Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This is one of the most extraordinary examples from the greatest series of self portraits ever painted — perhaps the crowning achievement of one of the most celebrated artists of the European tradition.
An encounter with this painting is a spiritual experience; to engage with those eyes is somehow to share in the common experience of humanity; they are full of sympathy and melancholy, resignation, serenity and love. Of course they had seen the vicissitudes of life — fame, bankruptcy and the death of two wives; they will eventually weep for the loss of his beloved son. They also provide the conduit, perhaps a little disturbingly, for a two-way process, for while your gaze plays on the features of his profoundly sympathetic face, Rembrandt’s eyes constantly draw you back and seem to reciprocate your search for the soul within. As one stands in front of this two-dimensional object (a lifeless concoction of paint and canvas) one wonders at the marvellous alchemy fired by Rembrandt’s genius and asks oneself if this is the closest it is possible to get to the essence of an individual from a distant age.
The face is painted with unsurpassed skill — when inspected at close range the flecks and blobs of pigment have been applied quite liberally to form a fairly heavy impasto. But as you draw away the features come to life — the bulbous nose, the slight moustache, the single line etched across the brow. The rest of the picture is much less finished with some elements, like the painter’s brushes, palette and hand being represented by no more than a few strokes of paint. His white cap, in complete contrast to the head upon which it sits, has been dashed off in a similarly free style.
And what are we to make of the two arcs painted on the flat surface behind Rembrandt? There has been much scholarly debate about the significance of these circles but no one has come up with a definitive hypothesis. They may symbolise eternity and perfection but the theory which attracts the greatest number of adherents is that they are a symbol, or rather evidence, of artistic skill, in that to draw a perfect circle freehand was traditionally thought to be the ultimate test of draughtsmanship.
Rembrandt’s bankruptcy in 1656 did not spell the end of his reputation although a commission from the Stadhuis of Amsterdam was returned to him shortly after its installation in 1662. Recent research has exploded the myth of the forgotten artist. Indeed in 1667, two years before Rembrandt’s death and at about the same time as this portrait was painted, he received a visit from Cosimo de’ Medici (later the Grand Duke of Tuscany) who was passing through the Netherlands on his Grand Tour. Apparently Cosimo met a great many artists whilst in the Netherlands but in his journal only three were described as ‘famoso’, one of these being Rembrandt.
There may be a link between Rembrandt’s fame and the fact that he produced so many self portraits. It seems that there was a considerable contemporary market for self portraits of famous artists — they were collectable because they were both a representation of a famous person and an example of the reason for that fame.
This picture certainly deserves veneration — it is undoubtedly one of the greatest pictorial treasures in London and its presence alone requires one to make the pilgrimage to Hampstead.
1664 Jan Steen: Celebrating the Birth, London, Wallace Collection
1665 Bartolomé Esteban Murillo: The Infant St John with the Lamb, London, National Gallery
1666 Jan Vermeer: The Concert, Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
1666 Claude Lorrain: Morning, St Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum