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Europe 1300 - 1800

Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 9

Lesson 4: Dutch Republic

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm (National Gallery of Art)
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Voiceover: Rembrandt is in this room with us. I'm looking at him, he's looking at me. Voiceover: He's incredibly present in this self-portrait from 1660. We're here in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Voiceover: Rembrandt made the self-portrait a subject in a way that it had never been. His images of himself are so intimate, they are so carefully observed. In a sense, he teaches me how to look closely. Voiceover: And how even to look at onself with an honesty and directness that he is looking at himself with in a mirror. Voiceover: We're in a room filled with Rembrandts, and if you look at the other portraits, for instance, look at the portrait of a Young Man, you get a sense of the social distance that would have existed in the studio when Rembrandt was painting, and this man sat with a kind of reserve, and there was a social propriety. Voiceover: The young man that we see here likely commissioned the portrait and was paying Rembrandt to make something for him, so there was definitely a heirarchy there. And he's distanced, too. There's all this foreground space in front of the figure that is absent here. His left elbow is in our space. Voiceover: Maybe it's because Rembrandt doesn't need to flatter this sitter and in fact, his purpose seems to be just the opposite, to find every imperfection, every wrinkle. It expresses the life that this face has lived. But Rembrandt's self-portraits through his career were really of different types. There were the examples where he's showing himself as a young man, very well dressed. There are times when he's in costume with Saskia, his wife, on his knee, but then later in self-portraits like this, you really see this introspective look. Voiceover: And you feel the way that Rembrandt layered this thick paint on the face, and the rest is very loosely brushed, but the face has like a sense of being really worked, the light moving across it from light to dark, and light again, and then picking up folds and picking up the hair on his face. Voiceover: But it's also the muscles and the changes, the subtle shifts in the architecture of that face that is being brought out by those brush strokes. I want to figure out how he's done it. Voiceover: If you think about the Caravaggesque use of dramatic lighting, so you go from an area of stark illumination to an area of shadow, usually that area is demarcated in a very clear way. Here in Rembrandt, there's a movement in and out of light that I think adds to that emotion. Voiceover: And look at the coloration as well. I'm seeing greens and yellows, and blues, and reds, and browns... Voiceover: And grays... Voiceover: So the intimacy is two parts. It's because of Rembrandt's own careful observation about what's he's seeing, but it's also about the fact that we can feel his hand moving the brush across the surface, and so there's a kind of double intimacy. Voiceover: Well, we do know that this was especially a vulnerable moment in Rembrandt's career. He had been a very famous, sought-after portrait-painter in Amsterdam, but had reached too far financially, he had gone into debt and just a year or two before this painting, he had declared bankruptcy and had to sell his assets to pay his creditors. Voiceover: His wife that he loved very much, Saskia, had died, but I think that you can step into the biographical a little too much and weave this painting through the pain of those experiences. Clearly, this is a man who has lived a very complex and rich life. Voiceover: As people do (laughs) by the time they reach the age that Rembrandt has, so we really don't need to read the biography to know that by the time you reach 53, that one is wiser, one has experienced, one has lived through the death of loved ones. That's what life is. Voiceover: And that's what Rembrandt has taken as his subject here. (piano music)