Rembrandt: The Selfie King

Rembrandt is the equivalent of a modern-day selfie connoisseur! As a great 17th century self-portrait artist, Rembrandt’s many artistic ‘selfies’ explore his identity throughout his lifetime. Let’s look behind the camera (or painting for that matter) to find out just why Rembrandt earned the prestigious title of a Selfie King and, while we’re at it, see what his selfie’s can teach us!  

Rembrandt, Who?

Self-portrait, Rembrandt, c. 1628

Known for his self-portraits, Rembrandt (1606-1669) was actually a versatile artist during the 17th century. Alongside portraits, he painted subjects from landscapes to historical and biblical scenes. He’s also a known etcherdraughtsman, and teacher. Still, no matter the subject, Rembrandt’s work portrays a sense of realismHe wasn’t afraid to show genuine emotion and depicted people as they were (every bump and wrinkle included).  

During his life, Rembrandt attracted a lot of attention. He had many influential clients and married a wealthy woman. There was even a market for self-portraits. People liked to collect images of famous people. So, having a mature Rembrandt portrait was trending. Still, self-portraits helped artists refine their skills and left a statement to society: this is how I want to be remembered. No wonder Rembrandt hopped on the self-portrait train!  

A Visual Diary

Over his lifetime, Rembrandt created nearly 80 self-portraits. Together, they create an important visual diary showing Rembrandt as he ages from the young artist to the mature one. It makes you wonder how many selfies he would have taken if he had a phone!  

His portraits involved an intense self-examination. Rembrandt didn’t use any filters like we do today! Rather, he showed his aging, his growing weariness, and his emotional mindset. Such thoughtfulness and honesty teach us to engage life as it is and avoid deceiving filters often encouraged by social media.  

Here are two early drawings of Rembrandt. In the left image, he looks quirky and youthful, yes? But, the right image is more reserved and wearier.  

Take a look at your own selfie diary, what do you notice about yourself? How have you changed? 

The 1660 Self Portrait

Rembrandt, 1660 Self-Portrait, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Rembrandt’s surviving self-portraits are scattered across different museums. You’ll can find one all the way in London’s National Gallery, another in France’s Louvre, or in NYC’s Metropolitan Museum. (It might be a good time to book a treasure hunt)!   

To get a sense of Rembrandt’s style, we’ll take a closer look at his 1660 Self-Portrait (this one is at the Met!). By the 1660s, Rembrandt was 54 years old and down on his luck. He had lost both a wife and child. But that’s not all! Despite his artistic success, when he couldn’t meet his financial obligations, he was forced to declare bankruptcy. How awful!  

These world-weary setbacks are reflected in his 1660 Self Portrait. Rembrandt concentrated more paint on his face than anywhere else on the canvas. Such intense focus on his facial features is shown through his furrowed brow, heavy eye pouches, and double chin. His eyes have a slight lack of focus and one eye looks anxious. Just imagine the carefulness and self-awareness Rembrandt had as he examined his own face in a mirror and translated it onto a blank canvas! Overall, there is this hanging weariness and acknowledgement of his own youthful loss. No doubt brought on by his increasing hardships. 

Interestingly, in the 1950s, this painting received a synthetic varnish. The idea was to protect the painting but the varnish only dulled the portrait. In fact, when it was later removed, observers are better able to see Rembrandt’s working method. For instance, we can tell that Rembrandt reshaped the contours of his hat repeatedly. Or, at times, he used the butt-end of his paintbrush to edge out the roughness of his hair curls. You’ll also notice the gradual transformation of tone and earthly color choice that draws our eyes to the soft tone of his face. Rembrandt encourages us to examine him just as he does himself.  

Rembrandt’s self-portraits are his legacy. They tell his story. I gave him the title of Selfie King due to his attentiveness towards his own depiction. His selfies are a lot more thoughtful than our own one-second snapped selfies. What do you think? Is the title fitting? 

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