Rembrandt up close!

Face-to-face with the Master of Light

By Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Alte Pinakothek, Bavarian State Painting Collections

Self-Portrait (1629) by Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn)Original Source: Object in the Online-Collection of the Pinakotheken

On October 4, 1669 — 350 years ago — Rembrandt van Rijn (1606/07–69) died in his adopted home of Amsterdam at the age of 63. Already during his lifetime, he was one of the most important and successful Dutch painters of the Golden Age.

Self-Portrait (1669) by Rijn, Rembrandt vanMauritshuis

Over the course of his career, Rembrandt painted himself more often than almost any other artist: about ninety times in fourty years.

Self-portrait of Rembrandt van Rijn (1628/1629) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van RijnRijksmuseum

In the early six years of his career, in which Rembrandt worked as an independent artist in Leiden, he created about thirty self-portraits, including drawings, etchings, and paintings.

Rembrandt Laughing (about 1628) by Rembrandt Harmensz. van RijnThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Especially Rembrandt's early self-portraits should really be seen as studies which the young artist painted in order to practice reproducing different facial expressions. These works of art allowed him to experiment with how to use light and shadow most effectively and achieve the best results by using different engraving and painting techniques. In this way, Rembrandt found his own expressive style as an artist, characterized among other things by the dramatic use of light and, typically, the application of paint in many different ways.

Self-Portrait (1629) by Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn)Original Source: Object in the Online-Collection of the Pinakotheken

The small Munich wooden panel with the bust of a young man shows Rembrandt at the age of 23.

The picture bears the inscription »RHL 1629« (Rembrandt Harmenszoon Leiden) on the right-hand side at chin height.

Rembrandt seeks closeness to the viewer and shows a narrow section of the picture, presenting only his head and his right shoulder up to his chest. Bending slightly forward, he turns his head toward the observer, looking at his audience with eyes wide open and slightly raised eyebrows. His full, almost shoulder-length, curly hair falls over his forehead. The mouth is half-open.

A striking feature of the picture is the surprised expression on the young man's face, as if he was taken by surprise. The posture and expression give the impression of a snapshot — a brief, spontaneous moment in time. This is reinforced by the way the light falls, with sharp contrasts between light and dark.

The strongly focused light falls diagonally from the left on to the artist's shirt collar, cheek, and earlobe, also touching the nose, mouth, and chin.

His eyes, probably the most expressive part of the face, lie in the shadow.

Rembrandt's painting style is also characterized by spontaneity; except for on a few parts of the face, the brushstrokes are broad and loose. The painter has depicted the texture of the shirt collar by applying the paint thickly with flowing strokes....

...while for the fine, curly hair falling over the forehead, he has made sweeping movements with a sharp object to scratch away the dark paint while it was still wet, revealing the underlying ocher color.

Self Portrait (Around 1628 - Around 1629) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

Rembrandt's early self-portraits not only served as studies, but also quickly became desired collector's items. With such a self-portrait, the buyer acquired not only one of Rembrandt's popular character studies, but also an authentic depiction of the face of the artist himself. This enabled the young artist to establish a »brand« on the market which he built up and continued to develop. To modern eyes, Rembrandt's approach is similar to that of Andy Warhol, whose portraits are also immediately recognizable to everyone, created in Warhol's typical style and occasionally also showing the artist himself.

The Deposition (1632/33) by Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn)Original Source: Object in the Online-Collection of the Pinakotheken

As a young historical painter, Rembrandt practiced reproducing the emotions, feelings, and expressions of the characters in his stories as realistically as possible, so as to lend authenticity to his pictures. He often acted as his own model, drawing the different facial expressions that he saw in his reflection in the mirror. These studies were not only used for practice, but were also used in paintings. While still in his workshop in Leiden, Rembrandt created, for example, »The Deposition« as part of his famous »Passion Cycle«.

When taking a closer look, it is clearly visible that some of the faces in the scenes of the Passion Cycle bear a striking resemblance to the artist's self-portrait.

Self-Portrait (1629) by Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn)Original Source: Object in the Online-Collection of the Pinakotheken

The impression of a casual and spontaneous snapshot of Rembrandt's self-portraits is comparable to today's »selfies«. The author of the picture captures himself in a moment determined by him.

Alexander Gerstl and #myrembrandt (2014)Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

One such »selfie« eventually brought Rembrandt into space: In 2014, the »Young Self-Portrait« was sent on journeys and distributed worldwide via digital channels - and beyond: Alexander Gerst, working on the ISS in 2014, also took part in the campaign - and thus showed Rembrandt the stars.

Rembrandt in Outer Space (2014/2014)Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen

Since July 2014, the »Young Self-Portrait« itself has been part of the universe: From a Bavarian DLR space station, the artwork was converted into a digital signal (a so-called »S Wave« between 2.6 and 3.95 GHz) and shot into space via a large radio antenna. Since then, this digitised version has been on its way to the end of our galaxy and will leave it in 52 years - only to embark on an eternal journey into the unknown in the endless vastness of space.

Self-Portrait (1629) by Rembrandt (Harmensz. van Rijn)Original Source: Object in the Online-Collection of the Pinakotheken

Rembrandt 350

On the occasion of the anniversary, Rembrandt's »Young Self-Portrait« is on display in the large Dutch Picture Gallery of the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, alongside other works by the Dutch master. In this environment, Rembrandt's »selfie« acts as a link between character studies and historical painting - 300 years later still as fascinating as at the time of its creation.

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