In-depth Discussion: Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt van Rijn. Portrait of the Artist, ca. 1665. Oil on canvas. 47 x 45 in. Kenwood House, English Heritage; Iveagh Bequest (88028836). Photo courtesy American Federation of Arts.

During his career, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) created over forty self-portraits, using his own image as a way to experiment with technique, explore mood, and depict different costumes and dress.

Widely considered to be one of the most powerful of his self-portraits, this large canvas shows Rembrandt as a working artist: he holds a loosely sketched paintbrush and mahlstick (on which he rested his painting hand for support) and wears a casual white painter’s cap. Behind the artist is a canvas with mysterious arcs.

X-rays of the painting suggest that Rembrandt adjusted the image while working. Originally, his left hand was stretched up, actively wielding the brush; his torso was less angled. Rembrandt was right handed, and it is suspected that he changed the pose (and mood) completely when he realized he had made a mistake when painting his mirror image.

The arcs on the canvas in the background have art historians perplexed. Some think they might represent a map of the world, in progress of being painted; others think that Rembrandt was equating his talents to those of the famous Renaissance painter Giotto, who, legend has it, was able to draw a perfect circle freehand, without the aid of a compass.

Interestingly, this painting is unsigned—unusual for Rembrandt. It isn’t clear whether this painting is unfinished, or if Rembrandt purposely left it unsigned and a bit rough so that, when approaching the work, viewers would feel as if they were encountering him at work in his studio.

Discussion Questions

  • How might you describe Rembrandt’s expression? What do you see that makes you say that?
  • Take a close look at how Rembrandt has painted this work. Imagine how he might have used his tools on the canvas to make the variety of marks. What words describe his technique—the way he painted?
  • What does this painting seem to say about being an artist or making art?

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