Beggars appear often in Rembrandt's early figure studies. They had, of course, been portrayed in the earlier work of Bosch and Brueghel, but were generally viewed as objects of derision rather than examples of human suffering. Rembrandt was fascinated by the humanity and diverse experiences expressed in the faces and physiognomy of the elderly, the destitute and the wandering beggars who lived on the fringes of society and were readily found in Leyden and Amsterdam. His figures possess greater naturalism and personality; they constitute a humanity of suffering individuals rather than symbolic embodiments of strife.
It is no wonder, therefore, that among these early images of beggars we should find a self-portrait, closely related to the Self-Portrait open-mouthed (B. 13) from the same year. At the time of these etchings Rembrandt was portraying himself in a series of uncompromising self-portraits in which he examines human expression and emotion.
'There is something about the spectacle of human ruin, the type that is at the opposite extreme to the classical hero, that Rembrandt found authentically heroic. So heroic, in fact, that in more than one etching his own face appears in the company of beggars. And in one of the most memorable of the self-portraits he becomes a beggar himself. And not, moreover, the tamely deferential pauper of the charity houses and Sunday preaching, but the real thing: crook-backed, panhandling, foulmouthed, and scrofulous; ungrateful, unrepentant, dangerous...'
(Simon Schama, Rembrandt's Eyes, Penguin Books, London, 1999, pp. 304).