The art of being a show-off

Rembrandt to Himself - Rembrandt as an Etcher

July 9, 1999

Tom Rosenthal hails two books that confirm Rembrandt's mastery.

There is a New Yorker cartoon of Rembrandt at his easel, calling to his common-law wife, Hendrickje Stoffels, to "bring in the funny hats" because he feels another self-portrait coming on. Like all the best jokes, there is a small kernel of truth in it.

Among recognised artists, Rembrandt was perhaps the most prolific with self-portraits. Of his approximately 600 oil paintings, some 60 were of himself, and there were also 20 or so etchings and about a dozen drawings. That is an awful lot of time spent in front of a mirror, not least if one recalls that in those days, because of technical limitations, there were no large, full-length mirrors, which is one of the explanations for the fact that the bulk of self-portraits are of the head and shoulders, or at most, head and torso studies. And if those paintings sound difficult to achieve, imagine how extraordinary is the skill necessary to create an etched self-portrait when the very art of etching is itself an act of mirror drawing. No wonder Rembrandt's self-belief was so strong and that he so confidently, like Leonardo, Titian, Michelangelo and Raphael, used just that single name from his twenties onwards.

A show of only Rembrandt self-portraits sounds at first glance both over the top and indigestible, yet the exhibition at the National Gallery, running until September 5 before going to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, is one of the most fascinating and illuminating tributes to a great artist ever seen at the venue.

By concentrating on what they have shrewdly called "Rembrandt by Himself", the organisers have posed as many questions as they have answered while, inevitably, failing to answer unequivocally the central question of why he painted himself so obsessively. The catalogue supplies quite massive scholarly detail and is scrupulously edited by the two leaders of the Anglo-Dutch team who have made both exhibition and book such a triumph. While one can quarrel with some of the hanging at the National Gallery, particularly the rather mean displaying of etchings, the display within the book (and even more so that in Christopher White's volume on Rembrandt as etcher) puts all that right.

Yet the motivation of the artist who averaged two major paintings of himself in each of his immensely fruitful working years is still cloudy. Was he simply a narcissist? I think not. Narcissists love only themselves and Rembrandt loved many others, particularly his surviving children and his two wives Saskia and Hendrickje. Furthermore, narcissists have a tendency to overestimate their own beauty. As the early pictures, such as the Self-Portrait with Plumed Beret of 1629, make clear, he had a good opinion of himself. He also had a passion to cover himself in grand finery and dress his hair in the latest fashion. But this was more part of a lifelong desire to show off than self-love.

One need only study the onset of middle age in his physiognomy, and particularly the effects of old age on his self-painted countenance, to see a total absence of vanity and a quite dispassionate observation of the effects of a life much haunted by tragedy and disaster. Apart from the loss of children and the death of his first wife, there was a humiliating bankruptcy with his son Titus having to take charge of his business affairs, ecclesiastical prosecution of his common-law wife Hendrickje for "practising whoredom with the painter Rembrandt" and much more to help score the deep lines we see on his face in the miraculous explorations such as the Kenwood House picture.

So, not a narcissist, but a bit of a show-off. But even that was for sometimes fairly honourable purposes. Artists are not wholly respectable and Rembrandt would certainly, in the early years, present himself in solidly burgherish garb; white ruff, dark, even sombre, formal clothes, doubtless to demonstrate his suitability to paint those more respectable and richer than himself. These paintings and etchings were surely what Norman Mailer called "Advertisements for Myself". And is it entirely frivolous to suggest that Rembrandt himself was the best, most available and reliable model he could have?

What is unequivocal is the almost brutal honesty as well as the brave humour he constantly demonstrated. Some would say that the insertion of his own face into the painting of The Raising of the Cross is not mere showing off, but hubris verging on sacrilege. One could argue conversely that the glorious picture of himself, with the somewhat un-amused Saskia in his proprietorial grasp, as the jovial returned Prodigal Son, is a piece of triumphant self-mockery. It is certainly a magnificent display of human warmth and affirmation of life before both domestic and commercial tragedy began to haunt him.

Even when posturing in his most outrageous manner, as in the Self-Portrait in Oriental Attire in which he is dressed as an eastern potentate, complete with (borrowed) hunting poodle, he so obviously knows what he is doing and defiantly tells the viewer that you have to take him as he is.

Above all, despite the dashing costumes and the relentless ageing process, there is a magnificent consistency that emphasises his commitment to truth and frankness. In Ernst van de Wettering's essay in the book on "The multiple functions of Rembrandt's self-portraits" he writes: "When the Dutch cineaste Bert Haanstra was commissioned to make a short film about Rembrandt I he had the brilliant idea of filming the self-portraits painted over a period of 40 years in chronological order, one merging into the next... It almost seemed I that one saw Rembrandt's personality mature before one's eyes."

White and Buvelot and the writers of the individual essays have done us an enormous service in the breadth as well as depth of their focus on this sublime subject. Every catalogue entry is full of recondite but compellingly interesting information. The Self-Portrait with Beret and Chain of 1630-31 from the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool was originally bought by Sir Robert Kerr, first earl of Ancram, while on a mission to The Hague for Charles I. He presented it to his master and, after the regicide, Cromwell ordered the king's effects to be sold. Thus, to show that Rembrandt did not always enjoy the iconic status he has today, while other paintings that had belonged to the king went for as much as £800, the Walker's chief treasure was sold to one Major Edward Bass for the quite unprincely sum of £5.

A most useful adjunct to both show and book is the section devoted to Rembrandt's pupils. One of them, Samuel van Hoogstraten, offered a marvellously acute perception of what Rembrandt had so brilliantly demonstrated throughout his self-portraiture. Hoogstraten advised his own pupils to empathise as closely as possible with the emotions of the figures in history pieces while looking into a mirror: "Thus must one reshape oneself entirely into an actor in front of a mirror, being both exhibitor and beholder."

Many of us came to admire Rembrandt's etchings in book form via Ludwig Munz's two-volume catalogue raisonne, published by Phaidon in 1952. This book was invaluable at the time even if rather short on text. In 1969 Christopher White published Rembrandt as an Etcher with Zwemmer and now we are indebted to Yale for a magnificent revised edition. With the etchings so much less a topic for dispute than the oil paintings, there is, inevitably, nothing earth-shakingly revelatory in the new edition. There are, however, notable additions to White's lucid descriptions of the technique of an artist whom I, for one, regard as the greatest etcher of all time. I worship Goya and the Piranesi of the Carceri , but Rembrandt combines a technical virtuosity and a huge range of subject matter with an emotional and intellectual depth that is unrivalled. Not surprisingly, the etched self-portraits have a particular resonance at this time, but White's book displays, as the National Gallery does not, given its self-imposed restrictive remit, the extraordinarily wide nature of the subject matter beyond the artist's own appearance. The religious work from the so-called "Hundred Guilder Print", (Rembrandt was reputed to have paid that considerable sum to buy back an impression of the print) and The Three Crosses to Abraham's Sacrifice are, in all their various states, astounding. The portrait of Jan Six is possibly the greatest portrait etching ever achieved, rivalled only by the Self-Portrait Etching at a Window of 1648 .

Lest anyone think that everything about Rembrandt's work is high-minded, there is an entirely charming portrayal of sexual intercourse, Ledikant of 1648 , with a jauntily feathered velvet cap placed on the end of a bedpost as what White calls "a symbol probably of love or lasciviousness".

It is no criticism of the old Phaidon book, which was admirably produced by the standards of 1952, to say how much better printed on superior paper the Yale book is. We see far more clearly the almost miraculous metamorphoses that Rembrandt caused to take place between one state of the etching and the next. My only criticism is more in the nature of a book-making fantasy. There is one colour illustration only, a glorious reproduction of a copper etching plate. Given the infinite chromatic variation of these theoretically monochrome works of art, how wonderful it would be to have all the etchings reproduced in full colour, for the eventual third edition of White's masterly book?

Kenneth Clark, writing about Rembrandt in his 1966 Wrightsman lectures, observed: "How little we can anticipate the tastes and needs of a great artist!" I do not believe I am offering any hostage to fortune when I say that were Rembrandt able to visit us today, he would find both these books necessary as well as to his taste.

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Rembrandt to Himself

Editor - Christopher White and Quentin Buvelot
ISBN - 1 85709 252 X
Publisher - National Gallery
Price - £25.00
Pages - 2

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