Rembrandt, Self-Portraits Works Discussed: Studio copy, Rembrandt with a Gorget, oil on canvas, c. 1629 (Mauritshuis, The Hague) Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, oil on canvas, 1640 (National Gallery, London) Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, 1658 (Frick Collection) Self-Portrait, oil on canvas, c. 1665 (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Cologne) Speakers: Dr. David Drogin, Dr. Beth Harris For more videos, see www.smarthistory.org
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- [Opening Music]
- Dr Beth Harris(BH): So we were going to talk about Rembrandt's self portraits. And it's...it's really only with Rembrandt that you can say
- BH: we're going to talk about the artist. I mean, he's the first artist that you can do that with.
- Dr. David Drogan(DD) : Certainly, since portraiture had emerged as an independent genre of painting in the 1400's
- DD: other artistes had made self portraits, but for most other artists it was an occasional thing.
- BH: Right, like...Raphael..put himself in the school of Athens ..
- DD: Right, or even sometimes independent self portraits,
- DD: but none with the incredible regularity that Rembrandt did.
- BH: Right.Yeah.
- DD: Something like over 60 of them, you know, usually more than one a year.
- BH: Yeah.So he's really, sort of, taking it as a kind of a project for himself.
- DD: And it actually makes a lot of sense if we think about what we know about Rembrandt
- DD: and the development of his professional identity
- DD: because he was very self conscious about forming an identity...."Rembrandt - the painter"
- DD:And so he develops this characteristic Rembrandt style that it makes sense in his great interest in his identity
- DD: that he would also make a lot of self potraits as well
- BH: Yeah. And he has to also sort of deal with the market in Holland.
- DD: uh-huh
- BH: And he is making a name for himself as a portrait painter.
- DD: Right
- BH:So he's spending a lot of time thinking about what it means to make a portrait,
- BH: and a likeness and how to go beyond the
- BH: sort of, normal portrait tradition and do more with painting a face, or a likeness.
- DD: Right.Yeah.
- BH: So this is a really early...
- DD:This is an early one from 1629, he is only about 23 years old.And already we can see his,
- DD: kind of, hallmark characteristic features not only painting in general but also in his approach to portraiture.
- DD: For instance, the great "Tenebrism" - the bright light that shines directly on the face where the rest of the painting
- DD: seems to dissolve into loose shadow
- BH: Right.Which seems like a very baroque characteristic to me - that kind of very stark contrast of
- BH: light and dark. Very dramatic about the lighting.
- DD: (Agrees) Yeah. Sure. And you can see very much an influence of Carravaggio in the north here.
- BH: Yeah. And there 's also a kind of immediacy to it that I think is very Baroque.
- BH: In other words he looks like he's really sort of ..right there, he's alive, he's, may be just about to talk to us.And greet us.
- DD: Yeah! And even in this early painting.This early portrait we can see
- DD: what's typical of most of Rembrandt's portraits. The ...even though there is a kind of economy of paint
- DD: and he's not using a lot of tiny details, he still communicates the identity and the personality of the sitter...here himself
- DD: in a very engaging way, when he really seems to leap out at you.
- BH: Yeah. Yeah. Very life-like.
- DD: Very, very, life-like. And again, also, in terms of general characteristics, his rather painterly application
- DD: of the paint, although at this very very early stage of his career, it's not as exaggerated as it will be very shortly.
- BH: [agreeing and joining in] As it's gonna become.Yeah, that's right. So next one
- DD: [change of portrait on screen] Here's another one from a little bit later.
- BH: This is from 1640, and Rembrandt's 34 in it.I like this portrait, because it always looks to me like a very middle-aged kind of portrait to me. (a smile in her voice)
- DD: Yeah.
- BH: You know he's..it looks me like he's established himself as a portrait painter in Amsterdam...
- DD: He's successful......he's got students..he's making money...he's got commissions...
- DD: He's amassing an art collection..he's buying a house..he's..you know ...taking a wife...
- DD: He's doing the things that one does, as one gets into one's thirties.
- DD: (agrees) uh-huh.
- BH: And it also looks to me like he went out with all his money and bought himself some really nice clothes (a smile in her voice again)
- DD: Well, we know that he loved dressing people up, and so....
- BH: Yeah I think he liked dressing "himself" up.
- DD: Yeah himself, or other people that come to his portrait studio
- DD: The idea of getting dressed up and posing for a portrait is something that appeals to him
- DD: even in terms of the act of posing itself
- BH: Yeah.
- DD: Umm..something else to recognize here, in terms of ...you were saying...that..
- DD: he's showing himself being successful as an artist, is the way that this pose and even the outfit to a certain extent.. recalls renaissance self portraits.
- BH: Absolutely.
- DD: [switch to Titian's portrait on screen] Like people like Titian....paintings by Titian rather, or Raphael.
- BH: This is very much like a Titian..yeah.
- DD: He's inserting himself into a great line of major artists from the past.
- BH: Yeah. And I think that even though there's a sense of confidence that comes from this pose
- BH: and the luxury of the clothing that he's wearing, if you look at his face and his eyes, there's something kind of vulnerable,
- BH: something very self aware there, about sort of capturing himself.
- DD: Uh-huh. Sure.
- BH:as he moves through time..
- BH: From his youth toward his middle age...toward his old age...there is a sense of poignancy there.
- BH: that i think that's always there with Rembrandt's portraits.
- DD: That's right. So let's look at a little later one..
- DD: [switching to the next portrait on the screen].This is a portrait from 1658.Rembrandt is 52 years old.
- DD: This painting's at the Frick Museum New York city. And...
- DD: Again we could talk about the same kinds of things, it shows him with this great attention to
- DD: light and shadow, and how the light falling mostly on the face and the hand
- DD: brings the figure out of the dark background with the use of tenebrism.
- BH: But the figure is sort of coming apart a little bit now, because the paint is much more loosely applied.
- DD: You can see already that his approach has a much looser, rougher application of paint, and...
- DD: This painting is interesting for a couple of other reasons too.
- DD: This painting is pretty unique among his self portraits.
- BH: Yeah.
- DD: And all self portraits.
- BH:(emphatically) Yeah, he's frontal. In fact..you know...
- DD: (interjecting) He's completely frontal!!
- BH: We hardly ever see that pose in any portrait.
- DD: Exactly! Usually most people in portraits are represented, even if their face is looking frontally, their body..
- BH: (agreeing) Right, their shoulders are three-quarters.
- DD: ..their body is turned three-quarters toward us.The only people that are represented completely frontally
- DD: usually are kings, dukes, other people at the very top of the heirarchy...umm..
- DD: Combined with the robe that he's wearing, and the chair he's sitting in, and the stick that he's holding..
- BH: Right.It sort of feels almost like..reads almost like a ...sceptre, like a king would hold.
- DD: Exactly.It's clear that Rembrandt - it's not just an accident that he looks like a king.
- DD:He's presenting himself here as a king.
- BH: Yes.
- DD: Dressed up in some of the outfits that he kept in his studio in this chair and holding what looks like a sceptre,
- DD: he is the king, but he is specifically, i think, the "King of Painting". Because that sceptre that he's holding is...
- BH: (completing DD's sentence) Not a sceptre at all !!
- DD:...is not a sceptre at all.Think about what a king would actually hold.It wouldn't be a little stick like that.
- DD: So, Rembrandt here is the "King of Painting", because the stick that he's holding is not what a king would actually hold.
- BH: (interjecting) No. That's this thing artists use, right?
- DD: It's the tool that artists use when standing at the easel and painting.It's the stick that they hold, usually in their left hand
- DD: and then they rest their right hand on it, so that, their arm doesn't get tired.
- BH: Right.They sort of lean it against the canvas, right?
- DD: Exactly.
- BH: And so they have something steady to..
- DD: Something steady to rest their arm on while they're painting and so..
- BH: Right.
- DD: So, that stick that he is holding, it's a sceptre, but it's a painting tool.
- DD: And that really helps us understanding him as specifically the king of painting.
- BH: And also if you look at about, how that hand is represented...
- DD: Exactly!
- BH: It's so much about, "paint" (emphasises),I mean, it almost, barely looks like a hand.
- DD: It doesnt even really look like flesh. And you could say that a little bit about his face, but especially that hand.
- BH: Especially compared to the other one.
- DD: It seems to be flesh dissolving into paint, and like you said, if we compare it to the other hand
- DD: the difference is very noticeable.
- DD: Now, there's a couple of reasons why it might be painted so differently from the other hand.
- DD: We've to remember that this is a self portrait, not a portrait, and so
- DD: normally, if it were a portrait of someone else, the hand there
- DD: that's holding that stick would be that person's left hand, because they would be turned and facing you.
- BH: Right.
- DD: But since it's a self portrait, remember that Rembrandt is looking into a mirror
- DD: And so that is actually his right hand.
- BH: That's actually the hand that he's in the act of painting with, but has to portray it as "NOT painting"..(gets excited)
- DD: Exactly!
- DD: So that's one reason why it may be more blurry and more loosely painted than the other hand.
- DD: Well, you can also get more theoretical, because that right hand as the painting hand is the hand
- DD: associated most with the medium, with the art of making painting.
- BH: mm-hmm (agrees).
- DD: And so perhaps, the painterly quality that idea, as I said, of flesh becoming paint here is almost symbolic, in a way.
- DD: that Rembrandt is so engaged with painting as the king of painting
- BH: Yeah.
- DD: After so many years, as a successful painter.
- BH: Yeah.
- DD: That it's as if he himself is turning into paint.
- BH: Yeah (emphasises).I mean imagine a career of painting for ..you know..what..forty or fifty years
- BH: of painting just about everyday, and in a way being much more engaged in the "making" (emphasises) of paint.
- DD: Right.
- BH: than any artist today would be.
- BH: It is true that toward the end of his life Rembrandt has an amazing facility with it, so that he can
- BH: brush it on in the most, in the loosest way, and it really, so quickly represents what he wants it to represent.
- BH: I mean it's really an amazing thing.
- DD: It IS an amazing thing. And I think that the way that "that" hand stands out as so painterly
- DD: literally being "paint", I think really drives that message home.
- BH: uh-huh (agreeing).
- DD: You know, he's in his fifties, he's about fifty two when he paints this. He's starting slowly to get towards the maturer ages of his life and his later years and..
- BH: And in fact most people didn't even live this long.
- DD: Exactly...he's pretty old for the time. And so, it's interesting to see how as he gets even older
- DD: how this transition from flesh into paint becomes even more dramatic
- DD: and maybe the starkest example is this very very late self portrait. [switch to another Rembrandt self-portrait on screen].BH: (exclaims) This is so wierd!
- DD: This is from 1669.
- BH: This is actually the year he dies.
- DD: The year he died, and here you can see literally that, i mean...
- DD: it's as if there is no more flesh. He has become all paint.
- BH: Yeah.
- DD: His face is dissolving into pigment, into the paint, as if its squeezed directly out of the tube, as we would do it. [DD laughs, BH agrees.]
- DD: and that the physical person has been subsumed into painting
- BH: Yeah. it's almost like he's a ghost, or a spectre, in a way, made out of paint.
- DD: Exactly. Because he's so overcome by the material of his profession.
- BH: Uh-huh(agrees).
- DD: One way to think of this also is that..umm..maybe ..it's a reference to a classical antiquity and a story from
- DD: the antique that the umm...the painter Zeuxis ..err...was in his old age, painting a portrait of a very old woman
- DD: and laughing, and that was actually how he died. [BH chuckles].
- DD: And so maybe, this very late painting that Rembrandt is making of himself laughing like this
- BH: Yes. Uh-huh.
- DD: ..is a reference to that greatest of painters, from classical antiquity.
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