Mark Harden's Artchive Rembrandt van Rijn
Portrait of the Artist at His Easel
1660
Oil on canvas
43 1/2 x 35 1/2" (111 x 90 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris

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For information regarding possible commercial licensing of this image from Scala Group, Art Resource or Bridgeman Art Library, click here. [The following analysis is by Artchive Patron David Osako]

Rembrandt painted this portrait in 1660 with oil on canvas at age 54, nine years before his death. That we encounter the artist unexpectedly and alone suggests the privacy appropriate for candid conversation. The setting describes the quiet enclosure of an interior. The artist's shadow shows little space between himself and the rear wall, suggesting there is only room enough for Rembrandt and his easel, as if to assure us that no one else is around. A narrow field of light just barely covers the scene, and shrinks the space within the frame to add visual intimacy. All of these elements work to present the image as a visual divulgence.

Rembrandt orchestrates our attention with a strongly focused light source entering the frame from somewhere high above and left, and carefully aimed to collide directly with his stark white painter's cap. Commentators have discovered through x-ray examination of his self-portraits that Rembrandt sometimes painted himself in such white caps only to replace them later with darker ones, such as colored turbans. In this self-portrait, he not only kept the white cap, but also intensified its prominence above every other object in the frame. The cap's crown reflects the brilliant light so intensely that its upper folds lose definition in patches of almost pure white. This modest symbol of Rembrandt's craft becomes itself a light source of almost spiritual dimensions, casting a halo in the atmosphere around Rembrandt's head, and against the dark background. These visual effects seem to suggest that it is through painting that Rembrandt receives his benediction and spiritual sustenance, and that it is through the act of painting that he aspires to transcendence.

As the light leaves the cap, it reflects next most brightly on the highest spots of Rembrandt's forehead, the only other place in the frame where loss of detail occurs in the light's intensity. This detail visually ties Rembrandt's flesh and blood humanity to the inspiration of the painting act, as if to highlight the role of human effort and imagination in the process. All else in the frame falls quickly away in the sharply diminishing light characteristic of his chiaroscuro style.

As the light continues downward it glances the outer lid of Rembrandt's right eye, then highlights the protruding ridges of the sagging, wrinkled bags and lines beneath it, reflects off the bulbous tip of his nose, and illuminates the fatty folds of skin along the side of his neck. These details suggest Rembrandt's awareness of passing time, and of the physical signs of his mortality. He could have painted these details under a softer light without sacrificing accuracy; the frankness of his careful highlighting communicates an impressive honesty, and a touching humility in his self-perception.

Rembrandt's face echoes the sense of honesty and humility. The relaxed muscles of his mouth lack the tension of a conscious pose, and allow his upper lip to part slightly from the lower one. The illuminated side of his face suggests openness in the way he has raised his eyebrow to broaden the field of his eye socket; though doing so increases his vulnerability to us, he positions this eye closest to our view, as if to offer us a window into his soul. Even at such close range, the eye is calm and unflinching, and shows a clarity fine enough to read the crescent shadow cast by the eyelid's edge onto its iris. The steadiness of the gaze suggests a fearlessness of being seen, and a calm strength; the sharp detailing suggests a corresponding clarity in the painter's awareness and vision; the brightness in his eye hints of humor.

Above the same eye, his forehead is wrinkled with the effort of widening his eye, and suggests the kind of expression we might make in a mood of philosophical acceptance of things as they are, captured in the expression, "C'est la vie." We know that this portrait was painted not long after a financial ruin that forced the sale of his home and belongings, among other crises in his life; and Rembrandt appears thinner here than in other self-portraits painted in the decades before and after. Despite these and other noted travails, there is no hint of the shrug of the shoulders or tilt of the head which might suggest his acceptance is based on resignation, for his head is balanced and steady, and his chin is leveled and relaxed, neither raised in arrogance nor bowed abjectly.

The opposite side of his face is more shaded and further from our view, though not hidden. It reveals an observant eye that seems to watch, and see, everything; this eye is less vulnerable, its brow is unraised, and is narrowed as if focusing on us. The circle beneath it is painted a darker, bruised color. There is matter-of-factness in its lack of expressiveness, and resoluteness in its declination to reveal more.

The angle of his head shifts the bulk of his nose toward the dark side of his face, transferring to it some of the crudeness of his physicality, where perhaps it lives. This darker aspect is kept in reserve, and seems like the face Rembrandt would wear to dealings with his creditors, or with the clients whose demands for alterations in his paintings he famously refused. Though he does not fully describe its character, his very admission of a second face lends credibility to the visible one, and adds to the complexity and interest of the portrait.

The portrait is satisfying in its design elements as well. As still and quiet as the image is, the light source Rembrandt uses to direct our attention also creates a strong diagonal energy down and right across the painting, and along the surfaces it illuminates: the implied straight lines of light pass from the artist's cap and head, along the near edge of his coat collar, down through the maulstick and the back of his right hand, then brighten the palette in his left hand with patches of light where they strike its horizontal surface, and finally terminate in a tiny reflection at the lowest right corner of the frame. The light's diagonal force is energized by its intersection with the sharply defined vertical edge of the easel at the right, borrowing from the easel its visible linearity. The shift from dark to light traveling left to right across the figure and background harmonize with the diagonal light's horizontal movement. The portrait is also unified by its consistent use of color in gaslight yellows, umbers and deep browns, keeping within related shades and tones of the same palette. These visual elements of energy give the portrait a sense of unifying composition and order, and liven the scene's physical stillness.

Studying Rembrandt's portrait leaves me awed by the delicacy and sensitivity of his portrait, and feeling honored to have met the person of Rembrandt in his work.