2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death (1669) – and events are taking place throughout Europe (and beyond) to celebrate the work of this true pioneer. One exhibition I am particularly looking forward to is Rembrandt’s Light at London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery, opening on 4 October.

The exhibition aims to “refresh the way that we look at works by this incomparable Dutch Master” – focusing on Rembrandt’s mastery of light and visual storytelling during his time living in the heart of Amsterdam. It will be arranged thematically in order to trace Rembrandt’s innovations and moods, with the gallery’s rooms designed to encourage contemplation with similarly “rembrantian” lighting and interpretation. It sounds fabulous.

Looking forward to this, and in my own homage to Rembrandt, I dug out my research into his famed self-portraits. A parallel tale of moods and light can be told through their astounding development.

The young artist

Early etchings provide a fascinating insight into Rembrandt’s artistic aims. Etchings such as the Small Self Portrait (left) and Self Portrait with Angry Expression (right) were probably not intended as self-portraits. They instead allowed for studio exploration into different compositions, styles and technique. Such experiments with type are known as “tronies” – a concept crucial to Rembrandt’s work.

A tronie (16th-century Dutch for “face”) is a common type of works from the Dutch Golden Age that show an exaggerated facial expression or stock character in costume. It is related to the French word “trogne” which is slang for “mug” or head.

It is notoriously difficult to tell “real” self-portraits and tronies apart, however it is really only after his move to Amsterdam in 1632 that Rembrandt’s works are clearly identifiable as distinct self-portraits. The early etchings show Rembrandt’s first experiments with the use of half-light and exaggerated contrasts of light and dark. Small sections of the face are concealed in shadow; a feature which would become one of his best-known stylistic traits.

An interesting comparison can be made between two of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits: Self Portrait as a Young Man and Self Portrait with a Gorget. Although both date from 1629 there is an enormous difference in style, not only in terms of composition but also in brushwork. The willingness to chop and change with technique is one of the most striking aspects of Rembrandt’s early work. Self Portrait as a Young Man (left) demonstrates youthful experimentation at its finest, with the hair coarsely scratched away and the artist’s later subtlety of technique yet to be mastered. Despite this, Rembrandt’s burgeoning interest in the medium of paint itself and the portrayal of light and shadow is already breaking through.

The same preoccupations can be seen in Self Portrait with Gorget (right), combined with a finer finish and theatricality of the costume. Such regalia served a double purpose for Rembrandt – adding drama and increasing monetary value in the eyes of patrons. If historical attire (as opposed to 17th-century fashionable dress) was featured, the whole self-portrait acquired a more universal and permanent air, and thus made a better investment. It should be noted that Rembrandt gave up such accessories as he grew older, evidencing his growing confidence and maturity as an independent artist.

A common feature between these two works, one which reappears regularly in Rembrandt’s self-portraits is the evocation of psychological presence through shaded eyes. Not only did this style fit in with the current influence of Caravaggio, particularly popular in Utrecht in the 1620s, but also with intellectual expectations of a melancholic and introspective genius. Although shadow was a major part of Rembrandt’s work it was not as overtly dramatic as Caravaggio. He did not use complete darkness but favoured “half-light” throughout – resting on thorough observation of nature rather than mere contrivance of Caravaggio’s style.

The master emerges

After Rembrandt’s formative years in Leiden a dominant theme surfaced – that of the virtuosic artist. Rembrandt’s “middle-aged” portraits attempt to combine two ideals; the independent ‘melancholic’ artist and the aristocratic painter. He would have probably saw (and been inspired by) Albrecht Durer’s engraving of Melancholia (1514), a work which directly represents such ideals.

Similarly to his re-interpretation of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, Rembrandt did not simply emulate such traditions, but changed them to his own uses. Traditional imagery such as a thinking individual with his hand on his head were abandoned for the more subtle use of half-light and unkempt appearance. The ideals of the melancholic are clearly visible in Self Portrait with a Wide Brimmed-Hat, a painting through which Rembrandt tried to set up his reputation in Amsterdam. Traditional tropes of portraiture such as an oval shape and bourgeoisie dress are utilised – but mixed with Rembrandt’s surprisingly downbeat tenor. This work shows great technical advance with the tonal variety and impression of the figure in space, and importantly points towards the development of Rembrandt’s unique later style.

A later self-portrait of 1652 (left) marks a distinct shift in Rembrandt’s approach. The previous meticulous brushwork, as seen in works such as Self Portrait with a Wide Brimmed-Hat recedes in favour of a simplified expressionistic style. After the 1652 self-portrait Rembrandt’s works increasingly followed the ‘rough manner’. Different approaches were explored in the late 1650’s, for example the Self Portrait of 1658 (right) which employed strikingly unusual bright colours and quick brushstrokes – however the new ‘rough’ technique remained a constant.

Later works – a journey come full-circle?

In Rembrandt’s later works, the act of painting is to be appreciated for itself. Not only is the viewer drawn to the simple application of paint itself, but also to the man presented purely and simply as an artist. Even though Rembrandt portrayed himself with his easel as early as 1629, it is only in such works as Self Portrait at the Easel of 1660 that the brushes and palettes of his profession are openly flaunted to the viewer. The previous depictions of theatrical and occasionally bourgeoisie dress give way to the more subdued depictions of unkempt work clothes and muted tones.

According to Rembrandt’s biographer Arnold Houbraken, the artist’s motto was “a work is finished when the master has achieved his intention in it.” Exactly what these intentions were is up for debate, but what is certain is that Rembrandt saw his self-portraits as reflective of his own personal intentions – not the whims of the patron. This was a highly unusual idea within the 17th-century world of patronage and hierarchy.

The fact that Rembrandt felt able to consider a painting finished, even if some aspects would have appeared rough and rushed, fitted into contemporary discussions of the ‘rough tradition’. The delimitation between this and the finer techniques was a common part of workshop debates, with the rougher approach seen as the more difficult of the two stylistic paths. It is entirely possible that Rembrandt’s change from the earlier fine technique was a conscious ‘status’ decision on the part of the artist.

Characteristic of the late Rembrandt’s style is the tendency to return to concerns of his early career. Self Portrait as Zeuxis (1662) is directly comparable with the pose and expressive technique of an etched Self Portrait Laughing (1630). Another of Rembrandt’s last self-portraits at the age of 63 (below, left) reflects the uncannily similar posture and atmosphere in a London portrait aged 34 (below, right). Even though almost thirty years separate these two paintings the late Rembrandt is clearly dealing with analogous artistic aims. These similarities show an artist no longer struggling with artistic convention but drawing on his own repertoire to create multitudinous striking and original images.

In order to immerse the visitor in Rembrandt’s world, Dulwich Picture Gallery will work with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (renowned for his work on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and Mars Attacks!) – to bring Rembrandt’s all-important tone and lighting to life. It sounds like an exhibition not to be missed, and a fittingly exciting and creative response to this master of reinterpretation.

Rembrandt’s Light opens 4 October 2019 and runs until 2 February 2020. Find out more >

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