Thursday, March 20, 2014

40 Days of Paintings - Self Portrait with Beret and Upturned Collar (Rembrandt van Rijn)

Over his entire career, Rembrandt van Rijn painted/drew/printed close to 100 self-portraits.  They started at the beginning of his career when he was just 20 years old, and he continued until the year of his death in 1669.  Rembrandt's self-portraits are a fascinating collection of works because they show us 2 things - The progression of the maturity of his style as well as his maturity in age.  In all, from what we have available, we know he did at least 85 or so.  So with that many self-portraits to choose from, why did I choose this one?
Well to put it plainly, it is my favorite of his.  This painting was done in the later years of his life in 1659, just a decade before his death.  To me, this is the best that Rembrandt ever painted if we want to talk about the essential "Rembrandt style."  This is where we see him using principles of abstraction to create realism... something I'll talk about later with Velázquez as well.  In his older age, we see Rembrandt using the thick impasto technique to create the illusion of old, wrinkled skin on his face.  The technique appears harsh, and quite honestly messy when looking at it close up.  But it is executed with deliberate precision.  Every color used serves a purpose, as does its texture.
And what purpose is that?  In the case of this portrait, we see an old man whose face is weathered with sadness and grief by personal tragedy.  We see a lonesome man who lost his wife and 3 of his 4 children.  Later on, he would lose his 4th child and his second wife.  We see a financially broken man who declared bankruptcy a few years before this portrait was painted.  Sadly, things would not turn around for him. 
But I think we see one other thing in this portrait.  We see a man, an artist, determined to live out the rest of his life willing to follow the call of his life - to be a painter.  In spite of all the hardships he faced, Rembrandt never stopped doing what he loved to do.  Even in the year of his death, he was still painting, and painting self-portraits.  I think Rembrandt gives us an example to strive towards as artists.  Some of us truly feel called by God to do this, and others simply love to do it.  Whatever the case, Rembrandt was living proof that nothing can stand in the way of a determined artist.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Upturned Collar
oil on canvas

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