Rembrandt: The Late Works, The National Gallery
Rembrandt did not invent the selfie: according to the OED, the image must be a photograph. But if the self portrait is an early version of this twenty-first century trend, Rembrandt may well be one of its forefathers. Although artists have been painting themselves for hundreds of years, not many did so as often as Rembrandt, who produced 80-odd self portraits; and these are just the ones that survive. Unlike today’s self-snappers, Rembrandt did not tend to share his selfies, and the finished portraits were seldom bought by patrons. Luckily for us, however, the National Gallery is doing the sharing for him, and on display as part of Rembrandt: The Late Works, are six self portraits from the last few years of the artist’s life.
Two of these pictures are from Rembrandt’s final months in 1669, and the artist does not look his best. He may not have been – if you will excuse the pun – an oil-painting to begin with, but in these last works, in which his swollen, aged face seems to belong more to an 80-year-old than a 63-year-old, it is clear that his health is failing. But not his painting, which is as robust as it ever was. The artist was fascinated with his ageing appearance, and his self portrait habit peaked in the last two decades of his life. On loan from Kenwood House, is the intriguing Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-9), in which he paints himself against a backdrop of two perfect circles, the significance of which has baffled art historians for almost as long as there has been art history. Is he emulating Giotto who could reportedly draw a perfect circle with a free hand, or are they there to counter-balance the massive triangular bulk of his body? Whatever the answer, here is Rembrandt as Rembrandt. He wears his work-a-day painter’s garb and has even eschewed the snazzy berets which feature in the 1669 Mauritshuis Self Portrait and the National Gallery’s 1669 version, donning instead a white artist’s cap and holding the tools of his trade.