An innovative and prolific painter, draughtsman and etcher, Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the greatest artists of the 17th-century Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Over the course of his 40-year career he painted, drew and etched roughly 80 self-portraits. They trace his life and career from ambitious young artist, through the confident and successful painter of the 1630s and 1640s to the aged, troubled master of his late years. This painting at Kenwood was one of his last. It was begun around 1665 when Rembrandt was 59. Among the largest and most imposing of all Rembrandt’s self-portraits, it is celebrated for its technical brilliance and ruthless honesty, offering one of the most distinctive and defining images of the artist.
Unlike many of his earlier self-portraits, in which Rembrandt depicted himself artificially posed or acting out a part in an elaborate costume, Self-Portrait with Two Circles shows him simply as a painter in his studio. He is plainly dressed in working clothes with a fur-lined tabard, traditionally worn by painters since the 16th century, along with a simple white linen cap. In his left hand he holds the tools of his trade – a wooden palette, brushes, and a long mahlstick, a tool used as a rest to steady his hand while painting. To the right can be seen the edge of the canvas on which he is working. Rather than showing himself in the act of painting, Rembrandt stares directly at us, with one hand on his hip.
An X-ray of Self-Portrait with Two Circles reveals that Rembrandt dramatically altered the composition of the painting and in doing so, changed the way in which he presented himself. Originally, Rembrandt had painted himself at work. The x-ray shows him turned further to his left, with his left hand raised in the act of painting. His artist’s tools – palette, brushes and mahlstick – are held in his right hand. We know from other self-portraits that Rembrandt did not paint with his left hand. The error presumably happened because Rembrandt was precisely copying his reversed reflection in a mirror. He therefore altered the composition, transferring his tools into his left hand, realigning his body with the front of the picture plane, and hiding his now empty right hand in the folds of his painter’s tabard. In doing so, Rembrandt transformed the painting from an image of an artist at work, captured in the act of creating a painting, to the image of an artist in his studio. The focus is no longer on the action of painting but on Rembrandt’s likeness.
There is an on-going debate about whether Rembrandt ever finished Self-Portrait with Two Circles.
Some areas of the painting, like the white linen cap and his right hand resting on his hip, appear to have been merely ‘blocked in’, ready for the artist to return to later. Other areas of the canvas, The painting is neither signed nor dated, which is unusual for Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Some scholars have argued that he no longer felt the need to sign his work, as he was a celebrity in his lifetime, known as nostrae aetatis miraculum (the wonder of our age) and his face would have been recognisable to many. Some art historians have even gone so far as to suggest that by the 1660s, Rembrandt may have felt that his distinctive style of painting was a signature itself.
The two enigmatic circles in the background, from which the painting takes its name, have fascinated and perplexed viewers and scholars for generations. There are many theories surrounding the meaning of the circles. The most popular theory focuses on a story about the great Italian painter Giotto (d.1337), who reputedly proved his artistic skill by drawing a perfect circle freehand. Although Rembrandt paints two incomplete circles rather than one perfect circle, scholars have suggested that he is associating himself with Giotto’s legendary genius, using his own distinctive, virtuoso style.
Overlooking London’s Hampstead Heath since the early 17th century, Kenwood House was transformed in the 18th century into a grand neoclassical villa. Now restored to its Georgian splendour, Kenwood is home to a world-famous art collection.