Rembrandt in London, England

By Hall Groat II

It has been over three centuries since Rembrandt’s self portraits have been brought together for a single viewing. The last time they were seen together was in his studio in Amsterdam, Holland during the seventeenth century. The National Gallery of Art in London, England recently showed sixty of the self-portraits, including two recent discoveries, in an exhibit titled Rembrandt By Himself. The work spans his entire career, from the tousle-haired twenty-two year old of the self-portrait from the Ritjksmuseum, Amsterdam, to the National Gallery’s own self-portrait at the age of sixty-three, painted in 1669, the year of his death. The self-portraits have been brought together from collections across Europe and America. Lenders include the Royal Collection, the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The National Gallery, London, and the Mauritshuis in The Hague jointly organized the exhibition.

Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar   
Rembrandt   Oil

Rembrandt by Himself, is a breathtaking exhibition, and is one of the finest shows ever curated involving Rembrandt’s work. The opportunity to view one masterpiece after another is a once in a life time experience.

At the beginning of the exhibit, there are two works that clearly show Rembrandt’s virtuosity as a young artist. They are two very compelling and strikingly similar self-portraits that he painted in his early twenties. Both are painted in Rembrandt’s characteristic style, with dramatic lighting illuminating the right side of the faces. This is a reoccurring quality throughout his career. The space that they are situated in is very shallow, with a solid grayish, green background. One tends to question this space. Is it solid, or is it an area with no boundaries? Nevertheless, this sense of ambiguity adds to the mystery of the pieces. He is very clever at sensitively diffusing the edges of forms, such as merging the backgrounds and heads together, which make the portraits appear so convincingly natural. In studying these works more closely, it is evident that he scraped actual hair follicles into the wet paint surface, exposing the bright sienna ground. This technique is used in many of the works in the show, adding to their animated quality.

When it comes to painting eyes, Rembrandt is a master – the eyes in these portraits are set deep into the shadow sides, mysteriously with no highlights.

Strangely enough, the expressions on the faces are ones of inquisitiveness.

One of the more striking and thought provoking paintings in the show is Self-portrait as Zeuxis, completed in 1662. This is one of many works in which Rembrandt portrays himself as a character from history in costume.

"When it comes to painting eyes, Rembrandt is the Master"

This type of painting was called a trony, which is a painting of a character type, rather than strictly a self-portrait. This trony, unlike others, has a tragic comic expression. There is an anecdote where Zeuxsis, a fifth century artist, supposedly died of suffocation from laughter, due to making a portrait of an ugly women. The character that Rembrandt depicted himself as seems to want to communicate with the viewer. The signs of ala-prima brushwork is seen under the layers of glazed colors, adding to the expression and movement of the portrait.

One of the most naturalistic pieces in the show is Self-portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, painted in 1659. Out of all the later portraits,

this one appears most intro- spective. There is a sense of solemnness. The background is a solid dark space, setting-off the golden light that bathes the entire face. The viewer is lead to questions Rembrandt’s thoughts. Is the expression representative of a confident artist, or one approaching bankruptcy? (As he did later in life due to personal loss).

Rembrandt by Himself, overall, is a visual masterpiece. His ability to achieve emotions through paint, from the youthful, carefree attitude, to an old age appearance of deep introspection and contemplation, is remarkable. It is obvious that he is an ingenious draftsman and can represent through paint the natural texture of flesh, fabric, fur, hair, jewelry, or even the sheen of armor. Many portraits appear so natural that one can almost sense the temperature and odor of the subject. He manipulates the paint surface like no artist before, achieving the ideal balance between the bravura of expressive brushstrokes and the sensitive attention to minute detail. The mere painting of an eye socket is a masterpiece in itself – in its multitude of painterly subtleties – and the manner in which light emanates outward from it. An eye in a socket interplays with the surrounding space, just as a head merges with the background. Rembrandt undoubtedly remains one of the most gifted artists of all time. If you do find the opportunity to view an exhibition of his work, take the time to – it is a once in a lifetime experience!