Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Master of His Craft at Work

Why was Rembrandt obsessed with self-portraits? The fascinating evolution of Rembrandt’s self-portraits offers some clues.

rembrandt self portrait

Whether you are passionate about art history and know all there is to know about the Old Masters, or have the most superficial knowledge of the rich and colorful history of the visual arts, Rembrandt van Rijn is an absolute, undisputed powerhouse whose works reveal his undeniable brilliance.

Rembrandt, who was a Dutch painter, etcher, and draughtsman, is a universal object of admiration, not only in his heyday, but to this very day, and not only in his country of origin but across Europe and the world. He is one of the greatest Dutch Old Masters and the world’s most iconic and instantly recognizable artists. The lucky few in possession of his works are really in possession of a fortune. 

In art history, Rembrandt has solidified his position as one of the greatest artists ever, and most definitely during the Golden age in Holland. His paintings and other works he produced continue to captivate viewers with unrivaled power. 

But it is Rembrandt’s self-portraits that are truly captivating and offer a lot of insight into Rembrandt’s work, life, personality, and his love of self-examination and self-projection. They also reveal how diligent, persistent, and tireless he was in his study of human physiognomy. 

Old Vs. Young Rembrandt Self-Portrait

Always a complex and demanding artist, Rembrandt documented his physiognomy in an incredibly vast array of costumes and moods in some 80 paintings, drawings, and etchings and narrated its changes with diligent self-examination. It is unknown why some self-portraits were done on a small scale. The smaller ones, unlike his popular commissioned portraits, were likely not intended as a way to attract prospective wealthy patrons, but perhaps draw a more humble crowd. It is quite possible that Rembrandt was ahead of his time and that he understood the importance of scalability.

What is especially intriguing about his self-portraits is that they reveal his transformation from a self-confident and ambitious 22-year-old to an aging man filled with anxiety and worry who would die at 63 years of age. Namely, in the later portraits, Rembrandt looked older than he really was. Be that is may, only one self-portrait of a confident young Rembrandt is currently known to be in a private collection. If it ever becomes available for sale, it will most certainly fetch an outrageous price. 

Why Was Rembrandt So Interested In Self-Portraiture?

A genuine master of his craft, Rembrandt has done numerous self-portraits throughout his prolific career. He was continually mastering the art of reflection and honing his skills, especially in the domain of representing the human face most realistically. Rembrandt was fiercely committed to the study of the lines and contours of his face. This was a useful academic exercise, and it also served as a clever way to promote his studio.

Many art historians believe that the surviving self-portraits of Rembrandt show the artist’s immense self-confidence and his ambition to immortalize himself long before photography was in existence. 

But it does not appear that these self-portraits were ever intended as a series showing the artist’s transformation over the years or the progression of time. The explanation is likely much more straightforward, and it has to do with the fact that it was common practice for patrons and art lovers to visit artists’ workshops.

Namely, Rembrandt dabbled in a form of self-promotional marketing: he probably painted so many self-portraits around this time to give potential clients an idea of how he would portray them if they commissioned a portrait from him.

Established painters such as Rembrandt also had apprentices, which may explain the huge number of Rembrandt’s portraits at the time. In the 1630s, Rembrandt painted himself quite often, but he also had his students paint portraits of him. This served as training exercises, but some of the paintings were certainly intended for sale as well. 

Most of these portraits and self-portraits were sold as tronies. Tronies were exceptionally common in Dutch Golden Age and Flemish Baroque painting and popular among buyers. They were character studies with exaggerated facial expressions. The subjects in these paintings would often also wear exotic costumes borrowed for the occasion, and the same went for Rembrandt’s self-portraits. It was not uncommon for the artist’s assistants to alter and enhance these paintings by turning them into tronies for the purpose of making them more marketable.

rembrandt self portrait analysis

Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait Analysis

Rembrandt’s earlier self-portraits reveal that he was mainly interested in doing character studies. He was working hard to learn how to capture each person’s unique essence, and depict moods with accuracy, but above all, he was studying how to represent the effect and fall of light. All the hard work paid off.

It was his ability to paint accurate and captivating self-portraits and portraits in general that might have helped Rembrandt reach fame while he was still in Leiden. He then moved to Amsterdam where he set up a studio, and continued to do a lot of self-portraits, many of which many have been deliberately created for sale. 

This was likely a response to what was in demand in the 1630s. The demand for his self-portraits that were intended for sale to the public grew greatly in the years to come. The situation changed dramatically in the 1640s.

Some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits are elaborate works, whereas others are swiftly painted and have a sketch-like quality. Maybe he had an adequate small panel that he wanted to use for practice and could not find a better use for it than doing a small-scale self-portrait. However, to art historians specializing in Rembrandt, this explanation does not make sense: it would be extremely out of character.

It is possible that Rembrandt had accidentally stumbled upon and then deliberately resorted to a clever, calculated little marketing trick: small-scale self-portraits. For instance, it is possible that Rembrandt deliberately painted a small-scale self-portrait for his wife-to-be Saskia van Uylenburgh to take with her wherever she went. The work was practical enough for her to carry on her person. As flamboyant as he was, Rembrandt might have wanted her to have a picture of him during travels so she could show off her future husband to friends and family who lived far away.

There was indeed a huge market for self-portraits of Rembrandt, who was not only increasingly popular but also enthusiastic, ambitious, and prolific. Some of his self-portraits were specifically intended as keepsakes or one-of-a-kind souvenirs, especially at a time when vacations were a rare luxury, and only a privileged few were lucky enough to have the chance to pay a visit to the studio of such a popular artist, the equivalent of a celebrity today.

But if we look beneath the surface, the evolution of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, done in Leiden, Amsterdam, and the Hague, and during various stages of his life, tell a much more meaningful and incredibly fascinating personal story and how the great artist navigated the pitfalls of a life filled with hardship, loss, poverty, love, and more.

young rembrandt self-portrait