This self-portrait by the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the jewels of the Scottish National Gallery, and is an incredibly moving depiction of the painter.
The life-size painting is arguably one of the most powerful of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, in which the Dutch painter conveys aspects of the human condition like few other painters can, or have.
It is understood that Rembrandt painted this in 1655, while on the verge of financial ruin. Only a year later, Rembrandt declared insolvency, and was ordered by a court to sell most of the belongings, artworks and antiques that he had collected. Within time, he was even forced to sell his home (now known and visitable as the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam) and the painter lived out his remaining years struggling to make ends meet.
The Rembrandt we know today is lauded for his artistic genius and technical prowess, and is regarded as one of humanity’s greatest artists. However, like his compatriot Vincent van Gogh centuries later, Rembrandt died impoverished.
In Self-portrait (1655), we see the sadness of a human near-conquered by heartbreak. This heartbreak stemmed from the passing of his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh and of three of his infant children, with his financial woes adding further sadness. The colour tones are dark and brooding, and the piercing honest stare below his furrowed brow looks both into us and through us. Between Rembrandt’s unyielding gaze and what little space exists between himself and the edge of the frame, the painting also has an immediacy and physical presence to it.
There are few examples in the history of art of such imposing power in expressing the human condition – of old age, grief and dejection — making this portrait arguably one of the most extraordinary images ever created.
Despite the tragedy Rembrandt encountered, we still have his art to celebrate him and his life. The Rembrandt House Museum has now been reconstructed, with the interior restored as far as possible to the style of Rembrandt’s time. Each year, over 250,000 people visit the painter’s former home.
Visitors to the Scottish National Gallery can be moved by Rembrandt’s skill in expressing human emotion in paint, and perhaps later visit Amsterdam’s Rembrandt House Museum to complement their experience in Scotland.