A Discussion of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery

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A Discussion of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, National Gallery

The art repertoire of Rembrandt van Rijn, the great seventeenth-century Dutch painter, contains nearly ninety self-portraits, creating a forty-year autobiography of self-exploration.  His innate propensity to study his own image was reinforced by the social and cultural atmosphere of his time, and his efforts to distinguish himself from his contemporaries.  Upon looking into the face of a Rembrandt self-portrait, one can perceive his extraordinary aspirations, his attainment of power and status, and the misery that he found in his last years.  In examining Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 63, 1669, and comparing it to an early work done at age thirty-four, his purpose in creating these paintings can be ascertained, as can the effect of his position in life when they were done.

        During the seventeenth century, there was a rise in individualism or the concept of the human being as autonomous and self-governing.  Under this idea, “man (as opposed to God) makes and shapes the world in which he is primary” (Chapman, 4).  The value of the individual and his own uniqueness is derived from Renaissance Italy and the Reformation, which created a fundamental shift toward a man-centered view.  The growth of individualism “marked a radical reordering of society that prompted many to turn inward and closely examine their lives, values and beliefs” (Chapman, 5).  This introspection assumed the mode of the autobiography, a new literary form, and the self-portrait.  It is through self-portraiture that Rembrandt is able to portray “extreme traits of the emerging and anxious individual, trying to make sense of, or accommodate himself to, a rapidly changing world; and the mature Rembrandt attains an uncommon degree of autonomy” (Chapman, 6).  

        So why did Rembrandt choose to depict himself in over fifty paintings?  Early on in his career, as a young man in Leiden, he may have been influenced by the disadvantageous conditions that heightened the artists’ determination to elevate their professional status.  Leiden, not belonging to the guild of St. Luke, did not afford the local painters protection from outside competition, and they may have subsequently been prompted to create self-promoting works.  These works would also, in turn, hopefully raise respect for the field.  Rembrandt’s desire to produce his earliest self-portraits may have been affected by this artistic consciousness.  Another influence may have been “his desire to capture . . . the greatest and most natural emotion”, which was Rembrandt’s “sole utterance on his artistic aims” (Chapman, 17).  Rembrandt and his contemporaries, “with their intensified concern to make visible the deepest recesses of the human psyche”, may have realized that the best way to capture extreme emotion is in their own faces (Chapman, 17).  Rembrandt “portrayed himself because he could make the faces he wanted, and could study the familiar structure of his own head distorted by anger, laughter or indignation” (Clark, 14).  And he believed that people should be painted as one find’s them in the Bible, and thus he was determined to “set down every shape, area, tone and color exactly as he saw it” (Clark, 26).  And he thus began with the person he knew best – himself.  

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        Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden in 1606, the ninth child of a miller and his wife who were quite wealthy. The parents had ambitions for their son and sent him to Latin school and then to Leiden University, but he preferred a career in art, so in 1622 he began a three-year apprenticeship with a local painter who ultimately left no trace on his art. Around 1626 he set up as an independent painter in Leiden.  There he began attracting the attention of art lovers and collectors.  Around 1628 -- when he was producing self-portrait etchings that emphasized ...

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