Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1659)

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm (National Gallery of Art)

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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:00] Rembrandt is in this room with us. I’m looking at him, he’s looking at me.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:08] He’s incredibly present in this “Self-Portrait” from 1660. We’re here in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] 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.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] How even to look at oneself with the honesty and directness that he is looking at himself with, in the mirror.

Dr. Zucker: [0:37] We’re in a room filled with Rembrandts. 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. This man sat with a kind of reserve, and there was a social propriety.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] The young man that we see here likely commissioned the portrait, and was paying Rembrandt to make something for him. There was definitely a hierarchy there. 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.

Dr. Zucker: [1:10] Maybe it’s because Rembrandt doesn’t need to flatter this sitter. In fact, his purpose seems to be just the opposite, to find every imperfection, every wrinkle that expresses the life that this face has lived.

[1:25] 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.

Dr. Harris: [1:44] You feel the way that Rembrandt layered this thick paint on the face and the rest is very loosely brushed. The face has 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] 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.

Dr. Harris: [2:14] 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.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] Look at the coloration as well. I’m seeing greens and yellows and blues and reds and browns.

Dr. Harris: [2:37] And grays.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] The intimacy is two parts. It’s because of Rembrandt’s own careful observation about what he’s seeing. It’s also about the fact that we can feel his hand moving the brush across the surface. There’s double intimacy.

Dr. Harris: [2:53] 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. Just a year or two before this painting, he had declared bankruptcy and had to sell his assets to pay his creditors.

Dr. Zucker: [3:13] His wife that he loved very much, Saskia, had died. I think that you can step into the biographical a little too much and read this painting through the pain of those experiences. Clearly, this is a man who has lived a very complex and rich life.

Dr. Harris: [3:26] As people do [laughs] by the time they reach the age that Rembrandt has. We don’t really need to read the biography to know that by the time you reach 53, that one is wiser. One has experience. One has lived through the death of loved ones. That’s what life is.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] That’s what Rembrandt has taken as his subject here.

[3:44] [music]

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Rembrandt, Self-Portrait (1659)," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed May 23, 2024,