Rembrandt: The selfie-made man

Selfies are everywhere these days. Teens take pictures of themselves in front of bathroom mirrors and concerts. Politicians take pictures of themselves at any opportune moment to show that they are just like one of us. My mom even sent me one once.

But the selfie itself is no modern contrivance. It’s older than than the age of social media. Older, in fact, than the invention of photography. Painters have been immortalizing themselves on canvas and panels since cavemen first traced their hands on the wall of a cave in Borneo some 40,000 years ago.

Rembrandts first selfie 1627
First-known Rembrandt self-portrait, an etching from 1626.

But perhaps no one pioneered the selfie quite like Rembrandt van Rijn, the most famous of the class of painters known as the “Old Masters.” Over his career from the early 1620s to his death in 1669, he is known to have created more than 90 self-portraits. These include full-size paintings, sketches, etchings and several cameo appearances in many of his famous works.

So what gives? Was Rembrandt simply smitten with himself? Or was he using himself as a character study?

Art historians offer a few different ideas on Rembrandt’s favorite subject:

  • Tronies: During Rembrandt’s time there was a genre of art known as the “tronie,”
    Rembrandt selfie tronie 1630
    A Rembrandt tronie etching from 1630.
    which consisted of an over-exaggerated expression or a costumed character. Artists liked these because they served as useful character studies for practice. Buyers just enjoyed seeing them in their homes. Using himself as a tronie subject served two purposes. One, he was the cheapest model available. Two, as Rembrandt’s renown spread, using himself as a subject increased the value of his work, which brings us to …
    Rembrandt selfie 1635
    Rembrandt selfie, 1635
  • Simple market demand: Some art historians believe that Rembrandt painted and etched and sketched himself so often simply because those works sold so well. When Rembrandt died in 1669, he left behind several unsold works of art in his inventory. None of his selfies were among them, suggesting that they were sure sellers.
  • Mortality: Others believe Rembrandt came to use his selfies as a way to bravely look man’s mortality squarely in the eye as his ultimate end drew ever nearer. This becomes an
    Rembrandt selfie 1665-9
    A portrait of the artist as an old man, 1665.
    especially compelling interpretation in his later years, as his self-portraits never shy from depicting every creased fold in his face, every sagging bag under his eye, every toll the years had taken on him. Nothing here is glossed over or glamorized. Rembrandt had always been a humanistic painter, but perhaps never moreso than when he contemplated his own aging and mortality.
  • Co-Star: Then there’s one more category of Rembrandt selfie to consider: the cameo. These are glimpses of the artist that you catch in several of his works. In “The Stoning of St. Stephen,” painted in 1625 when he was just 19, he stands behind the titular subject, looking as though he might be having regrets. In “History Painting,” whose subject is ironically lost to history, Rembrandt stands among the entourage. But perhaps most famously, Rembrandt couldn’t refrain from painting himself into his massive “Night Watch,” where his cap and eyeball are poking out from behind someone else’s shoulder. See the examples below:

 

The Stoning of St. Stephen

 

History Painting

 

The Night Watch

For whatever reasons Rembrandt chose to use himself as his own model over and over again, we are lucky for it. His humanity stares back at us from across more than three hundred years, showing us a little bit about what it means to be alive, to be ambitious, to suffer, to triumph, to feel broken and to be fully human.

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