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The Self-Portraits of Rembrandt

The Self-Portraits of Rembrandt
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  • 00:01 Master of Self-Portraits
  • 1:00 Why So Many Self-Portraits
  • 2:15 The Portraits
  • 5:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we still study the self-portraits of Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. We will examine some reasons for these self-portraits and look at a few of them in detail.

The Master of Self-Portraits

How many times over the past week or month have you snapped a selfie? It's easy, isn't it? Just stand in front of a mirror and click away, or if your phone has a front camera, just hold out your arm and bang, you've captured your image.

It wasn't so easy in the 'old days' before cameras and cell phones, but some artists were still into capturing selfies or, as they called them, self-portraits. In fact, Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn has long been considered the master of self-portraits. Throughout his adult life, from the beginning of his artistic career in about 1626 to just before his death in 1669, he created between 80 and 90 self-portraits in paintings, etchings, and drawings. Together, they comprise about 20% of the total body of his work. In this lesson, we'll discuss why Rembrandt created so many 'selfies,' and we'll look at a few of them in detail.

Why So Many Self-Portraits?

Scholars have long speculated about why Rembrandt spent so much time painting and drawing himself. They've come up with some interesting reasons, including the following:

  • Rembrandt's self-portraits were an exercise in self-examination. Rembrandt was seeking to know himself as he really was, flaws and all, and to analyze his own character and emotions, and he did so by painting himself in a variety of ways.
  • Rembrandt was merely practicing artistic technique. Artists who specialize in portrait painting, like Rembrandt often did, needed to learn how to paint human beings with many different poses, expressions, and roles. Rembrandt needed a cheap model for these studies, so he chose himself.
  • Self-portraits simply sold. There was a thriving market for such things, and Rembrandt knew an economic opportunity when he saw one.

The reality is probably a combination of all three reasons. Rembrandt painted so many self-portraits to get to know himself better, to become a better artist, and to sell his work.

The Portraits

Art historians typically split Rembrandt's self-portraits into three periods:

1. Those of the 1620s, when Rembrandt was still developing his technique

2. Those of the 1630s and 1640s, when Rembrandt usually portrayed himself as a successful, prosperous artist

3. Those of the 1650s and 1660s, when Rembrandt was exploring the frailties and quirks of old age

Let's look at a couple portraits from each period.

One of Rembrandt's first self-portraits was painted about 1628 when he was 22 years old. He was experimenting with the artistic technique of chiaroscuro, which incorporates variations of light and shadow. Notice his expression of innocence with his wide eyes and open mouth. Another portrait, probably from the same year, shows Rembrandt enjoying a good laugh. A third painting from the following year also explores human emotion, for in this one, the artist looks surprised, like someone had just told him something startling.

Early portraits from Rembrandt
Three early self portraits by Rembrandt

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