From the confidence of youth to sombre middle age, how the Dutch Master’s vision of himself morphed and reflected his fortunes through the years. Illustrated with works offered in Old Master Prints in London on 14 December
Few other artists depicted themselves as regularly and with such variety and psychological insight as Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606-1669). He painted himself before the mirror on at least 40 occasions, and etched no fewer than 32 self-portraits in a career that stretched over three decades.
On 14 December, an extensive group of self-portrait etchings by the Dutch printmaker, draughtsman and painter will be offered in the Old Master Prints sale at Christie’s in London.
Self-portrait prints are among the earliest that Rembrandt produced. Self-Portrait with Curly Hair and White Collar was made sometime around 1630, when the artist was in his early twenties and living in Leiden. His young features, set against a shock of curly hair, are carefully rendered; his formal pose and steady gaze convey a studied gravity. The chiaroscuro effects, created only with hatched and crosshatched lines, reveal the young artist’s facility with the medium.
In other self-portrait etchings from this time, Rembrandt used his own features to model the physiognomy of human emotions. These works, in which the artist depicted himself shouting, laughing or frowning, not only demonstrate his virtuosity as an artist, but also served as character studies for his religious or history paintings. Self-Portrait Open-Mouthed, as If Shouting (1630) was the model for Beggar Seated on a Bank, an etching produced later that year. It was also the basis for the agonised face of Christ in Christ on the Cross, which Rembrandt painted in 1631.
Although the artist moved away from these explicit studies of human emotion, his self-portraits after 1630 often display an ongoing interest in character and persona. In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and very quickly achieved acclaim as an artist and portraitist. In Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume (1638) Rembrandt depicts himself in 16th-century costume — a fur-lined coat and feathered hat — perhaps attempting to place himself among the great artists of the Northern European Renaissance.
Produced 10 years later, Self-Portrait Etching at a Window reflects a very different sensibility. Dressed in plain clothes, the artist sits in front of a copper plate, etching needle in hand, studying his reflection intently in a mirror. The intervening decade had been marked by personal tragedy, most notably the death in 1642 of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and the steady decline of the artist’s finances.
If the Rembrandt of Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume is flamboyant and self-aggrandising, Self-Portrait Etching at a Window presents a sober view of the artist in middle age. The heavily shadowed interior, lit by a single light source, recalls Rembrandt’s 1642 etching Saint Jerome in His Dark Chamber. Rembrandt worked up the plate gradually, lightly etching the preliminary composition, and then adding layers of etching, drypoint and burin, building up the rich contrasts of light and shadow. It was only in the fourth state that he added the view from the window.
More evocative of Italy than the Low Countries, this hilly landscape is clearly not a view from the artist’s Breestraat studio in Amsterdam: it is a work of the imagination, a synthesis of observation and intellect. Although he had never visited Italy, and in his reduced circumstances was increasingly unlikely to, Rembrandt is perhaps showing that he didn’t need to. Depicting himself in everyday surroundings, and in the act of creating, Self-Portrait Etching at a Window is an act of affirmation in the face of adversity. Of all Rembrandt’s etched self-portraits, it is perhaps his most personal. It would be the last he would make in this medium.