Sunday, 14 July 2013


“To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” - William Shakespeare

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in Leiden, the Netherlands. Although his family lived modestly his parents took great care with his education. At the age of fourteen he attended the University of Leiden. As his talent became apparent, he soon left university to pursue a career as an artist. He studied under local masters named Jacob van Swanenburch and Pieter Lastman who were known for historical paintings. It was not long before he was a master at his craft. At twenty-two he began taking on students of his own.

In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam to set up his studio there. Three years later he married Saskia van Uylenburgh. Her cousin was a successful art dealer who introduced him to wealthy patrons who commissioned portraits, thus ensuring Remrandt’s financial success. Besides painting portraits Rembrandt’s mythological and religious works were much in demand and in fashion. Nevertheless, his work was innovative and astounding, as well as being popular.

To an outsider, Rembrandt’s life seemed to have it all. He had a great career doing what he loved to do as well as the love of his wife. While he should have been enjoying a prosperous career he and his wife suffered one great personal loss after another. Within a span of five years each of his three children would die in infancy. In 1641 a son they named Titus would break that cycle. However, tragedy always seemed to prevail. Although their son lived, Saskia’s death would come one short year later.

In 1649 after a brief affair with his son’s nanny, Geertghe Dircx, Rembrandt found someone to share his life with. Hendrickje Stoffels, his housekeeper, soon became his partner in love and the subject for many of his paintings. 
Although he was successful in his career as an artist, teacher and art dealer, Rembrandt was living well beyond his means which finally drove him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. Much of his collection of art and antiquities including the sale of his house went to pay his huge debts.

During these times some of his greatest works were created: “The Jewish Bride”, “The Syndics of the Cloth Guild”, “Bathsheba”, and “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph”. 
His personal life seemed cursed as again he was robbed of a second chance at love. Hendrickje died in 1663 and two years later his only son would meet the same fate. Within a short year later on October 4th, 1669 at sixty-three years old Rembrandt died. He will always live on through the many masterpieces he left behind as he proves to be an inspiration to many.

While most artists may produce a self-portrait or two during their lifetime, Rembrandt depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty paintings, thirty-two etchings and several drawings. Many scholars agree that a Rembrandt self-portrait reflects his journey of self-discovery. His early self portrait etchings emphasised real fascinating facial expressions which were always cast in shadows. His study with chiaroscuro (contrast between light and dark) became a defining trademark. The mysterious nature of his paintings caught the attention of the art world at large as his reputation as an eccentric genius spread among collectors.

During his time in Amsterdam during the 1630s he began to paint himself with more light. He portrayed himself in many different ways; elegantly dressed and adorned with gold chains, as a fashionable middle class burgher donning a wide-brimmed hat and an expensive cloak or in other portraits as a beggar. During his marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh he portrayed the two of them in different scenarios. A 1636 etching depicts himself as an artist whose loving wife looks on at him while he creates. In another he is the prodigal son and Saskia is a temptress.

In a 1640 Rembrandt self portrait, he portrays himself as the accomplished man of means who can stand alongside great creators of the past. He was at the pinnacle of success during this, not only creating great works of art but also collecting creations of other great artists of his day. During the early 1640s he stayed away from self portraiture. One by one each of his three infant children would die within the first few months of life. His fourth child would to everyone’s surprise survive infancy. The birth and survival of his son Titus was one of the biggest joys of his lifetime.

He returned to self-portraiture in the later 1640s and 1650s with a different style. These portraits were mainly etchings that portrayed more sensitive inward looking images of self. A Rembrandt self-portrait painted in 1652 in which he wears his definitive beret depicts a more serious Rembrandt. In this painting he is facing front with hands on his hips wearing a plain brown robe. This was created during a time when his popularity was fading. He was experimenting with a more elegant Flemish style of painting that was not very popular.

When he was suffering financially he sold a few self-portraits just to keep his head above water. One in particular painted in 1659, a detail of which is shown above, is dark and sombre and the only illuminated feature is the face. This melancholy face and intense gaze seems to indicate how  forlorn he was feeling during this time. The rawness of his expression and each wrinkle painted realistically amplify his life history and the eyes disclose a despair of accumulated sorrows.

In the last year of his life he painted the last of his self-portraits. One shows himself standing in his studio with his palette and brushes in hand, a great painter until the end. He will always be known for being the master of the self-portrait. His legacy is an experience of self-discovery through art that artists and art lovers worldwide have had the privilege to enjoy.


  1. I think I must have looked at thousands of European, British and British Empire artists over the last 23 years, but always come back to Rembrandt.

    His self portraits were intimate and honest. Even in Hendrickje Stoffels as Bathsheba in her Bath, Rembrandt didn't attempt to make the model glamorous or seductive.

  2. Poor man, had a terrible time towards the end of his life...