Rembrandt & Self-portrait: A lesson in simplicity and humility

I was keen to visit the SAM last weekend in Seattle to check out the Treasures of London’s Kenwood House. Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Gainsborough are just many of a vast array of Flemish and English painters in its collection.  It’s also known as the Iveagh bequest (aka the Guinness family) and 50 of its masterpieces have been loaned to Seattle’s Museum until May 19 2013.

The last Rembrandt painting I saw was in the Frick collection in New York around 2011: a self-portrait he achieved in 1658 when he was about 52 years of age. A year earlier to that date he had been forced to hawk his art collection and later he would lose his home and go bankrupt.  The self-portrait from the Guinness collection and on display in Seattle was a painting he had done in 1665…4 years before his death. It is also known as “Self Portrait with 2 Circles”.

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The museum’s doors had just opened so I was able to stand in front of this masterpiece alone, before the other visitors began to trample in.  Immediately I am seduced by the tonal contrasts – Rembrandt’s signature style.  His bold lights and rich darks – a strict palette of earthy tones, burgundies and smoky umbers juxtaposed against the rapid strokes of white he used to depict his painter’s cap leading up to his humble glance – one he had captured before in more than 40 self portraits.  Upon further study I also notice a simple composition…. the triangle that made up the positive space of his body – from his head to his torso and taking up the bottom half of the painting. What I found to be the most intriguing however was what Rembrandt had done with the negative space in behind him. Two half circles had been drawn in, becoming the key elements to his entire composition. As I followed the curve from the top right of the painting I landed into the painter’s palette. The rhythm that Rembrandt created by the fanning of the brushes led me up to his radiant face that he depicted inside the curve of a second circle located in the top left of the composition. This curve then led back again to the second circle…. simple, sublime, and carefully executed by the master…. the composition was perfectly balanced. But I wondered if there was another reason as to why Rembrandt had included these two half circles in this particular self portrait? I went to see if there was another explanation and found the curator’s notes. In this self-portrait, Rembrandt was making a reference to Giotto, another master painter from the 13th century (the frescoes in the Church of San Francesco of Assisi  I visited 10 years ago are definitely something to put on your art bucket list.)  Story has it that upon being summoned by the pope to demonstrate his artistry, Giotto responded by drawing a perfect circle in one single sweeping motion. According to the curator, Rembrandt’s two circles in this self-portrait were drawn in order to symbolize a perfection of his artistic skills.

Rembrandt was someone that experienced the high highs and the low lows of being the genius of the artist he was.  In his time he was considered to be one of the most subliminal innovators of the chiaroscuro technique. Every young painter wanted to apprentice under his wing, every nobleman and woman wanted to have their portrait painted by him.  Mismanagement of his works and collection led him to losing his home.  By the time he had painted this self-portrait, his wife had died, he had gone completely bankrupt, but he continued to paint showing complete humility and his mastering talent.  It’s as if he was trying to tell everyone – “you may take away all my worldly possessions but one thing remains – I can still draw and paint.

By executing these simple yet precise gestures, he still owned it.

On the way out of the SAM, I’m thinking back to one or two “kind of “ self-portraits I had done…. particularly one I had completed 25 years ago during my first year of art school which still sits in my studio today.  It too included a circle.

When this classical theme was given to my class as an assignment for our 1st year photography course my immediate response then was that in the past, artists had typically portrayed their faces in a self-portrait…. seems normal since your face reveals your identity and so the idea of “self” is revealed.  I believed that the idea of self could also be revealed by showing other parts of the body so I decided that I was going to manipulate simple black and white images I had taken randomly of my own body – hands, feet, legs arms, neck torso and so on. I suppose it is also important to mention that at the time I was influenced by the contemporary work of Andy Goldsworthy – like the way he pieced beach stones together in his ephemeral spiral composition of 1985 entitled “Pebbles Broken and Scraped”.

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In this one particular composition, I used 3 repeated images I had photographed of my legs that I then puzzled together. By playing with the positive and negative spaces, a simple circle began tracing  itself out to follow a natural continuum….and  so I entitled it “Continuum: Self-Portrait”

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Some last thoughts about the Kenwood collection – this is the first time the collection has left European soil so if you can get to Seattle it is worthwhile to see this vast 17th century collection from some very important artists. If you are hoping to see many Rembrandt oil paintings, then you’ll be disappointed, however there are more than 20 of his exquisite etchings on display in a room off to the side of the main gallery.

Back to Rembrandt and his self-portraits…. he remained diligent and true to this subject matter in 4 more self-portraits he achieved before his death in 1669.  I’m glad I got to see this one in person…it was a humbling experience and an important lesson from a grand master!

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2 thoughts on “Rembrandt & Self-portrait: A lesson in simplicity and humility

  1. How thought provoking! Thank you. I have done a number of self portraits using different techniques. It has been a useful way to appreciate how one’s artistic skills, tastes and perceptions have changed. You’ve inspired me to book the date to see the show!!

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