Art History Lab

The Timeless Gaze: Exploring Rembrandt’s Introspective Self-Portraits

Rembrandt van Rijn is a name that needs no introduction in the world of art. He was a prolific artist who is known for his mastery in painting, etching, and even drawing.

His artwork is still admired and studied today, almost three centuries after his death. One of the most significant components of his output is Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which he created throughout his career of over 40 years.

In this article, we will explore Rembrandt’s self-portraits as well as his background, artistic versatility, and approaches to painting that made him the celebrated artist he is today. Rembrandt’s self-portraits

Rembrandt created around 80 self-portraits throughout his career.

This quantity is unmatched by any other artist, which begs the question: why did he create so many? One of the reasons for Rembrandt’s self-portraits was his experimentation with different techniques, textures, and materials.

His self-portraits were also a way for him to capture his moods and emotions, often using light and shadow to create a dramatic effect. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are often considered a significant component of his output because they capture a range of emotions and reflect his changing artistic style.

Throughout his career, Rembrandt explored different approaches to painting, from realistic to more expressive and emotive. His self-portraits are a testament to this exploration, with each one capturing a specific moment in his life and artistic career.

Among Rembrandt’s self-portraits, some are more notable than others. One such piece is the famous “Self-portrait with Two Circles,” painted in 1665, the year of his death.

This portrait is considered one of the artist’s masterpieces, portraying the artist in a contemplative, almost melancholic mood. The painting has been interpreted in different ways by art historians, but one thing is clear: it is a haunting image that has stood the test of time.

Rembrandt’s quantity of self-portraits

As mentioned earlier, Rembrandt painted around 80 self-portraits throughout his career. This quantity is much higher than other artists of his time, such as Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas, who created around 40 and 50 self-portraits, respectively.

This begs the question, why did Rembrandt make so many self-portraits? One reason for this is that self-portraits were a way for Rembrandt to experiment with different techniques and styles.

He used himself as a model to capture different emotions and expressions, allowing him to explore his own psyche in ways that would have been impossible with a paid model. Additionally, self-portraits were a way for Rembrandt to advertise his skills as an artist.

He would often give these paintings as gifts to friends and clients, demonstrating his mastery of the medium and cementing his reputation as a great artist. Rembrandt’s background and Christian devotion

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic, now known as the Netherlands.

He was the ninth child of his parents and studied in his hometown before moving to Amsterdam to learn from Pieter Lastman, a painter who specialized in historical and Biblical scenes. This training would have a significant impact on Rembrandt’s later works, as he would often create paintings with religious themes that reflected his Christian devotion.

Rembrandt’s background also played a role in shaping his artistic style. The Dutch Republic was known for its thriving artistic community, and Rembrandt was exposed to a wide range of styles and techniques.

He would often incorporate this diverse range of influences into his own works, resulting in paintings that were both unique and timeless. Rembrandt’s artistic versatility and control of lighting and texture

One of Rembrandt’s greatest strengths as an artist was his versatility.

He was able to master a wide range of genres, from historical and religious paintings to landscapes, portraits, and even genre scenes. This versatility allowed him to experiment with different techniques, textures, and lighting, resulting in paintings that were both technically and artistically superior.

One of the techniques that Rembrandt mastered was the use of lighting and texture to create a dramatic effect. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the use of light and shadow to create a three-dimensional effect in his paintings.

He would also use impasto, the technique of applying paint in thick, textured layers, to create a tactile quality that made his paintings appear almost lifelike.


Rembrandt van Rijn is a name that will go down in history as one of the greatest artists of all time. His self-portraits, his versatility, and his use of lighting and texture continue to inspire and captivate artists and art lovers around the world.

While he created a lot of self-portraits, each one of them is unique and tells a different story. His works are not just a testament to his skills as an artist but also a reflection of his passion for the medium.

Portraiture during the Dutch Golden Age

The Dutch Golden Age, which roughly spanned the 17th century, was a time of great prosperity and artistic achievement in the Netherlands. One of the most popular art forms during this time was portraiture, as there was a high demand for both personal and institutional portraits.

Traders, merchants, and wealthy citizens commissioned portraits to showcase their wealth and status, while institutions such as guilds, hospitals, and city halls wanted to create a visual record of their members. Rembrandt was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

His skill in capturing his subjects’ characteristics, such as their facial expressions, emotions, and overall demeanor, was unmatched. He was able to create portraits that went beyond mere representation, capturing the essence of his subjects’ personalities and making their humanity come to life on the canvas.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits were particularly noteworthy during this time, as he was able to create a compelling visual history of the painter. As he aged, he continued to depict himself with sensitivity and candor, devoid of vanity, offering a glimpse into his mental state and inner life.

Rembrandt’s commitment to historical and religious subjects

In addition to his portrait paintings, Rembrandt was also committed to creating historical and religious works that addressed timeless themes such as faith, redemption, and the human condition. His approach to historical and religious paintings was empathetic, often portraying his subjects in the midst of an intense emotional moment to foster a greater connection between subject and viewer.

One example of this empathetic interpretation can be found in his painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. This portrait depicts a group of surgeons dissecting a cadaver, with Dr. Tulp center stage.

Rather than a dry, clinical portrayal of the scene, Rembrandt infuses the painting with a sense of drama and emotion by capturing the individual expressions of the surgeons and spectators present at the dissection. The painting not only highlights Rembrandt’s skill in capturing his subjects’ emotions but also reflects his interest in the human body and the workings of the medical profession.

Rembrandt’s development of etching as an art form

In addition to his achievements as a painter, Rembrandt also made significant contributions to the development of etching as an art form. Etching is a printmaking technique in which a design is drawn or scratched on a metal plate with a needle, the plate is then coated in ink, and a piece of paper is pressed onto the plate, transferring the inked design onto the paper.

Rembrandt was able to elevate etching from a simple reproductive tool to a medium of artistic expression. He experimented with different ways of using the medium, using etching to create intricate line work, crosshatching, and texture.

He also used etching to capture different moods and emotions, often depicting himself in a vulnerable state or exploring the psyche of his subjects. Rembrandt’s etchings were widely distributed during his lifetime, and his influence on the history of etching continues to this day.

Many artists have cited Rembrandt as an inspiration and have built on his innovations to develop the medium further. Importance of Rembrandt’s self-portraits

Rembrandt’s self-portraits have been the subject of much study and admiration over the years, their importance not only as artistic achievements but also as a reflection of the painter’s inner life.

In his self-portraits, Rembrandt offers an unflinching glimpse into his psyche, unafraid to reveal his vulnerabilities and insecurities. In his earlier portraits, such as the famous Self-Portrait in a Flat Cap, Rembrandt depicted himself with confidence and bravado, showcasing his abilities as an artist and creating a permanent image of himself for posterity.

However, as he aged, his self-portraits became more introspective, revealing a more vulnerable and intimate side of the artist. One example of this is the painting The Old Man with a Gold Chain, which depicts an aging Rembrandt with a sense of dignity and pride, yet without pretense or vanity.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits are also important as a visual history of the painter. By creating so many self-portraits over the years, he created a timeline of his life and artistic development that is unmatched by any other artist.

His self-portraits allow us to see the painter not as a mythic figure of the past but as a real human being, with all the joys, sorrows, triumphs, and failures that come with the human experience.

Number and variety of self-portraits

Rembrandt van Rijn is famous for creating an extraordinary number of self-portraits throughout his career. In total, he painted around 80 self-portraits, which vary in style, technique, and presentation.

Some of them are serious and contemplative, while others are playful and informal. Many experts attribute Rembrandt’s fascination with self-portraiture to his desire to experiment with different techniques, textures, and materials.

In many ways, Rembrandt’s self-portraits reflect his artistic journey, transitioning from etchings to canvases. In his early years, only a handful of self-portraits exist, mostly in the form of etchings.

But as he matured as an artist, he turned to painting, creating some of his most famous self-portraits. In paintings like The Night Watch and Self-Portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt demonstrates his mastery of color, texture, and composition, cementing his reputation as a great artist.

Hiatus in self-portraits

As Rembrandt aged, he painted fewer self-portraits and stopped signing his name. This hiatus in self-portraits has been attributed to several factors, including shifts in his artistic focus, financial struggles, and changes in his personal life.

As a result, it has become difficult to identify some of his later works, with several attributed to his students. The Rembrandt Research Project, established in the 1960s, has been instrumental in identifying Rembrandt’s signature style and separating his works from those of his students.

Through careful examination of artistic techniques, materials, and other factors, the Rembrandt Research Project has created a comprehensive catalogue of Rembrandt’s works, including his self-portraits. Some of Rembrandt’s most stunning self-portraits are now housed in collections around the world.

One of the most famous is the Self-Portrait with Two Circles, a painting created in 1665, the year of Rembrandt’s death. This portrait is a testament to Rembrandt’s extraordinary skill in capturing the essence of his subject and conveying a sense of melancholy and contemplation.

Technique and approach in self-portraits

Rembrandt’s self-portraits are notable for their variety in technique and approach. Throughout his career, he experimented with different techniques and materials, including etching, oil painting, and charcoal.

He also employed various approaches to pose and expression. In informal etchings such as The Artist Drawing from a Model, Rembrandt often exaggerated his facial gestures to convey a sense of playfulness and whimsy.

In other portraits, he appears in fancy dress, making fun of himself while also showcasing his technical skill. He would often use dramatic lighting and shadow to create a sense of depth and movement, emphasizing a particular feature or conveying a specific emotion.

Evolution of Rembrandt’s self-portraits

Rembrandt’s self-portraits also offer a glimpse into his evolving artistic journey. In his early works, he appears as a young man, unsure of himself and perhaps even a little insecure.

But as he aged and became more successful, his self-portraits took on a new tone, displaying a sense of pride and confidence. In some of his later portraits, Rembrandt even seems to embrace the physical signs of aging, such as wrinkles and sagging skin.

He would use his own face as a canvas to depict the changes that come with time and experience. Through his self-portraits, he captured not only his own physical features but also his personal growth as an artist and as a human being.

One of the most famous examples of this evolution can be seen in his self-portrait paintings The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp and Self-Portrait with Two Circles. In these paintings, Rembrandt captures himself at different stages in his career, each with its own unique sense of personality and purpose.


Rembrandt van Rijn’s self-portraits are a testament to his skill and mastery as an artist. They offer a glimpse into his artistic journey, capturing his growth as a painter and as a person.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits also provide a visual history of the painter, showcasing his humanity and vulnerability. They are a powerful reminder that behind every celebrated artist lies a real person, with all the joys, sorrows, and complexities that come with the human experience.

Description of Self-Portrait (Vienna)

One of Rembrandt’s notable self-portraits is the Self-Portrait housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. This painting showcases a change in composition compared to his previous self-portraits.

In this particular work, Rembrandt depicts himself in a straight frontal stance, looking directly at the viewer. This pose conveys a sense of self-assurance and confidence.

The artist’s face takes center stage in the composition, with a sharp focus on his eyes, which are both intense and captivating. Rembrandt masterfully captures a range of emotions through his gaze, from contemplation to a faint hint of amusement.

The use of light and shadow further adds depth and dimension to the portrait, adding to the overall sense of self-assuredness.

Attire and clothing choices

An intriguing aspect of Rembrandt’s self-portraits is his choice of attire and clothing. In the Vienna Self-Portrait, Rembrandt is depicted wearing a brown cloak and an informal dress.

This choice of clothing holds significance as it deviates from the typical formal attire often associated with portraits. The brown cloak and informal dress have been linked to Rembrandt’s workshop clothes, suggesting that he portrayed himself in the attire he wore while working on his art.

This connection to his painting clothes underscores his identification as a painter and emphasizes his dedication to his craft. It also adds a sense of authenticity and intimacy to the self-portraits, as if he is inviting the viewer into his world.

Through his choice of clothing, Rembrandt not only creates a visual narrative but also delves into his changing self-perception. By combining personal attire with an air of informality, he presents himself as an artist who is genuine and approachable.

Description of Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar

Another evocative self-portrait by Rembrandt is the Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, currently housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. This delicate and gloomy self-portrait captures a significant period in Rembrandt’s life, marked by tensions and pressures. In this composition, Rembrandt presents himself in a three-quarters view, his face partially shrouded in darkness.

The use of chiaroscuro enhances the somber atmosphere, casting a shadow over his features and emphasizing his scrutinizing gaze towards the viewer. Rembrandt does not shy away from depicting his perceived imperfections and the physical effects of aging, presenting himself with honesty and vulnerability.

Variation in angle and departure from the sequence

The Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar stands out from Rembrandt’s sequence of self-portraits due to its variation in angle and presentation. Unlike many of his earlier self-portraits, where he utilized a straight frontal or a slight three-quarters view, this particular portrait offers a more exaggerated angle.

Rembrandt turns his head more significantly, presenting himself in a more dynamic and expressive manner. The departure from the traditional sequence of self-portraits in this work could be seen as intentional.

Rembrandt captures his own likeness with the intention of portraying a deeper sense of introspection and contemplation. The dramatic angle chosen by the artist serves to emphasize his inner turmoil and the burdens he carried during that phase of his life.

This departure from the expected showcases Rembrandt’s artistic prowess and willingness to evolve as an artist. It exemplifies his ability to adapt and experiment, even within the boundaries of self-portraiture.


Rembrandt’s self-portraits offer viewers a unique and intimate glimpse into the artist’s psyche, evolution, and self-perception. From the Self-Portrait in Vienna, with its frontal stance and sense of self-assuredness, to the Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, with its delicate gloom and introspective gaze, each self-portrait tells a different story.

Through choices in composition, technique, pose, and attire, Rembrandt skillfully captures the complexity of the human condition and his own personal journey. These self-portraits continue to captivate viewers and serve as a testament to the enduring legacy of Rembrandt as one of the greatest artists in history.

Description of Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar

In Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, the artist presents himself in a reclining pose, leaning against a red cushion covered with a fur coat. Light illuminates his face, casting a warm glow and creating a heightened focus on his features.

The portrait exhibits a muted palette, with earthy tones dominating the composition. One notable aspect of this self-portrait is the presence of red objects.

Rembrandt strategically includes a red cloth draped over his right shoulder and a red ribbon tied around his beret. These pops of vibrant red add visual interest and draw the viewer’s attention to key elements within the composition.

Molding of facial flesh and choice of attire

Rembrandt’s meticulous rendering of his facial flesh in the self-portrait is a testament to his technical prowess. He masterfully captures the subtle contours and lines of his aging face, expertly molding the flesh to create a natural and realistic portrayal.

It is through these details that Rembrandt conveys a sense of bodily aging and life experiences, reflecting the depth and complexity of his own persona. The choice of attire in the Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar holds significance as well.

The high collar, turned up to frame his face, adds a touch of elegance and a sense of regality. The beret, a traditional headwear associated with artists, further reinforces Rembrandt’s identification as a painter.

By incorporating these elements, Rembrandt connects his craft and identity, showcasing the intimate relationship between the artist and his art.

Condition and provenance of the artwork

The condition and provenance of Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar have undergone careful scrutiny and analysis. The original support of the artwork is believed to be an oak panel, which was later transferred to canvas for preservation purposes.

Several areas of the painting have undergone lining and restoration in the past, aiming to stabilize the artwork and address any damage or issues that may have occurred over time. During restoration, some parts of the painting were deemed to have undergone overpainting, potentially altering the original intentions of the artist.

These interventions and subsequent restorations are common in older artworks, and art conservators work diligently to balance the preservation of the artwork’s integrity while ensuring its longevity for future generations. The ownership history of the self-portrait has also contributed to its provenance.

It has passed through the hands of various collectors and art dealers, including Simon Lambertus Oppedijk and the esteemed art dealer Thomas Agnew & Sons. Brushwork, technique, and expert opinions

The brushwork and technique employed in Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar have been analyzed extensively by art experts.

Rembrandt’s mastery is evident in the varied and intricate surface variability achieved through his deft brushwork. The perception of ambient quality is enhanced through the skillful manipulation of light and shadow, adding depth and dimension to the flesh tones and textures.

Rembrandt’s ability to create a tactile feel of flesh on the canvas is considered awe-inspiring, showcasing his virtuosity as a painter. Art critics and scholars have offered their expert opinions on the painting’s illusionism and the perceptibility of technique.

The subtle blending of colors and the layering of paint contribute to Rembrandt’s pursuit of realism and his ability to capture the essence of the human form. The brushwork, whether visible or not, conveys a sense of spontaneity and vitality, breathing life into the subject of the painting.


Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a testament to the artist’s technical brilliance and mastery of his craft. Through his meticulous portrayal of facial flesh, choice of attire, and skillful brushwork, Rembrandt creates a deeply introspective and intimate depiction of himself.

The condition and provenance of the artwork, as well as expert opinions on technique and perception, contribute to the ongoing appreciation and study of this remarkable self-portrait. In conclusion, Rembrandt’s self-portraits are a testament to his artistic genius and his ability to capture the complexity of the human experience.

Through his multitude of self-portraits, Rembrandt experimented with different techniques, materials, and compositions, showcasing his versatility as an artist. These self-portraits not only provide a visual history of Rembrandt himself but also offer a glimpse into his evolving self-perception and personal journey.

The masterful brushwork, depiction of aging, and introspective gaze in his self-portraits continue to captivate viewers and serve as a reminder of the enduring power of art to convey emotion and authenticity. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are not mere images; they are windows into the soul of an artist who left an indelible mark on the world of art.

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