“How well we know that face—far better than we know our own, or the faces of our friends…. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are the greatest autobiography ever presented to posterity, and as I look at this noble picture at Kenwood my first thought is of the soul imprisoned in that life-battered face.”—Kenneth Clark, Looking at Pictures (1960)
In his study of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the famous art historian describes the evolution of the painter and his self-portraiture, from a precocious and opulent youth to the old man who had become “isolated, bankrupt and free.”
The one constant, however, is a life-long series of self-studies of which, says Clark, “there is no parallel” in the world of art. Putting aside mere vanity, which no artist is free of, it was partly the product of Rembrandt’s introspection. There were other factors. The Dutch painter was notoriously difficult to sit for. He was his own best model and he relied on the elasticity of his own visage as a ready catalog of expressions and emotions. Something else happened as he aged. Describing the “Self-Portrait with Two Circles” (at Kenwood House) Clark states that
Unconsciously he has come to see that if he is to penetrate more deeply into human character he must begin—as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Proust and Stendhal began—by examining himself. It is a process that involves the most subtle interplay of detachment and engagement. To counteract the self-preserving vanity which makes so many self-portraits ridiculous, the painter must, at a certain point, forget himself in problems of pictorial means. By 1650 Rembrandt humbly recognised the pouches of his aging face as records of weakness and disappointment….”
Stepping back from his canvas to take in the objective record of his skill, Rembrandt might have been tempted to modify and touch-up the blemishes. But, as Clark puts it, he “saw no reason for making himself out to be better or handsomer than his neighbours who, after all, might have been Our Lord’s disciples.”
Good art, however, is more than observation. There is also careful selection and a need for proportion. The techniques of Rembrandt’s later portraits are increasingly impressionistic, both in the rough strokes of his brush and in his signature use of darkness to allow aspects of face and form to be carefully highlighted. At the same time, for all the apparently impromptu nature of these works, the Dutch painter has geometrically arranged his objects as meticulously as any of the Renaissance masters.
In that respect, a great portrait does more than capture a person in a moment of time, as does a photo, which, for all its “factuality” can often strike the viewer as strangely flat and unlifelike. Looking at the face in these pictures, it seems that many layers of Rembrandt’s life and character unfold before us. I think this is even more evident in another painting that Clark references, the 1657 self-portrait (National Gallery of Scotland).
This post is a continuation of Looking at Pictures with Sir Kenneth Clark.