Self-portraits by Rembrandt

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Role-playing in Self-portrait as an Oriental Potentate with a Kris, etching, 1634. B18

The dozens of self-portraits by Rembrandt were an important part of his oeuvre. Rembrandt created approaching one hundred self-portraits including over forty paintings, thirty-one etchings and about seven drawings; some remain uncertain as to the identity of either the subject (mostly etchings) or the artist (mostly paintings), or the definition of a portrait.[1]

This was an enormously high number for any artist up to that point, and around 10% of his oeuvre in both painting and etching. By comparison, the highly prolific Rubens only produced seven self-portrait paintings.[2] The self-portraits create a visual diary of the artist over a span of forty years. They were produced throughout his career at a fairly steady pace,[3] but there is a gradual shift between etchings, more numerous until the 1630s, to paintings, which are more common thereafter. However, there is a gap in paintings between 1645 and 1652.[4] The last three etchings date to 1648,[5] c. 1651,[6] and 1658,[7] whereas he was still painting portraits in 1669, the year he died at the age of 63.[8]

At one time about ninety paintings were counted as Rembrandt self-portraits, but it is now known that he had his students copy his own self-portraits as part of their training.[9] Modern scholarship, especially the Rembrandt Research Project, has reduced the autograph count to over forty paintings, as well as a few drawings and thirty-one etchings, which include many of the most remarkable images of the group.[10] The etchings are mostly informal, often playful tronies, studies of extreme facial expressions or portraits in what amounts to fancy dress; in several the clothes are the fashions of a century or more earlier.[11] In others he is pulling faces at himself. His oil paintings trace the progress from an uncertain young man, through the dapper and very successful portrait-painter of the 1630s, to the troubled but massively powerful portraits of his old age. Together they give a remarkably clear picture of the man, his appearance and his psychological make-up, as revealed by his richly weathered face. To Kenneth Clark, Rembrandt is "with the possible exception of Van Gogh, the only artist who has made the self-portrait a major means of artistic self-expression, and he is absolutely the one one who has turned self-portraiture into an autobiography."[12]

While the popular interpretation is that these images represent a personal and introspective journey, it is also the case that they were painted to satisfy a market for self-portraits by prominent artists.[13] Both paintings and etchings seem to have often been bought by collectors,[14] and while some of the etchings are very rare, others were printed in considerable numbers for the time. No self-portraits were listed in the famous 1656 inventory,[15] and only a handful of the paintings remained in the family after his death.[16]

Rembrandt's self-portraits were created by the artist looking at himself in a mirror,[17] and the paintings and drawings therefore reverse his actual features. In the etchings the printing process creates a reversed image, and the prints therefore show Rembrandt in the same orientation as he appeared to contemporaries.[18] This is one reason why the hands are usually omitted or "just cursorily described" in the paintings; they would be on the "wrong" side if painted from the mirror.[19] References to large mirrors occur at various points from the 1650s, and the later portraits include several showing him at a longer length than before; about 80 cm was the maximum height for a sheet of mirror glass technically possible in Rembrandt's lifetime. One may have been bought about 1652 and then sold in 1656 when he went bankrupt. In 1658 he asked his son Titus to arrange delivery of another one, which broke en route to his house.[20]



Ernst van de Wetering divides the 31 etchings into categories; there "are perhaps only four that were considered by Rembrandt himself as 'official' self-portraits of himself intended for wider dissemination". These are B7, B19, B21 and B22, stretching between 1631 and 1648. There are a number (7 or 8) of what seem to be abandoned attempts at such portraits around the same times, some then used as etching "study sheets". Then there are 10 "early studies in etching technique", most very rare, five "studies in expression", which he distinguishes from the three tronies, finished images using Rembrandt's own features in historical costume.[40]

While the earliest etchings are very rare, many others that are not "official" portraits survive in large numbers, and certainly reached the market of collectors. He notes that such aspects of the painted portraits as historical dress, poses recalling famous Renaissance portraits, a double portrait with Saskia, and portraits in his studio working clothes, are all seen in the etchings before they appear in painted self-portraits.[41] As noted above, there are only two sketchy etchings after 1648, and there are no etched equivalents of the great painted self-portraits of the 1550s and 1560s.

With Bartsch catalogue numbers.[42]


The number of drawings now accepted is far smaller, in single figures, and none of them seem to have functioned as preliminary studies for particular paintings or prints. The standing portrait, if indeed by it is Rembrandt, may have been done for someone else's "friendship album" (album amicorum); keeping these was common in artistic and literary circles.[58] The Washington red chalk drawing, perhaps the most finished example, is close to the etching B2 in many ways; in both Rembrandt has a cadanette or long curling lock on one side. Since these were "exclusive to aristocratic circles", it was probably invented like a piece of costume.[59]

On screen

A short film from 1956 by Bert Haanstra showed a chronological sequence of the paintings, with the eyes always in the same position, and the different images dissolving into each other.[64] There is also Le miroir des paradoxes. Autoportraits, film by Alain Jaubert from the Palettes series (1991).


  1. ^ White, 10, 83; Summary, XXV, XXVI: from XXV "Current surveys of Rembrandt's self-portraits usually include some 90 works".
  2. ^ Summary, XXV
  3. ^ White, 10
  4. ^ White, 184
  5. ^ B22, White, 186–187
  6. ^ B370, White, 189–190
  7. ^ Not in Bartsch; White, 199–200
  8. ^ Possibly 4 in 1669, White, # 83–86
  9. ^ White, 100; Summary, XXVIII
  10. ^ White, 10
  11. ^ White, 60–61, 67–72
  12. ^ Clark, 11
  13. ^ Van de Wetering, p. 290; Summary, XXV and following pages.
  14. ^ white, 51
  15. ^ White, 28
  16. ^ White, 51
  17. ^ White, 11–13
  18. ^ White, 83, 162
  19. ^ White, 12
  20. ^ White, 11–13
  21. ^ E. van de Wetering, 'Rembrandt laughing, c. 1628 – a painting resurfaces' in Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis, June 2008 Archived 2013-04-05 at the Wayback Machine.
  22. ^ White, 95-96
  23. ^ White, 100
  24. ^ White, 112-117
  25. ^ White, 104
  26. ^ White, 122
  27. ^ White, 137. A puirist might consider the dog a barbet. Its rear is shaved, as they were used in hunting water fowl.
  28. ^ Clark, 16
  29. ^ "Expert confirms painting is a Rembrandt". Swindon: National Trust. 2013-03-18. Archived from the original on 2013-03-21. Retrieved 2013-03-18. 
  30. ^ White, 159
  31. ^ White, 168
  32. ^ Compare B21 below. White, 170-175; Clark, 19, who thinks the Titian is also a self-portrait.
  33. ^ White, 176. The Rembrandt Research Project suggested Fabritius in 1989, but this "has not been endorsed by other experts".
  34. ^ White, 183-184
  35. ^ White, 190
  36. ^ White, 204
  37. ^ White, 200
  38. ^ White, 220
  39. ^ White, 223, 229
  40. ^ Summary, XXVI-XXVII for all this; B17, B18 and B20 are the tightly-defined tronies (B23 is not mentioned). Other definitions would include the "studies in facial expression" and less-finished etchings with costume.
  41. ^ Summary, XXVII
  42. ^ Details from Schwartz, unless otherwise referenced. All works also have entries in White, and most in "Printmaker".
  43. ^ Printmaker, 86
  44. ^ White, 92
  45. ^ White, 140
  46. ^ British Museum page
  47. ^ Printmaker, 108-112; White, 143-144; Summary, XXVII
  48. ^ British Museum
  49. ^ Printmaker, 116-118 and White, 141-142 give different accounts of the progress of this mixed plate.
  50. ^ White, 160-161
  51. ^ White, 157
  52. ^ Summary, XXVII
  53. ^ White, 166
  54. ^ White, 170; Printmaker, 166-170
  55. ^ Summary, XXVII
  56. ^ Printmaker, 243-247; White, 186-187; Clark, 21-23
  57. ^ Summary, XXVII
  58. ^ Summary, XXVii-XXVIII
  59. ^ White, 160–161, 160 quoted
  60. ^ Clark, 12
  61. ^ White, 164
  62. ^ White, 161
  63. ^ Summary, XXVIII; White, 187-188, accepts it as authentic.
  64. ^ White, 11


External links

  • Complete Rembrandt Catalogue: Self Portraits
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