401 My ten favorite Rembrandt self-portraits

Earlier this year, the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad asked me for an interview in which I would reveal, in order from 10 to 1, what my favorite ten Rembrandt self-portraits are. Instead of talking to the editor, Arjen Ribbens, I wrote up my preferences in an illustrated column, in English. I put them in chronological order, but that worked out all right, because my number 1 was indeed the latest. Ribbens translated a pared-down version, made it look more like an interview and published it in the issue of 6 November 2021. For the Schwartzlist, here is the English original.

Ask a Rembrandt specialist who is also an art lover what his favorite Rembrandt self-portraits are and you get the answer of a split personality. The art lover has been touched by some self-portraits more than others, in ways for which he is not required to account or even try to understand. My encounters with these works are entirely personal. The art historian in me has a different relationship, often out there in public, to perhaps different self-portraits. These works have become entangled with my own life to become favorites in that way.

Ca. late 1620s
Oil on panel, 23.4 x 17.2 cm
Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Kunst (GK 229)

Ca. 1628
Oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-4691)

In 1967 I was hired by the publisher Meulenhoff International to work as research assistant and editor of Horst Gerson’s masterful book, Rembrandt paintings. The earliest self-portrait in the book was a small panel that had hung in the museum of Kassel (although not first as a self-portrait) since 1751. After another version of the head popped up at Sotheby’s in 1959 the foremost Rembrandt connoisseurs in England, the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. went into battle over which is the original. Gerson opted for the more impressionistic Kassel version and I’m afraid I accepted his judgment. We were wrong. The new, sharper version, now in the Rijksmuseum, is undeniably more likely to be by Rembrandt and despite whatever hard feelings I ever may have had about it, it has become one of my favorites.

Ca. 1629
Oil on panel, 38.2 x 36.1 cm
Nürnberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum (Gm391)

Oil on panel, 37.9 x 28.9 cm
The Hague, Mauritshuis (148)

That set the stage for another battle over a pair of self-portraits, in which I once again went for the more freely painted version, in Nürnberg, and this time I was right. At least, for as long as the present consensus, forged by the sharp-eyed Claus Grimm, lasts. Perhaps the version in the Mauritshuis (known since 1752) is by Rembrandt as well. I like them both.

Etching on paper, 5.0 x 4.5 cm
London, British Museum (F,6.101)

Gijs Bijlstra, Ron Dotsch and Theo Gevers
Analysis of Rembrandt’s expression in emotional recognition software

When I was bringing out my first book as a publisher, Rembrandt drawings and etchings in the Rembrandt House (1971) by Jan Piet Filedt Kok, I asked the sales desk at the museum what the most popular postcard was. It turned out to be the irresistible face-making youngster who is still the best seller in the store. The image – long not recognized as a self-portrait – looked playful and innocent, so it came as a shock when in 2014, putting together for the Frans Hals Museum an exhibition on emotions in Dutch art, I found out what it looked like to an advanced algorithm in the expression of emotions. Having seen it labeled Angst, I can no longer see it in any other way.

Rembrandt laughing, ca. 1628
Oil on copper, 22.2 × 17.1 cm
Los Angeles, The Getty Museum (2013.60)

Lambertus Antonius Claessens, “after Frans Hals,” Le ririeur, ca. 1829 – 1834
Etching and engraving on chine collé, 24.3 x 17.8 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-1890-A-15913)

I remember the moment I saw a photo of this self-portrait for the first time. It was the morning of 29 October 2007, in the great hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on a study trip with CODART, the network organization for museum curators of Dutch and Flemish art. It was printed in the papers as a new Rembrandt discovery, after having emerged from nowhere at a country auction house in the Cotswolds. Stories like that are almost invariably wrong, and some of my colleagues in the company laughed back at the face. But the second I laid eyes on it I was convinced that it was by the young Rembrandt, looking really playful and innocent, and I fell in love with it. This discovery too comes with a cautionary tale. After being publicized as a hitherto completely unknown revelation, it was realized that a print reproducing it – as “Le rireur” (The laugher, in broken French) not by Rembrandt but by Frans Hals – had been made about 1800 and published in the 20th century as a lost Rembrandt by at least four scholars whose books are consulted too infrequently.

Rembrandt as an oriental, with a poodle, 1631
Oil on panel, 63 x 56 cm
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais (PDUT925)

About 1631 Rembrandt took on one of his more outlandish identities – literally outlandish, as an oriental of sorts, with a poodle that competes with him for attention. As  idiosyncratic as the image appears, it has non-poodle antecedents some of which Rembrandt knew. This self-portrait, the only one in which Rembrandt shows himself standing in full length, came into sharp focus for me when I became guest curator of an exhibition called Rembrandt’s orient. This is one of Rembrandt’s more outspoken appropriations of the orient, for purposes we can only guess at.

Rembrandt and Saskia enjoying themselves, ca. 1635
Oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm
Dresden, Gemäldegalerie (1559)

Hans von Aachen, Self-portrait with a woman called Donna Venusta, ca. 1580-85
Oil on canvas, 112 x 88 cm
Private collection

Rembrandt as a military man on the town and Saskia as a good-time girl on his lap. This painting of 1638 in Dresden (which I find depressingly ill-preserved) challenges all our ideas about the relationship in self-portraiture between convention, autobiography, psychology, self-reflection, self-presentation and in this case, possibly, anecdotalism – giving a middle finger to relatives of Saskia who accused the couple of living too well. Maybe even erotic role-playing. My own theory, which no one else seems to share [though see comment by Karl Schütz below], is that the painting emulates an acclaimed laughing, drinking self-portrait by the imperial court painter Hans von Aachen with a courtesan named Donna Venusta. Karel van Mander wrote it up with admiration in his Schilder-boeck (fol. 290r). “Leaving aside many things: he also portrayed himself laughing with a female called Madonna Venusta beside him playing on a lute while he stands behind her with a dish of wine in his hand. This was handled and executed so that peolple with understanding of art claimed never to have seen anything better, from him nor from anyone else.” (From the Miedema edition, 1994.) [Looking at them side by side, I would add that Hans van Aachen’s painting refers to the sense of sounds, Rembrandt’s to the sense of taste.]

Ca. 1640-43
Oil on canvas, 62.3 x 49.3 cm
Private collection

This brings me to the self-portrait that has filled much of my working life for the past two years. I have written an entire book about this one painting, which came from the legendary collection of King Willem II. Having started work on it with a certain skepticism – in the Corpus of Rembrandt paintings Ernst van de Wetering calls it a “self-portrait” between quotation marks – I have become convinced that it was painted by Rembrandt. Investigation by the Schweizerisches Institut für Kunstwissenschaft has established that all of it except the face has been overpainted. The weaknesses in other passages can be ignored, making it easier to accept the painting as what it looks like – a self-portrait by Rembrandt. The painting has an astonishing history, part of which I was able to reconstruct in unexpected detail, thanks to documentation, public and private, put online by the U.S. Congress archivist.

Rembrandt working at the window, 1648
Etching, drypoint and engraving on paper, 16.0 x 13.0 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-39)

After twenty years of taking on roles and putting on airs for his self-portraits, in 1648 Rembrandt stepped off the stage and sat down at his desk, to show us what he would have looked like to his webcam. Bright northern light (that Rembrandt’s house is on the south side of the Anthoniesbreestraat was not an accident) falls on the copper plate he is etching to produce the image we are looking at, while he looks at us. The plate, which we do not see, lies on a folded piece of cloth supported by two books laid down to give him the angle he wants. Before we tell ourselves that this is a sheer record of how it was, it is well to observe that in succeeding states of the etching Rembrandt added the little curtain with his signature and a hilly landscape through the window. Rembrandt was not a reporter, he was a picture-maker.

Rembrandt the Magnificent, 1658
Oil on canvas, 133.7 x 103.8 cm
New York, The Frick Collection (1906.1.97)

The modesty of the self-portrait at the window was not really Rembrandt’s thing. Ten years later he painted himself at his most majestic. This is one of the two self-portraits in my native New York, at the Frick Collection, the one that made the greatest impression on me – how could it not? – when I was studying art history at NYU in the 1950s. Coming back to visit him in the 1980s when I was writing a biography that was critical of Rembrandt’s character, he spoke to me from on high: “Back again, Schwartz? I’ve seen your kind come and go, but I’m here to stay, and how!” Rembrandt puts me in my place, when it comes to making a mark on history.

The artist as St. Paul, 1661
Oil on canvas, 91 x 77 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (SK-A-4050)

Number 10 could have been the inevitable self-portrait with circles in Kenwood House, London, but that is everyone’s favorite, so that I prefer to close with the only self-portrait in which Rembrandt takes on the identity of an identifiable historical figure. That is St. Paul, with his standard attributes, a book and a sword, to which Rembrandt adds an attribute of his own, the headscarf of a painter at work. What most endears him to me, I must admit, is my attachment to an idea of my own about what he is saying. While others look for the clue in theology, I am convinced that Rembrandt is showing himself as St. Paul the rhetorician, the man who wrote of himself, in 1 Corinthians 9: “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… To those not having the law I became like one not having the law … so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people.” That saying can be turned around to speak of St. Paul’s audience – and Rembrandt’s viewers. We lend ourselves to all Rembrandt’s guises, and in doing so experience differences within ourselves as we absorb his.

© Gary Schwartz 2021. Published on the Schwartzlist on 20 November 2021

Loekie and I are getting nervous again about covid-19. The infection rate in the Netherlands is soaring, and the government has been irresponsibly lax in offering booster shots. At our age (undisclosed) we were supposed to be contacted last week, but weren’t. So we skipped the opening of the PAN art fair in Amsterdam, the first big event of its kind in the Netherlands since the aborted TEFAF of March 2020. After three days my curiosity got the better of my anxiety and I went there alone. There was a perfunctory qr-code check at the door, but no restriction, either of distancing or wearing masks. It had a decadent feeling, like a party during a plague.

Most of what I saw was the same old thing, the usual assortment of genres, for some of which I have greater weakness than for others. But one display, at the stand of Zebregs & Röell, blew me away. For years I have been working on Dutch art and artists in Asia, and never have I come across anything like this:

An unknown Chinese artist and Adriaen Souter, Minister Robert Junius preaching to converted Christians in Taiwan, 1643
Oil on canvas, 95.2 x 128.2 cm
Amsterdam, Zebregs & Röell

My memory may be failing me, but to my knowledge this is the only hybrid Dutch-Asian work of art I have ever encountered. It is inscribed

Vertooninge. Vande. habijten. Gestalte. ende vergaderinge. /der. Nieuwe Christenen op. Formosa. Int. Dorp. Soulang. / soo als. Gods woort. In Hare Taale Is Gepredict / vanden E.D. Robert. Junio. Anno 1643. Door een. chinees. Aldaer geschildert. (Depiction of the clothing, figures and assembly of the new Christians in Formosa in the village of Soulang, while the Word of God is preached in their language by the minister Rubert Junius, anno 1643. Painted there by a Chinese [artist].)

In 1643 Minister Junius returned to the Netherlands after fourteen years of spectacularly successful missionary work in Taiwan. The portrait of Minister Junius above is presumed to have been added after his return by Adriaen Souter, in a portrait that in 1644 was etched by Pieter de Jode II.

Left: Detail of painting above
Right: Pieter de Jode II, Minister Robert Junius, 1644
Etching, 22.0 x 16.2 cm
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-7897)

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13 thoughts on “401 My ten favorite Rembrandt self-portraits”

  1. Number 3 – Angst indeed. But then, why popular? Perhaps because perceived as what Brecht called “quoted gesture.” This work somehow conveys (to me at least) the sense of someone “making a face” – in two senses, because all self-portraits are made faces.
    Especially in the etchings, Rembrandt is a master of expressions and stances. Alpers relates this command to the dramas that he staged with his students, recalled by Hoogstraten. You discussed this in 2014, I suppose; is that text available?
    Rembrandt’s selfies, often scrutinized for insight to his outlook, are also his equivalent of the photobooth, impressions of what Italian theorists dignified as the affetti. Part of his object in sitting so often as his subject was to study the subjective objectified, emotion incorporated in the corpus of his art.

      1. I put it that way mainly as an alibi for writing more about my research than about my inner stirrings, which is what the newspaper wanted.

    1. I think that etching is popular because it looks so innocent. That it is not, is another lesson, a lesson I’m afraid we’ll never learn, in the uncertainty of reading other people’s emotions. When it comes to that, even understanding our own. There must be an evolutionary advantage to this built-in human incapacity. Perhaps it serves to keep us from trying to interfere with our emotions, which are running the show on their own.

      Svetlana Alpers’s text is in her book Rembrandt’s enterprise. I’m embarrassed to admit that I do not seem to have quoted it in the catalogue of my exhibition on emotions in Dutch art of 2014. I should have.

  2. re: Angst

    What are the chances that R was having a competition with Carravagio’s repertoire – Boy Bitten by Lizard? No idea of chance of R having seen the original, but assume lots of copies, etc available.

    1. That is not a far-fetched possibility. The comparison between Rembrandt and Caravaggio as depicters of emotion dates from the seventeenth century, and Caravaggio was surely known to Rembrandt when he was still a beginner. In the etching, Rembrandt could have been demonstrating that he could equal Caravaggio for the kind of work for which Caravaggio was famous, even without referring to a specific work by him.

  3. Thank you, I meant your text, which I’d like to read if I can.
    And agreed – “There’s no art / To find the mind’s construction in the face.” But art has a lot of fun with the problem.

  4. Dear Gary,
    Thank you very much for sending the Schwartzlist with your article on your favourite Rembrandt Self-Portraits. I enjoyed your article (like usually) very much, I always appreciate your connoisseurship, especially in the case of Rembrandt.
    I would like to add the Vienna Self-Portrait of 1652 to your selection, which is my favourite Self-Portrait (no wonder). Just look at the eyes: with a few tips of his brush Rembrandt creates lifelike expression. This shows his extraordinary ability as a painter. It is a kind of miracle.
    Thank you also for remarking the „Donna Venusta“ by Hans von Aachen. This painting was part oft he Hans von Aachen exhibition I curated together with Peter van den Brink and Eliska Fucikova, which was shown in Aachen, Prague and Vienna in 2010. The Donna Venusta was only exhibited in the Vienna venue, this was a very rare opportunity to see the painting which belongs (or exactly belonged in 2010) to an Italian private collection. The connection with the Self-Portrait of Rembrandt with Saskia as representation of the Prodigal Son is remarked in the catalogue by Lubomir Konecny (p. 76, ill. 86) and Bernard Aikema (p. 105, cat.6).
    Best regards Yours
    Karl Schütz, Vienna

    1. Dear Karl,

      You’re so right! The great Standing self-portrait of 1652 confronts you in a more direct, personal way than just about any other one. The eyes are also delineated more frankly than elsewhere, with some sagging and sadness. If I were Harry Potter, I would surely have been able to put eleven self-portraits into my favorite ten.

      Thanks for the reference to those passages in the terrific Hans von Aachen catalogue. I have it, and should have taken it off the shelf (near the ceiling – nobody comes before Hans von Aachen) before writing that no one has accepted my proposal that Rembrandt’s self-portrait with Saskia is modeled on von Aachen’s Donna Venusta. Now that I have looked at those passages, I see that I should have written that the relationship was acknowledged in 2010, only without citing my publication of the theory in 1984. Oh well, if various writers have arrived at the same conclusion independently of each other, all the better for the strength of the proposition.

      With warm greetings and fond memories of our meetings through the years,

  5. Let us search for a new self-portrait by Rembrandt!
    One of the eighteen company members of “The Nightwatch” never got to see the painting.
    He died before Rembrandt completed it.
    But from an all-seeing divine triangle we meet his gaze,
    His rifle rests on his shoulder but his brothers is firing a salute.
    Now we can once again count the men, and suddenly the heart
    in the original center of the painting is vacant!

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