Winter Sunlight: Rembrandt's Self-Portraits at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Winter Sunlight: Rembrandt's Self-Portraits at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


Portraits are generally painted when the subject, is at a flood-tide of life and personality: the aureate youth of Giorgione s shepherd-boys, or the fragile and complacent grace of van Dyck's women, or the sinewed middle age of Ruben's patricians. Rembrandt's portraits are not so much of people who at present live as of people who have lived. Their faces are their autobiographies. Their existences are bitten into their features, into each twisted wrinkle and each dark hollow: the scurry and flutter of their youth, the extraordinary aspirations and the commonly quite ordinary achievements; the passions that have clawed their faces until suppressed; the middle-aged striving for social eminence, the solidity of having gained it, the neighbourliness and the small-talk; and, too late, the attainment of power in old age. All they have experienced (Rembrandt among them) emerges in impasto and sullen meditative shadow, although, like the gloom of van Goyen's November landscapes, shot through with glances of sunshine. Only warily did Rembrandt adopt the Caravaggism of his predecessors, the Utrecht Mannerists, preferring their half-lights to their blaze as he painted in his small-windowed house in the Amsterdam Jodenbreestraat by light reflected from the dim canal outside.

Nowhere is this more true than in the portraits of himself that Rembrandt painted after the death of his wife Saskia in 1642. She was the mother of his son Titus, who was also to predecease him. The later and less apocryphal of the two self-portraits in the Wallace Collection (in accordance with its founder's wishes, never lent elsewhere, and so not in the National Gallery's current exhibition, Rembrandt by Himself) derives from the sad turning-point of Saskia's long debility and death. Rembrandt emerges from the surrounding gloom with an heroic but poignant attempt to compose himself, though his pouched eyes water and he bites his chapped lower lip: it was a moment he did wish to be forgotten. He preserves his tears for Saskia as in a lachrymatory. His cap is drawn down over a woeful brow. His heavy chin sinks in misgiving. His worn face is scarcely believable as that of a man hardly thirty-six years old, and at the height of his fame for his Passion Sequence, now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, painted for the Prince of Orange, Stadholder and grandfather of William III of England.

Rembrandt's personal disaster increased his introspection, ever present in his early canvases and etchings. After the death of his close friend, the novelist Raymond Radiguet, Jean Cocteau spent hours at a time staring at his own face in a mirror; an experience which led to the axiom in Cocteau's film, Orphee: 'Gaze into the mirror, and you will see Death at work like bees in a glass hive'. The self-portrait in the Wallace Collection also marks a dour transference from romance and idealism to what John Constable called 'the unaffected truth of expression' of the Dutch painters, many of them pupils or admirers of Rembrandt. No longer would they, dreaming, hunt the Unicom in the tapestried wood of the Northern Renaissance; no longer approach the three goddesses appraised by Paris, as Bloemaert and Wtewael had done, and Poelenburgh whimsically continued to do. It was raining outside and time to close the windows.

It had been otherwise in the two self-portraits he painted at the age of twenty-three: an intent hobbledehoy peering through his tousled hair in the version at the Alte Pinakothek; and in the version in the Germanisches Museum at Nuremberg, staring out proudly but not with utter confidence, pleased with the bronze gorget which supports the fine but crumpled lace-collar common to both pictures. Although a person of little jollity, and no extrovert, he had a taste, partly derived from his master, Pieter Lastman, for charades. He loved to dress up, and to dress his sitters up, in the remarkable contents of his stage-wardrobe: old armour, oriental robes and other bargains from the quayside markets and old-clothes shops of Amsterdam.

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