In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar.”
Last week Fine Art Today debuted our new Portrait of the Week series with a remarkable contemporary work by Elena Vladimir Baranoff. Her official portrait of the Lord Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, was a stunning example recently selected for — and on view at — the BP Portrait Awards in London.
There seemed no better way to showcase the diversity of this new series than to follow a contemporary masterpiece with a historical one. Universally considered one of the greatest — if not the greatest — portraitists who ever lived, Rembrandt van Rijn is a monumental painter and person who continues to captivate scholars to this day. It could be argued that, perhaps more than anyone else who ever lived, Rembrandt possessed a genius that allowed him to capture with amazing sensitivity an individual’s spirit and character — including his own.
Painted in 1659, about 10 years before the artist’s death, “Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar” is visual evidence of a gripping process of self-exploration. Of all the artist’s self-portraits (scholars estimate Rembrandt produced nearly 100 self-portraits in various media throughout his life), the example here is frequently cited in scholarly attempts to understand the master’s state of mind and professional condition during his later years.
Detail showing the brushwork and diverse palette found within the self-portrait’s upper cheekbone.
Around the time of this self-portrait’s production, Rembrandt was embroiled in a battle to avoid bankruptcy and the sale of his home and vast collection of art and antiquities. Rembrandt displays himself seated and facing toward the viewer’s left, modestly dressed and hands clasped before him. A single source of light drapes over his face from the upper right of the canvas. Considering the face that peers longingly at the viewer, author Clifford Ackley suggested it reveals “the stresses and strains of a life compounded of creative triumphs and personal and financial reverses.” Indeed, close inspection of the artist’s face exposes the exhausted, melancholic, yet proud spirit of a man who — by this time — had witnessed the death of a son, two daughters, and his beloved wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh.
From a technical perspective, the portrait also highlights the increasing expressiveness and looseness of Rembrandt’s brush as his life and career waned. Scholars are quick to note the thickness of the paint in the artist’s face in addition to the higher diversity of pigments found within his skin.
“Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar” is part of the Andrew W. Mellon Collection and has called the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., home since 1937.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.