Self-Portrait (1659)

Rembrandt (1606-1669)

Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm
National Gallery of ArtWashington

After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native LeidenRembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting. Rembrandt painted, drew, and etched so many self-portraits in his lifetime that changes in his appearance invite us to gauge his moods by comparing one image to another. Such a biographical reading is encouraged by the way in which the artist confronts the viewer directly. Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1659, after he had suffered financial failure despite so many years of success. His spacious house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat and other possessions had been auctioned the previous year to satisfy his creditors. In this late work, the deep-set eyes that bore into those of the viewer seem to express inner strength and dignity. Interpreting paintings on the basis of an artist’s biography is nevertheless dangerous, particularly with an artist whose life has been romanticized to the extent that Rembrandt’s has. The light that so effectively illuminates the head also accents Rembrandt’s left shoulder and, to a lesser extent, his broadly executed clasped hands. Rembrandt’s pose was inspired by Raphael’s famous portrait of Balthasar Castiglione, which had appeared in an auction in Amsterdam in 1639. Following Raphael’s prototype, Rembrandt used the pose, costume, and expression to present himself as a learned painter. Shown from the waist up, an older man with pale, peachy skin looks out at us with deep-set, gray eyes under a furrowed brow, in front of a sable-brown background in this vertical portrait painting. His body is angled to our left, and his face turns to us. He has a faintly pink, bulbous nose, and his slightly sunken cheeks are shaded with gray. His peach-colored lips are framed with a wispy, gray mustache and goatee. Bronze-orange lines are incised within the battleship gray of his hair to create soft curls under his brown beret, which has gold trim around the base. The dark collar of his fawn-brown coat is turned up so his neck is covered. He is lit from the upper left, so his body and the right side of the painting are deeply shadowed. On our left, the canvas is painted with blended strokes of tawny and dark brown. His dark coat blends into the background, and his folded hands are in shadow in the lower left corner. The brushstrokes are visible in some areas, especially in the man’s face. The painting is signed and dated next to his shoulder, to our left, “Rembrandt f. 1659.” (NGA)