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The story of Rembrandt’s self portraits

Article by Jlees Ahmed

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is in most regards considered to be one of the greatest visual artists in history, as well as being one of the greatest Dutch painters of all time. His dozens of paintings and drawings were intimately beautiful, and awe inspiring. He was also a very dynamic artist, with him painting and drawing all sorts of things from portraits to historical scenes, Rembrandt practically went into dozens of themes. But his prolific and well-known artworks, are the many self-portraits he did over the many years he was alive, and they give us an incredible insight into Rembrandt that we rarely have with any other artist that was born at that time.

The story of Rembrandt's self portraits

Rembrandt in total made almost 100 different self-portraits in a variety of mediums, over 40 paintings, 31 etchings and around 7 drawings – all these incredible self-portraits, however, were very unusual and odd for artists at the time, with few artists ever producing more than five self-portraits, and many producing little to none, it’s believed Rembrandt painted these portraits both as a personal, and diary-like project but also to sell the portraits to collectors, who sought after such things.

It’s believed Rembrandt’s process in painting, etching and drawing his self-portraits was sitting in front of a mirror, and looking at himself and it’s because of this we always see Rembrandt’s features reversed and him typically sitting in a similar pose with the hands omitted sometimes. These portraits would see Rembrandt’s emotions and stature change, we see him first very young and proud, and sometimes in poses that show him laughing to more mellow poses as he got older where he simply glares at the viewer proudly, and he even painted a self-portrait in 1669, the year he sadly passed away.

Even today, we still don’t know exactly why Rembrandt painted these portraits, perhaps he really did want to keep a ‘visual diary’ of himself through the years, or maybe he just sought to sell his portraits, but regardless the portraits have always portrayed Rembrandt in majesty, realism, and intimacy – and these portraits were the pinnacle of portraiture not seen since Raphael and Da Vinci.

One of the most famous self-portraits of Rembrandt in the series is the ‘Self-portrait at the age of 34’ which shows a much younger Rembrandt gazing proudly at the viewer, and Rembrandt depicted himself as at the height of his career, dressed majestically and looking very proud of himself, as he was becoming both famous, but also a very sought after as an artist.

The story of Rembrandt's self portraits

Today, Rembrandt’s self-portraits are across the world, from the United States to the United Kingdom, his self-portraits have reached global presence, allowing millions of people to gain an insight into a sliver of Rembrandt’s life, while Rembrandt painted many masterpieces from the ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ to the ‘Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild’, I like to think that even now, Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece was the dozens of self-portraits he gifted to the world.

The story of Rembrandt's self portraits

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