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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
(Leiden 1606-1669 Amsterdam)

“Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume”,

Etching on laid paper
13,4 x 10,3 cm
signed and dated upper left: Rembrandt f. 1638
More info

Bartsch 20; Seidlitz 20; Hind 156; White-Boon 20,;
The New Hollstein Dutch no. 170, 2nd state (of four)
Plate in existence in Paris – with Nowell-Usticke (1967): C1

Notes 

No artist has left a loftier or more penetrating personal testament than Rembrandt van Rijn. In more than 90 portraits of himself that date from the outset of his career in the 1620s to the year of his death in 1669, he created an autobiography in art that is the equal of the finest ever produced even in literature.

It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scholars studied Rembrandt’s oeuvre as a whole, that it was discovered how very many times the artist had portrayed himself. The number is still a matter of contention, but it seems he depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty extant paintings, about thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. It is an output unique in history; most artists produce only a handful of selfportraits, if that. And why Rembrandt did this is one of the great mysteries of art history.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits always tell us how he feels about himself. In 1638 he feels prosperous: his shirt and jacket are expensive and stylish; the plain artist’s beret has been supplanted by a crushed velvet hat with a plume; he has grown whiskers – all befitting a
man with much revenue, a costly household and admiring students. Rembrandt also feels cocky: his bearing is aristocratic; his face and eyes convey a certain smugness; his hand is thrust jauntily into the folds of his garment. The scale and ostentation of this selfportrait contrast sharply with the modest, intimate studies of 1630-1631, which reveal only his head and shoulders. Yet within five years of this fine reflection of 1638, Rembrandt’s popularity as a portraitist for the wealthy Amsterdam bourgeoisie would fade, his beloved wife Saskia and his mother would be dead, and the resulting financial and emotional turmoil would bring a mature understanding of human fragility to Rembrandt’s art and his views of himself.

More recent scholarship has shed additional light on Rembrandt’s early self-portrayals. Quite a few, it is argued, were tronies–head-and-shoulder studies in which the model plays a role or expresses a particular emotion. In the seventeenth century there was an avid market for such studies, which were considered a separate genre (although for an artist they also served as a storehouse of facial types and expressions for figures in history paintings). Thus, for example, we have four tiny etchings from 1630 that show Rembrandt, in turn, caught in fearful surprise, glowering with anger, smiling gamefully, and appearing to snarl–each expressed in lines that themselves embody the distinct
emotions. Rembrandt may have used his own face because the model was cheap, but perhaps he was killing two birds with one stone. The art-buying public–which now included people from many walks of life, not only aristocratic or clerical patrons, as in the
past–went for etchings of famous people, including artists. By using himself as the model for these and other studies, Rembrandt was making himself into a recognizable celebrity at the same time that he gave the public strikingly original and expressive tronies. The wide dissemination of these and other prints was important in establishing Rembrandt’s reputation as an artist.

Provenance

Private collection, USA;
From a private Dutch collection.

Condition

A fine print with good margins all around the plate edge. An excellent print of the second
state of four, before probably being rebitten and the strengthening and broadening of
lines with cross-hatching throughout.

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