Eye Candy for Today: Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with Two Circles

Self-portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt
Self-portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt

We don’t have access on the web to an image at the level of high resolution available for the Rembrandt self-portrait at the age of 53 that I wrote about a few days ago, but we can see enough to appreciate more of the master’s superb painting skills.

Rembrandt was adept at all aspects of painting: glazing, wet-into-wet, scumbling and even scratching out with the butt of a brush, as he has done here in the cloth just below the neck, and perhaps above the eye to our left (though I’m not sure those are entirely intentional marks).

The scumbled brush strokes that make up his cap and the texture of his hair are remarkable for their economy and textural qualities.

Everything here seems almost casual, flowing from the master’s hand as only years of experience can permit. The hand holding the brushes is just a gestural smudge. Whether Rembrandt intended to bring the painting to a more finished state is unknown, but for all its brusque economy, it works beautifully as a complete work.

The two circles suggested against the plane of the background are something of a mystery; various speculations have been put forward, but Rembrandt’s actual intentions are unknown. Whether or not the circles have a purpose beyond compositional elements, they function brilliantly in that respect.

We don’t have a date for this painting as closely pinpointed as some of his other portraits. The date is assumed to be between 1665 and 1669, putting Rembrandt’s age at between 59 and 63. It’s notable as one of the self-portraits in which he has portrayed himself working, rather than in costume.

Rembrandt’s gaze here is more confident than in the portrait of 1659, resigned, perhaps, to his misfortunes, but continuing to exert his mastery of painting.

Both this and the self-portrait from 1659 on display as part of the exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works, at the National Gallery, London until 18 January 2015.

This image can be downloaded from the Rijksmuseum page devoted to the same exhibition, which will move there in February of 2015. (There is also a large image accompanying an article on the painting on Wikipedia, but it’s oversaturated and poorly focused.)

The original is in the collection of Kenwood House, London (which does not have a website as far as I know).

Art writer Jonathan Jones of The Guardian has called this the greatest painting in Britain.

3 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Rembrandt’s Self-portrait with Two Circles”

  1. I’ve seen this self portrait many times in books and always pause to admire it. Yet, just now, I noticed an oddity about the alignment of the mouth in relation to the nose. In my view, the philtrum does not seem to match up with the septum in any anatomical sense. Possibly this is a physical anomaly, I wondered. Yet, compared to other Rembrandt self portraits it seems it’s not. Does this misalignment seem apparent to anyone else?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Wanda. I hadn’t noticed, but I can see what you mean. My best guess would be that it’s a matter of Rembrandt turning to his mirror in slightly different positions when painting his mouth and nose, and not taking the trouble to correct for it. This painting seems more quickly realized and sketch-like than most of his painted self-portraits, even to the point of being unfinished. I also think the fact that he is not in costume indicates that he painted this for himself, and not as a presentation piece.

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