Rembrandt, “Self-Portrait” (1659)

Seen in person at the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Rembrandt, "Self-Portrait" (1659)
Rembrandt, “Self-Portrait” (1659)

This painting stood out when I wandered through the National Gallery with my limited time. The flesh of the face has expressive, rich detail and is by far the brightest part of the painting. The various browns seem handsome in the pictures online, but honestly, the whole of it seemed really dark to me in person. The expression from the picture online looks like it fixes you, like it expresses an “inner strength and dignity.”

That was not the experience I had. I knew, roughly, that Rembrandt painted a number of self-portraits. As he gets older, they show him more and more becoming undone. The expression still seems worried and nervous to me, like he wants to look past himself. An older line of criticism, when the painting had a varnish on it that made it much darker, holds that this is an incredibly sad painting. If you want to read more, Wikipedia has a lot of useful details.

I think it is worth playing with a reconciliation between two different thoughts, as this is a painting Rembrandt clearly put a lot of thought into. I do think we are supposed to be impressed that the brightness of the face will fade into darkness. The dark clothing, the charcoal and gray hair lead the eye to that conclusion. But it is also worth considering that one does not think about death only when one is about to die. We’re at different stages in life when we’re worried. Rembrandt is definitely worn out physically, but an “inner strength” is there – the question is why he may not know it, why he feels like he’s staring death in the face, why it may take a certain vigor to stare death in the face.

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