide the imperfections of the human form. This in itself shows the nature of society and culture at the time with the Post-Renaissance stance on art still being to focus on realism not aesthetics.

In some he is melancholy, in others romanticized, and eventually he likens himself to Titian and Raphael, an attempt to represent the ideal artist. And the painting of 1669 shows a man who died with dignity and grace. So why did Rembrandt depict himself so many times? Perhaps, knowing all too well that a single portrait can convey only certain aspects of a person at a particular point in his life, he wanted, as an artist, to take at least one subject through a lifetime, and the one he could explore most intimately was himself.

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