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Book Forum: Art   |    
Rembrandt by Himself
JOSEPH J. SCHILDKRAUT, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 1999;156:2009-2010.
View Author and Article Information
Boston, Mass.

edited by Christopher White, Quentin Buvelot. London and The Hague, National Gallery Publications and Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis (New Haven, Conn., Yale University Press, distributor), 1999, 272$45.00.

This beautifully produced important new scholarly volume, Rembrandt by Himself, was published to accompany the exhibition of Rembrandt’s self-portraits at the National Gallery in London (June 9–September 5, 1999) and the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague (September 25, 1999–January 9, 2000). The foreword notes that "every work [painting, etching, or drawing] attributed to Rembrandt, which may have some reasonable claim to be considered as a self portrait, whether it is in the exhibition or not, has been illustrated and discussed." In sum, this volume is a major scholarly contribution to the literature on Rembrandt that brings new insights to the study of Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

Starting at the very outset of his career as an artist and continuing for more than 40 years until his death in 1669, these works by Rembrandt constitute the largest body of self-portraits produced by any great artist in Western history. Rembrandt’s motives in producing this extensive output of self-portraits is one of the great puzzles in the history of art and is a major focus of scholarly inquiry throughout this volume.

Directly challenging many earlier scholars (e.g., reference Ð1) who saw Rembrandt’s self-portraits in relation to the process of identity formation and self-awareness, Ernst van de Wetering, in his essay entitled "The Multiple Functions of Rembrandt’s Self Portraits," writes, "it is extremely unlikely that Rembrandt made his self portraits as a personal form of self-analysis." And he adds, "the prevailing view of the self portrait as a means for ‘self-examination’ is an anachronism when applied to the period before 1800."

Having rejected their functioning as a means for "self-examination," van de Wetering then goes on to describe his view of the various types and functions of Rembrandt’s self-portraits: self-portraits that "were intended as portraits of Rembrandt by Rembrandt"; self-portrait etchings depicting Rembrandt with various facial expressions that were intended "as studies of emotions, of moods that figures in history paintings could display"; and figures with Rembrandt’s own features that he included in history paintings. Moreover, van de Wetering asserts that the self-portraits were valued as "typical works" by Rembrandt that provided a demonstration of his exceptional technique with the additional attraction of also showing "the face of the creator." Reverberations of the unresolved controversy concerning Rembrandt’s motives in creating such an extensive body of self-portraits can be felt throughout this volume.

The second essay in the catalogue, by Volker Manuth, is entitled "Rembrandt and the Artist’s Self Portrait: Tradition and Reception." Describing the compilation of engraved portraits of Dutch and other Northern artists in the sixteenth (and early seventeenth) century, Manuth notes that "the compilers fostered the notion of an enduring and important Northern European school of painting, that was both different and independent from that of Italy." Manuth says that, in creating his own self-portrait etchings, Rembrandt repeatedly turned to these prints "for inspiration, particularly in the late 1630s," imitating their clothing "in a conscious effort to place himself among his older colleagues, who had played a decisive role in the development of the Northern European painting tradition." Foremost among these older colleagues was Albrecht Dürer, who, like Rembrandt, excelled in printmaking as well as in painting and who, like Rembrandt, also had a predilection for self-portraits (2). Rembrandt, in fact, "purchased a large number of Dürer’s engravings and woodcuts [i.e., prints] at an auction in 1638."

Focusing on Rembrandt’s celebrated Self Portrait of 1640 (catalogue number 54) in the collection of London’s National Gallery, Manuth discusses the influential role that "Dürer’s work, including his various forms of self-representation," played in Rembrandt’s art in the late 1630s and early 1640s. "In this way," Manuth writes, "Rembrandt consciously made himself part of the great Northern European tradition to which he owed so much, and he did so in such a way that his contemporaries could not fail to notice."

In the final essay in this volume, Marieke de Winkel writes on "Costume in Rembrandt’s Self Portraits." Picking up on themes developed in the two previous essays, de Winkel notes, "It is tempting to associate the development in Rembrandt’s self portraits, from a historicising to an authentic-looking sixteenth-century costume in the latter half of the 1630s, with his large-scale purchases of graphic art by old masters like Lucas van Leyden and Dürer.... Given the fame of these two as both painters and engravers, their work must have had a particular appeal for Rembrandt, who had…[similar]…ambitions.... The London self portrait [of 1640, catalogue number 54] would then be not so much an emulation of Titian…or Raphael…as has been suggested [in much of the literature]…but a claim for inclusion in the tradition of famous Northern portraits and self portraits."

Following these essays there is a chronological summary, "The Life of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)," by Ben Broos. Then comes the pièce de résistance, the fully illustrated catalogue of 86 of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, including etchings and drawings as well as paintings, each with a scholarly description provided for the most part by Edwin Buijsen, Peter Schatborn, and Ben Broos. The final section of this volume includes a selection of works by pupils of Rembrandt, including entries written by Ariane van Suchtelen.

Starting in the early 1640s, particularly in 1642, there was a profound decrease in Rembrandt’s output of self-portrait etchings and, to some extent, until 1652, paintings as well. Tümpel (3) has referred to this period as "Rembrandt’s crisis," which can be traced back to an overwhelming series of deaths in Rembrandt’s family: the deaths of Rembrandt’s first three children as newborns starting in 1636, the death of Rembrandt’s mother in 1640, the deaths of numerous other family members (by marriage) during this period, culminating in the death of Rembrandt’s beloved young wife, Saskia, in 1642.

There were profound changes in Rembrandt’s art, his style of life, and his sense of self during this period. These changes are dramatically illustrated by comparing two etchings: Self Portrait, Leaning on a Stone Wall of 1639 (catalogue number 53) and Self Portrait at the Window, Drawing on an Etching-Plate of 1648 (catalogue number 62). The former, a light-filled grandiose composition, shows the artist dressed in theatrical Renaissance finery, his eyes intense and piercing as he looks with confidence, possibly even arrogance, into the space ahead. The latter, in contrast, reveals a much older looking artist dressed in everyday studio garb. His facial features have broadened and become heavier, his saddened eyes gaze out from darkened shadows.

In 1642, the year of Saskia’s death, Rembrandt created one of his darkest and most impenetrable etchings, St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber. In keeping with the important influence of Dürer on Rembrandt’s art of this time, I have suggested that St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber is Rembrandt’s conflation of Dürer’s two master prints of 1514, St. Jerome in His Study and Melencolia I(4). Moreover, there are data to suggest that Rembrandt may have been depressed in 1642 and that the dark and mysterious St. Jerome in a Dark Chamber is a form of self-portrayal depicting Rembrandt’s mind darkened by depression, the dark chamber into which light cannot penetrate.

The controversial issue concerning Rembrandt’s self-portraits as a form of self-analysis or a means of self-examination that is raised by Ernst van de Wetering in the first essay is not resolved by the scholarship in this volume but remains a question for each reader to ponder while examining the magnificent illustrations contained herein. The pictures after all constitute the primary "data" that Rembrandt has left us. Would that all data were so magnificent and so filled with mystery.

Chapman HP: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1990
 
Koerner JL: The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993
 
Tümpel C: Rembrandt. Antwerp, Belgium, Fonds Mercator, 1993, pp 235–236
 
Schildkraut JJ: Rembrandt at mid life: St Jerome in a Dark Chamber, in 1998 Annual Meeting Syllabus and Proceedings Summary. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 1998, pp 123–124
 
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References

Chapman HP: Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1990
 
Koerner JL: The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993
 
Tümpel C: Rembrandt. Antwerp, Belgium, Fonds Mercator, 1993, pp 235–236
 
Schildkraut JJ: Rembrandt at mid life: St Jerome in a Dark Chamber, in 1998 Annual Meeting Syllabus and Proceedings Summary. Washington, DC, American Psychiatric Association, 1998, pp 123–124
 
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