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).
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.