Few devotees of the form can approach Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn’s radical contributions to the art of the self-portrait. Challenging the conventions enshrined by his predecessors, Rembrandt transformed self portraiture into a fully realized medium capable of communicating emotional depth rather than favorably immortalizing one’s likeness in the finest trappings of luxury.
With more than 80 works spanning paintings, etchings, and drawings, the Dutchman’s lifelong practice of self-portraiture functions as a means of concretizing that which is fleeting, be it individual moments of development set against the inexorable passage of time, or the facial contortions of emotion that are gone, without a trace, as swiftly as they arrive. Across the four decades in which they were painted, one constant is particularly striking across media and styles—Rembrandt’s dedication to presenting himself from multiple perspectives, celebrating the multiplicity of the individual and championing the unfiltered portrayal of emotional expression.
Apart from the thematic concerns present within Rembrandt’s suite of self-portraits, the works themselves are rich with technical innovation and experimentation. Glints of light bathe a shoulder while whole swathes of his face blend, obscured, into darkened backdrops. Carved through a wet patina of earth-toned paint with a rough reed pen, unruly curls seem to reflect the light cast down upon them, swirling with boisterous energy befitting the surprise so often plastered across Rembrandt’s face. There is an unmistakable humanity present across the entirety of this oeuvre, each expressive brushstroke and obfuscated feature amounting to an unflinchingly honest characterization of himself, in all his foibles, contrasting states of feeling, and stages of life.