Friday, July 9, 2010

Rembrandt’s Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul

Rembrandt's Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul
Rembrandt created one of the most extraordinary visual autobiographies in the history of art in the form of over 80 self portraits in paintings, drawings and etchings.

At times he used himself as a model for a historical or Biblical subject, in this case as the Apostle Paul, seen with the characteristic manuscript and sword (the hilt of which is visible under his cloak).

Here we see Rembrandt exhibiting his astonishing skill as a painter.

From the deft rough strokes that define the head wrapping to the physical texture of the scumbling on the intensly rendered face, Rembrandt applies shockingly modern contrasts of color and texture, pulling the face from the darkness of the background in a mastery of chiaroscuro second to none (I won’t get into the Rembrandt vs. Caravaggio arguments – grin).

Rembrandt is about 55 here, the painting is dated 1661. It’s interesting to compare this work with some of his other portraits, like this one at his easel eight year later.

You can see more of Rembrandt’s self portraits in a selection here on the Rembrandt van Rijn site created by Jonathan Janson, who is also responsible for the wonderful Essential Vermeer site (see my post on Essential Vermeer).

The original of this work is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (large version here).

There is a nice book of Rembrandt’s self portraits, Rembrandt by Himself by National Gallery London Publications. You may have to look around a bit to find a copy.

Rembrandt looks weary here; once the most successful and sought after painter in Amsterdam, his fortunes were fading. The year before he was forced to sell his house and etching press and seek more modest accommodations. He had made antagonists of the Painter’s Guild, who had made it difficult for him to ply his skills legally; a problem he circumvented by placing his wife and son as owners of his business; and his latest commission for city hall, granted because the painter originally contracted had died, would be rejected.

Rembrant’s visual autobiography is a tale of both triumph and tragedy; but the telling, the paintings themselves, are undeniable high marks in the history of art.

5 thoughts on “Rembrandt’s Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul

  1. Gary Symington

    I was fortunate to see his masterpiece “The Night Watch” in the Rijksmuseum (1976) shortly after it had been repaired– the result of being slashed by a rather unbalanced visitor. The science of its restoration–on display with the painting, was nearly as interesting as the painting itself. Rembrandt vs. Caravaggio–now there’s a debate!

  2. Bjorn

    I’m lucky to live real close by the Rijksmuseum so I can drop by to examine his work in person. Whenever I’m stuck with my work Rembrandt knows how so solve it all. I love the thick whites and the thin blacks.

  3. Daniel van Benthuysen

    Weary is indeed a good word to describe many of the late self-portraits by Rembrandt, Charley. And in that weary state he seems to have dropped all pretense. Although presumably still enormously proud of his painting abilities, he seems humble regarding just about everything else.

    This St. Paul shares many qualities with another favorite of mine, the large 1658 self-portrait in the Frick in NY.
    (Zoomable image here: http://collections.frick.org/CUS.18.zoomobject._957$5267*625843)

    The gaze in the Frick painting is captivating and inevitably distracts viewers from the mistake Rembrandt made in placing his left elbow too far from his shoulder and torso. The old masters DID make mistakes but their power in composition and psychological drama over-rode many errors.

    For anyone interested in further Rembrandt studies (there are SO many from which to choose) I recommend Simon Schama’s book, “Rembrandt’s Eyes.” Schama (yes, he who wrote and narrated the PBS “The Power of Art”) is not, strictly speaking, an ART historian. He’s a historian who happens to be very interested in art and artists and the difference makes for more potent insights, I think.

  4. Tim B

    I second the above recommendation of the Simon Schama book. He does a great job of placing Rembrandt’s art in its social and historical context, provides some fascinating perspective on Rembrandt’s relationship to Rubens.

    As part of the latter, he essentially writes a small biography of Rubens embedded in the larger book and the story of Rubens’ parents is – all by itself – worth the cover price.

    But most of all, he really, really gets the heartbreak at the center of Rembrandt’s story and the heroism of his continuing to paint in the face of it.

  5. Valentino

    Speaking about books, I’d recommend Ernst van de Wetering’s excellent title “Rembrandt: The Painter at Work”. It is very interesting for both painters and art historians.

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