After learning the fundamentals of drawing and painting in his native Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn went to Amsterdam in 1624 to study for six months with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), a famous history painter. Upon completion of his training Rembrandt returned to Leiden. Around 1632 he moved to Amsterdam, quickly establishing himself as the town’s leading artist. He received many commissions for portraits and attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting.

Rembrandt painted, drew, and etched so many self-portraits in his lifetime that changes in his appearance invite us to gauge his moods by comparing one image to another. Such a biographical reading is encouraged by the way in which the artist confronts the viewer directly. Rembrandt painted this self-portrait in 1659, after he had suffered financial failure despite so many years of success. His spacious house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat and other possessions had been auctioned the previous year to satisfy his creditors. In this late work, the deep-set eyes that bore into those of the viewer seem to express inner strength and dignity. Interpreting paintings on the basis of an artist’s biography is nevertheless dangerous, particularly with an artist whose life has been romanticized to the extent that Rembrandt’s has.

The light that so effectively illuminates the head also accents Rembrandt’s left shoulder and, to a lesser extent, his broadly executed clasped hands. Rembrandt’s pose was inspired by Raphael’s famous portrait of Balthasar Castiglione, which had appeared in an auction in Amsterdam in 1639. Following Raphael’s prototype, Rembrandt used the pose, costume, and expression to present himself as a learned painter.


  • Title: Self-Portrait
  • Creator: Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Date Created: 1659
  • Physical Dimensions: overall: 84.5 x 66 cm (33 1/4 x 26 in.) framed: 122.9 x 104.1 x 8.9 cm (48 3/8 x 41 x 3 1/2 in.)
  • Provenance: Purchased by George Brudenell, 4th earl of Cardigan [1712-1790, later George Montagu, duke of Montagu (new creation)], Montagu House, Whitehall, London, by 1767;[1] by inheritance to his daughter and sole heiress, Elizabeth, duchess of Buccleuch [1743-1827, née Lady Elizabeth Montagu, wife of Henry Scott, 3rd duke of Buccleuch and 5th duke of Queensberry, 1746-1812], Montagu House; by descent through the dukes of Buccleuch and Queensberry to John Charles Montagu, 7th duke of Buccleuch and 9th duke of Queensberry [1864-1935], Montagu House; sold 1928 to (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., New York), on joint account with (M. Knoedler & Co., New York);[2] sold January 1929 to Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.; deeded 28 December 1934 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh; gift 1937 to NGA. [1] The Knoedler prospectus for the painting (in NGA curatorial files) states that the painting was purchased by Brudunell in 1740. However, the first firm evidence for his ownership is a mezzotint after the self-portrait, dated 1767 and published by R. Earlom (1743-1822), which is inscribed as "From the Original Picture...In the Collection of his Grace the Duke of Montagu" (see John Charrington, _A Catalogue of the Mezzotints After, or Said to Be After, Rembrandt_, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1923: 34-35, no. 49. According to an inventory of Montagu House, Whitehall, made in 1770, this painting and Rembrandt's _An Old Woman Reading_ (still at the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry's Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire, Scotland) were purchased together for 140 pounds; see Francis Russell's entry on _An Old Woman Reading_ in Gervase Jackson-Stops, ed., _The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting_, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., New Haven and London, 1985: 363-364, no. 292. See also Burton B. Fredericksen, "Leonardo and Mantegna in the Buccleuch Collection," _The Burlington Magazine_ 133 (February 1991): 116. [2] Nicholas H.J. Hall, ed., _Colnaghi in America: A Survey to Commemorate the First Decade of Colnaghi New York_, New York, 1992: 24, fig. 24. According to the Getty Provenance Index® Database of Public Collections (J. Paul Getty Trust, Paintings Record 17095), there is no regular entry in Colnaghi’s stockbooks, but transactions for the painting are documented in Colnaghi's Private Ledger; the painting was Knoedler’s number A-409. The 1928 sale of the painting by the 7th duke is also confirmed by a letter of 28 November 1928, from Charles J. Holmes, then director of the National Gallery, London, to Otto Gutekunst of Colnaghi (in NGA curatorial files, received at the time of the 1937 gift). Gutekunst had shown Holmes the painting "in confidence" and Holmes wrote to ask if it could be lent briefly to the Gallery "before it crosses the Atlantic."
  • Medium: oil on canvas

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