Making an exhibition of oneself

June 11, 1999

A new exhibition could explain why Rembrandt created nearly 100 self-portraits, Kam Patel reports.

Few giants in the history of art have left behind quite such an intriguing body of self-portraits as Rembrandt. We have images of him as a wild-haired, precocious 22-year-old enfant terrible and likenesses of him in the year of his death, 1669, with a host of variations in between. Sometimes he even imposed his likeness on to figures in his historical and dramatic works.

Why Rembrandt, the endlessly innovative master of light and shadow and etcher extraordinaire, should be so preoccupied with painting himself is an enduring mystery that academics and art historians have squabbled over for decades. Are they the works of a man wanting to know more about his inner self, agonising about his place in the world? Or was his motivation less prosaic: the self-portraits sold, something the big-spending artist (who ended up bankrupt in 1656 at the age of 50) could not ignore?

The puzzle will never be solved to everyone's satisfaction, but this week the public is being given a chance to make up its own mind with a blockbuster exhibition of the artist's self-portraits at the National Gallery in London. Boasting 70 works, the show features most of Rembrandt's self-portraits, including the famous painting from Kenwood House, voted the nation's favourite painting in a 1997 survey. "It is such an obvious show to do, it's amazing no one has done it before," says Alexander Sturgis, exhibition curator.

It was in the 19th century that scholars became aware of the sheer scale on which Rembrandt recorded his likeness. They discovered, says Ernst van der Wetering, a leading Rembrandt scholar and professor of art history at the University of Amsterdam, that Rembrandt painted his portrait before the mirror at least 40 times, etched his likeness 31 times and made a handful of drawn self-portraits. "New self-portraits appeared almost annually, sometimes several times a year," says van der Wettering.

Sturgis, who trained at Oxford University and at the Courtauld Institute in London, points out that by the 19th century Rembrandt was seen as the archetypal romantic artist and non-conformist. It is this view of him as a rebel, as a romantic who shunned the officially sanctioned classical movement around him, that led to the theory that his self-portraits were the works of someone exploring his inner self, confronting his insecurities and attempting to establish his place in the scheme of things.

The basic tenor of virtually all Rembrandt studies this century has been to challenge this 19th century view. Art historians in the past 50 years have pointed out that Rembrandt was painting in a pre-romantic age when notions of the importance and uniqueness of the individual had not yet emerged. But Sturgis himself is not entirely happy with the scale of this revisionism:

"I find it incredibly difficult to empathise with the notion of a 17th-century world in which somehow individuality is not conceived of as being as natural as it is to us today. It's like saying the unconscious world did not exist before Freud."

A further complication in analysing the role of Rembrandt's self-portraits is that a lot of them do not seem to be about Rembrandt the man at all but are, rather, explorations of the representation of different abstract emotions. Self-portrait, Wide-eyed (1630), for instance, is one of a group of four etchings of different facial expressions and shows his head jerked back in wonder and astonishment. The others in the series show him with an angry expression, smiling and open-mouthed. There are also other "heads" which see him represented by costume and type, for example as a young soldier or an old woman. Not only were these for sale but they also probably allowed Rembrandt to experiment before incorporating these figures into his history paintings.

The existence of these heads suggests that many of these "self-portraits" may not have been recognised as having been of Rembrandt at all, says Sturgis. And the fact that they were of Rembrandt was of minimal importance: he was simply using himself as a model.

The only piece of evidence against this interpretation is that a Rembrandt self-portrait in the collection of King Charles I showing an exotically dressed young man was described in 1633 as being a self-portrait of Rembrandt. "It is the only piece of evidence and so perhaps carries more weight than it should ... but Rembrandt was recognised as a genius from very early on, the fact that Charles I owned a self-portrait of him is an indication of that, says Sturgis."

Many today argue that the existence of so many self and "not-so-self"-portraits simply indicates that Rembrandt was only doing more of what he was famously good at. The people who bought these self-portraits, the "art lovers", were buying not only something Rembrandt was uniquely skilled at - expressive heads - but also a picture of the man to boot. A bargain surely.

But Sturgis does not accept this line of argument: "It works up to a point, but I do not think you can explain completely why Rembrandt returns to himself over and over again without admitting he had at least some interest in exploring and depicting his inner self."

One particular feature of Rembrandt's paintings which throws the debate into focus is his deployment of shadows across the brow. It is an obvious recurring "motif" in Rembrandt's self-portraits but is absent in his portraits of others, even when his models wore hats which might allow shadows to fall across the brow. Why the discrepancy?

"If you really wanted to be pragmatic and unromantic and not read anything into it, you could say that an artist naturally shades his eyes because he can see better, but I think Rembrandt is playing with mood and expression again, doing it his own way for himself. The eyes have always been seen as windows to the soul - it is a trick he plays in his narrative paintings, particularly the late ones, hiding the soul as it were."

Scholarly arguments over why Rembrandt recorded himself so much are destined to go on without, one suspects, any resolution. Nevertheless, the perception many people have today of Rembrandt has been shaped by his self-portraits. Sturgis wonders "how the extraordinary power the self-portraits have might have been changed if he had not been as ugly as he was. The fact that he has got that pudding face ..."

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the famous Kenwood House holding, Self-portrait with Two Circles. Dated 1665-69, it is a monumental work depicting the artist towards the end of his turbulent and at times tragic life looking anything but resigned: "It is an amazing painting in all sorts of ways," says Sturgis. "Certainly in this country if people have a vision of Rembrandt then it probably comes from that self-portrait." The work shows Rembrandt as a painter - astonishing in itself as the artist scarcely ever showed himself with palette and brushes. There has been much debate about the meaning of the two arcs, parts of circles, in the background and many explanations put forward. One explains the significance of the circle in terms of the art theory of the time. Being able to draw freehand a perfect circle showed great skill. But the circle was also associated with perfection and eternity, and so was taken up as the symbol of artistic excellence.

The National Gallery show is being billed as a unique chance for people to make up their own minds about the myriad enigmas surrounding Rembrandt's self-portraits. But, as Sturgis points out, there is one other selling point: "You could not have a show like this for anyone else. There is no one you can watch grow old before your eyes quite like this."

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