Rembrandt created more than 70 self-portraits during his lifetime. The three currently at the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM) reveal the evolution of the Dutch master's painting style and provide a glimpse of the ups and downs of the artist's life.
Rembrandt: Three Faces of the Master, on view through May 21, brings self-portraits from the master's early, middle and late career from as near as the Indianapolis Museum of Art and as far as Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the Louvre in Paris. The museum dipped into its permanent collection to complement the borrowed paintings with five self-portrait etchings and three works by Rembrandt's followers and students -- nice additions but the three self-portrait paintings would have made for a must-see exhibition all by themselves. They are that amazing.
Rembrandt was just 23 years old when he painted "Self-Portrait (with Gorget and Beret)," which should draw envy from most college art students.
As a matter of fact, he already had students of his own around this time. The painting is less a self-portrait than a study of light, facial expression and costume, using the most available and inexpensive model at hand -- the artist himself. Since professional artists were expected to create history paintings that incorporated several costumed figures in dramatic situations, Rembrandt practiced painting himself in varied poses, costumes and emotional states. Here, as if we have caught him off guard, his face emerges from shadow and his mouth opens in slight surprise. His visage is that of expectant youth: stubbly beard, acne blemishes and all.
"Self-Portrait with Beret and Two Gold Chains" came about 13 years later, and you can tell that Rembrandt was enjoying the peak of his success. He wears fur and gold chains, and looks at us confidently. He painted himself in the attire of the affluent merchant class rather than of an artist. Beyond that, the clothing is old-fashioned, forging a deliberate connection to Italian Renaissance masters like Titian and Raphael and their wealthy patrons who embodied sprezzatura -- the haughty nonchalance of nobility.
Rembrandt finally depicted himself as an artist just nine years before his death in "Self-Portrait at the Easel." He wears his studio attire -- a white linen cap and painter's smock. He holds the tools of his trade -- brushes, mahlstick and paint-covered palette -- and stands at an easel, just visible through a thin line of light that echoes the edge of a canvas. His face has aged, making him look worn and wise.
Indeed, Rembrandt went through a lot by the time he painted this self-portrait. In addition to losing several children and his first wife many years earlier, recent financial trouble forced the liquidation of his home and most of his belongings. His masterful, loose painting style had fallen out of favor with the growing popularity of "fine" painters -- those who painted with tight, polished brushstrokes. Nonetheless, in his late self-portraits he depicts himself in all the dignity of his profession.
The technical virtuosity in all three portraits cannot be ignored. In places, Rembrandt barely uses paint, allowing the canvas to show through to express the texture of fur or hair. The gold chains that appear to jump off the canvas are really just tiny blobs of yellow paint. But, even more mystifying than his lifelike depiction of physical objects is Rembrandt's ability to use paint to communicate a psychological state that cannot be described in words. Go to the exhibition, look into his eyes, and you'll see what I mean.
REMBRANDT: THREE FACES OF THE MASTER continues at the Cincinnati Art Museum through May 21. (Get museum details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.)