In this self-portrait, dressed in old clothes, wearing an ordinary cap and a collarless shirt, his face weary and badly shaven, Rembrandt portrayed himself as a grand old master, aging and poor, but serene, in the solitude of creation.
Rembrandt painted this portrait in 1660 with oil on canvas at age 54, nine years before his death. That we encounter the artist unexpectedly and alone suggests the privacy appropriate for candid conversation. The setting describes the quiet enclosure of an interior. The artist's shadow shows little space between himself and the rear wall, suggesting there is only room enough for Rembrandt and his easel, as if to assure us that no one else is around. A narrow field of light just barely covers the scene, and shrinks the space within the frame to add visual intimacy. All of these elements work to present the image as a visual divulgence.
Rembrandt orchestrates our attention with a strongly focused light source entering the frame from somewhere high above and left, and carefully aimed to collide directly with his stark white painter's cap. Commentators have discovered through x-ray examination of his self-portraits that Rembrandt sometimes painted himself in such white caps only to replace them later with darker ones, such as colored turbans. In this self-portrait, he not only kept the white cap, but also intensified its prominence above every other object in the frame. The cap's crown reflects the brilliant light so intensely that its upper folds lose definition in patches of almost pure white. This modest symbol of Rembrandt's craft becomes itself a light source of almost spiritual dimensions, casting a halo in the atmosphere around Rembrandt's head, and against the dark background. These visual effects seem to suggest that it is through painting that Rembrandt receives his benediction and spiritual sustenance, and that it is through the act of painting that he aspires to transcendence.
As the light leaves the cap, it reflects next most brightly on the highest spots of Rembrandt's forehead, the only other place in the frame where loss of detail occurs in the light's intensity. This detail visually ties Rembrandt's flesh and blood humanity to the inspiration of the painting act, as if to highlight the role of human effort and imagination in the process. All else in the frame falls quickly away in the sharply diminishing light characteristic of his chiaroscuro style.
(Continued at http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/rembrandt/self1660.jpg.html)