Introspection: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s self-portraits have always enraptured viewers into Rembrandt’s own progression of life through equally captivating artistic means. In his lifetime, Rembrandt was especially prolific in self-portraits, completing nearly one hundred in his sixty-three years. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are considered Baroque; harmoniously blending sophisticated techniques with protruding emotion, prominent intensity, and riveting drama. Rembrandt particularly encompasses techniques and styles such as chiaroscuro, bold and expressive colors, and the thick, accumulation of materials on the canvas. But perhaps the most important aspect of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is the fact that they reflect the prosperous yet daunting task of self-probing and introspection sans conceit and blatant vanity.

Rembrandt’s life in the Netherlands had been considered fortunate up until Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburg, became ill with tuberculosis and eventually died in 1641. The death of three children, Saskia’s death, Rembrandt’s personal problems with Saskia’s family, financial troubles, and his affair with his only surviving son’s wet-nurse, Geertje Dircx all consist of the blueprints of his life mirrored in his realistic self-portraits (Mee, 209). Prior to this myriad of emotional burdens, Rembrandt’s early self-portraits depicted a youthful, radiant and spellbindingly hopeful Rembrandt. However, post this series of traumatic and toilsome events, Rembrandt’s portraits were severely altered forever. The once pure and luminous Rembrandt with an airy and light mood had transformed into a jaded and melancholy being, with an atmosphere of gloom and cumbrance. Charles L. Mee Jr. claims “Rembrandt was searching deeper into his subjects now for some less superficial effect, for some complex inner drama” (Mee, 216). Rembrandt’s style also consequently diverged; Rembrandt’s early style of portraits used sharp light/dark contrasts, intricately detailed, and overall, a more polished finish while contrarily, later Rembrandt style used richer, warmer, golden-brown hues in simplistic scenes with competitive undertones (Mee, 217).

In terms of style and technique, I chose to imitate a fusion of both Rembrandt’s early and late styles. I wanted my own self-portrait’s composition to be “a mass of thick shadow from which the face emerged like the sun” (Housden, 7). The greatest light/dark contrast is portrayed through the white, luminous face juxtaposed with the black, matte cap –derived from Rembrandt’s earlier style, which is said to be “young Rembrandt’s Caravaggiesque tendency” (Rosenburg, 306). My intention was for a rather harsh antithesis; the focal point being the face since that was also the heart of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, “providing translucent shadows that soften edges” (Rosenburg, 320). However, attempting to incorporate the “almost magical quality of his colors,” I also used bolder, flushed tinges of red and gold for the background (Rosenburg, 319). The final signature technique I applied was impasto, Rembrandt’s “general tendency to interrelate the various layers of paint” but with colored pencils resulting in “the vibrancy of the blending of neighboring tones” (Rosenburg, 318). Through Christopher White’s selection of works besides self-portraits, I was able to observe how Rembrandt implemented these skills in a variety of other artworks.

Granted I (fortunately) have not been forced to endure a multitude of grievances and hardships in my nineteen years on this earth, but I am still able to immerse myself into introspection and reflect not only physically, but spiritually as well. According to Roger Housden, imitating a self-portrait of Rembrandt’s is the remedy for revealing “your beautiful, imperfect self” (Housden, 9). Housden directly parallels our own humanity with that of Rembrandt’s, asserting that by embracing the inevitable: aging and eventually death, you become a more aware; finally being able to be “willing to look ourselves in the eye and to accept it for whatever we see” (Housden, 14). By utilizing Rembrandt’s introspective eye, we are able live life without self-censuring; we learn to appreciate each and every wrinkle and other fateful marks of time. Viewing Rembrandt’s sequence of self-portraits is increasingly like a breath of fresh air in a modern world where combating signs of aging is the norm and anti-aging spectacles seem virtually everywhere. Self-portraits also are a form of immortality, which is a paradox in regards to Rembrandt’s message of inescapable death.

Works Cited:

Housden, Roger. How Rembrandt Reveals Your Beautiful, Imperfect Self: Life Lessons from the Master New York: Harmony Books, 2005 (7-49, 215-229).

Mee, Charles L., Jr. Rembrandt’s Portrait: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988 (209-224, 259-260).

Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life and Work. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1986 (304-342).

White, Christopher. Rembrandt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1984 (128-200).

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