In relation to self-portraiture Rembrandt feels like the visual embodiment Socrates’ credo; “Know thyself,” and in this respect he remains unequalled in the history of Art. Rembrandt‘s extraordinary realness in facing himself never fails to move me every time I am confronted by it. The trajectory of his 80+ surviving paintings, etchings and drawings in the genre resoundingly depict a man, rather than a Romantic projection of the artist/ genius. This is the source of his timeless appeal, in being one of us; warts and all, transcending his artistic identity to speak to any human being who meets his gaze, regardless of the century they’re standing in.
In this Self-Portrait of 165[5?], we see the artist clothed in a modest brown velvet cap. His eyes absorb and contain the entire depth of the background. In the ground of all his works is that defining search, undertaken by all enduring artists; grappling with their chosen medium and with themselves. Lines of age, experience and the concentration of his furrowed brow are rendered out of darkness, brought into the yellowed light of illumination and decay. He looks within himself and the viewer simultaneously, careworn and intensely human; the layered paintwork of his skin and the fragility of individual hairs catching the light conveying the vulnerability of mortal flesh, magnified with age. He is as we all are, marching towards an inevitable fate. This sense of a real life lived rather than the artifice of a painted surface; skin deep, is one of the most compelling elements of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Self-delusional vanity simply isn’t part of his grammar. It is impossible for me not to feel reverence in the presence of such honesty, especially in the context of contemporary Western culture which denies age, human frailty and death. There is something achingly beautiful in the dignity, awareness and knowing within this self portrait, something which reaches powerfully across time to acknowledge the eternal human condition. This is Rembrandt wrestling with the unknown, trying to see into the dark, to find out who he is through a lifetime’s work and who we are as a conscious species in the process. What makes his self-portraiture “Great”, in the fullest sense of that word, is not the prolific outpouring of images or the canonized label of “Master”, but the psychological depth of exploration and the artist’s emotional intelligence. This isn’t a singular emoji of expression but a myriad of hopes, knowing and sorrows, everything the artist has experienced to that point brought to bear in a single image of brilliant complexity and poignancy. Rather than returning to his own image for self-gratification, we are faced with Rembrandt’s essential humanity which shines through even his darkest paintings, acknowledging forces greater than himself.