Arts Everyday Living: Rembrandt’s World-Art of Self Portrait-One on One with the Dutch Master

Rembrandt, Self Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Title: Self Portrait**

Artist: Dutch Master Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)

KING OF SELF PORTRAITS: Numerous artists  have depicted themselves sometime during their careers. However, Rembrandt, still considered the greatest portraitist in the history of Western art, is unique creating approximately 80 self-portraits including oil paintings, etchings, and drawings, a record unsurpassed by any other artist.

A VISUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY: For from his early twenties in his native Leiden to his death at 63 in Amsterdam, Rembrandt was intent on revealing himself to posterity. Particularly in his later years, when he created many of his most profound self portraits such as the one above, in which the viewer can penetrate his mind, spirit, and even soul.

INSPIRATION FOR VAN GOGH: Some 200 years later, his fellow Dutch countryman, Vincent van Gogh (who revered Rembrandt) would be inspired to create his own series of more than 30 self portraits during his short life of 37 years.

STILL REMBRANDT: Given as a gift to the National Gallery of Art in 1937 by Andrew W. Mellon, founder of the museum, tycoon, and once Secretary of the Treasury. At the time, the 1659 Self-Portrait was part of an extensive collection of Rembrandts owned by Mellon. However, due to ongoing research and conservation, the number of Rembrandts executed solely by the master’s hand, has declined over the years, often done instead either by his followers or workshops. Yet, the authenticity of this internationally renowned self portrait remains unchallenged.

Before Mellon, who acquired the work in 1929, other owners were George,  Duke of Montagu and his daughter Elizabeth, the Duchess of Buccleuch. 

REMBRANDT’S EYES: Often, on my trips to the National Gallery of Art, I somehow end up face-to-face with Rembrandt. I might be on my way to a special exhibition but if I pass the gallery where this self portrait often hangs, I can’t seem to resist entering and reengaging with him. Drawn in by those eyes—magnetic, even hypnotic, ultimately wise. As if to have a mental conversation with him. We might be hundreds of years apart–the distance between the 17th and 21st centuries–yet the gap between us seems to be insignificant.

An artist friend once told me of a man, who worked in a government agency near the museum, spending every lunch hour seated before the Rembrandt, gazing at the painted vision before him. What was he searching for?  Was it a need to enrich his daily existence? To leave, if temporarily, the pressures and worries of his office environment? Or his life in general?

THE MAGICIAN: For Rembrandt is a magician of art.  Do you see how he emerges from the infinite darkness of the background? His features illuminated by the contrasting light moving imperceptibly across the surface of his skin? How he uses the thick pigment of brushstrokes to sculpt the signs of aging: the lines of his forehead, the pouches under his eyes, as well as the sunken cheeks and the wrinkled area around his chin. Chronologically, Rembrandt is 53, middle aged in 2023, but considered advanced in years when the self portrait was completed in 1659. In another decade he would be dead, predeceased by his son Titus and mistress Hendrickje.

GOOGLING REMBRANDT: Why not google Rembrandt’s self portraits, from his youth to his final year.

Self Portrait in a Gorget, c. 1629

Self Portrait, 1640, National Gallery of Art, London, UK

Self Portrait, 1658, Frick Collection, New York, New York

Self Portrait, 1660, Metropolitan Museum, New York, New York

Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665-1669, Kenwood House, London, UK

Self Portrait, 1669, Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands


NOTE: Rembrandt’s Self Portrait is currently not on view at the National Gallery of Art because of renovation of the gallery.**


In the public domain, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The National Gallery of Art does not endorse or approve use of the above image or any of the material on this website. Nor has the National Gallery of Art participated in any projects utilizing the said image.

, ,