It is believed by many throughout the centuries that no artist has left a more penetrating personal testament than the 17th-century Dutch master, Rembrandt van Rijn. In more than 90 portraits of himself that date from the outset of his career in the 1620s to the year of his death in 1669, he created a visual autobiography, a tale of triumph and tragedy.
“Self-Portrait” was painted eight years before his death. In his early career he was the most successful and sought after painter in Amsterdam; he“hob-knobbed” with the “who’s who of high society”—let’s just say “life was good!” …but there came a time in his illustrious career when his style of painting fell out of favor, sales were down, forcing him to move to a more “modest” neighborhood in Amsterdam, and most tragic, the loss of three of his four children in infancy, the death of his wife, Saskia, after the birth of their fourth child, TItus, the loss of his common-law wife, Hendrickje in his latter years, and then his beloved Titus a year before his own death.
Look closely …the majority of the portrait is steeped in shadow, defined by broad brushstrokes of deep chocolate brown. The focus, though, is on Rembrandt’s face—he looks directly, wearily at us with his piercing eyes and gaze— the lines on his forehead are deeply grooved—a warm, brilliant golden light from an unknown source lights the left side of his face from our point of view, whereas the right side from our point of view is in the shadow. Rembrandt was known for his use of what is called “chiaroscuro”, a subtle modulation between light and shadow.
So what does this play of light and shadow mean? Rembrandt shows us through such a composition that the play of light and shadow can be read as one’s emotional differences, that they are reconciled—grief at one with a quiet acceptance…like you and me, he was a mere mortal who on his life’s journey experienced highs and lows, success and sorrow. But he never crumbled. In fact, his most powerful, insightful portraits were painted the last years of his life. It was through his personal pain that he could portray in his portraits the range of human psyche—from grief and depression to a quiet acceptance and hopefully joy. As I gaze upon this portrait I am deeply moved, as if Rembrandt is looking directly at me, speaking directly to me. The shadow on his face is pain. I feel his pain, he feels my pain, a ray of hope lights up some of his face, a ray of hope, a ray of peace, shines in me.