Rembrandt is known as one of the most outstanding and influential artists in the history of the Dutch and the world’s art. Just as his name stands for the notion of quality itself, his individuality in art is very well established among the scholars investigating pictorial masterpieces. However, not only he was the authority in the art canons and innovator of his age, but also he claimed to be and was a successful entrepreneur and a very good craftsman.
Painter for Patrons or Entrepreneur of the Market
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As Chapman pointed out, among a rich collection of works including portraits of patrons along with the poor people and Biblical scenes, there can be found at least 75 self-portraits in painting, drawing or etching. Many believe that by numerous self-portraits the talented artist wanted to support his fame as it was believed in the seventeenth century that there had to be a connection between somebody’s fame and the number of that person’s images (Van de Wetering). Such viewpoints seem over exaggerated. Besides, Van de Wetering does not give enough credit to Rembrandt’s conceptions and ideas conveyed in the masterpieces. The scholar stresses his outstanding manner of paintings only. In such a way, Van de Wetering appreciates Rembrandt’s artistic gift in execution, for instance, his “pictorial innovations with color, light, and space, his freedom of handling” (35). In fact, Dutch genius is the founder of a self-portrayal in Western painting (Alpers). As Schwartz asserted, Rembrandt started producing endless portraits as soon as he received the slightest chance as if “there was a demon of a portraitist in him” (143).
It seems more logical to assume the rightness of those scholars who value idea, spirituality, reflection and conception in the works of the great master. Since Rembrandt’s art was devoted to displaying individuality, singularity and authenticity (Alpers 3), none of his paintings is like another (Chapman 3). Thus, the most valuable is not an enormous number of his own portraits but “the intensity and tremendous variety” (Chapman 3) of them. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s works in general and self-portraits in particular, presented productive attempts of psychological analysis and examination of the human inner world, feelings and emotions. These peculiarities make the genius especially worthy of eternal fame and not just a successful painter of his times. His individuality and allegiance to own principles even forced him into a conflict with the contemporary rich and powerful people. However, he remained faithful to his vision of the art, which influenced the whole world. Given paper will consider various views on Rembrandt’s art in relation to patrons who influenced the seventeenth-century art and the notions of marketing, which he combined with the ultimate values of art quality and human personality, best expressed in his self-portraits.
Although Rembrandt never conformed to any conventions and preferred his own art vision and values, it cannot be denied that he was the son of his époque. In particular, it is clear from his complex attitudes and understandings of the values of art, individuality and enterprise. As Alpers suggests, throughout his life and mode of creative production, Rembrandt exemplified the possibility of interrelation between the contradictory concepts of “individual uniqueness,” “monetary worth” and “aesthetic aura” (2). In other words, Dutch genius envisioned inherent culture of the next generations and managed to relate the values of a person, property and aesthetic worth. His interest in humankind combined with the interest in the marketplace. Alpers acknowledges that he ingeniously combined pictorial authority with a successful enterprise. Artist’s ability and aspiration for running a business influenced the attribution of many of his works. The reason for that is that the master had a thriving workshop and he got his assistants to perform in a very much alike manner. He knew how to meet the demands of the market and considered this a worthy business.
If one looks closely at the peculiarities of the historic situation of Rembrandt’s times, the reasons for the craft and marketing of his art is obvious. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the Netherlands was one of the leaders in the development of commerce and production (Alpers 8). It should be noted that such state of affairs resulted from the Dutch revolt against Spanish authority and the transformation of Holland, especially Amsterdam, into the first capitalist society (Chapman 5). In the context of rapid changes, human beings usually face great opportunities, choice and strivings for the new identities. Political events contributed to the growth of individualism and considerable social reordering in the Dutch society (Chapman 5). As a sensitive representative of his culture, the artist also engaged in studying his inner being and continuous search of the self and integrity.
Rembrandt’s interest in the inner world, values and beliefs is visible from the numerous roles undertaken by him in his self-portraits. It seems that through various images anxious genius, who was persistently reflecting on his identity, individuality and life philosophy, attempted to unravel the mystery of his own soul. Chapman remarked that the painter continuously enhanced his own self-portraits with either fanciful costumes or expressive lighting demonstrating him in different roles. Thus, he depicted himself as a beggar, renaissance courtier, saint or an artist in the studio (Chapman 3). Interestingly, Rembrandt seldom presented himself as a gentleman, which contradicted contemporary rules of the self-portrayal genre. During his career, he frequently acted like an innovator and was always true to his self that prompted his unique, individual way, often contrary to accepted conventions and bourgeoisie principles. Concerning self-portraits, Rembrandt was prone to represent himself in the historical paintings (Chapman). Evidently, this historical aura gave him certain spiritual highness, which he could sense inside his deep personality. Perhaps, by utilizing historical images he was willing to overcome the limitations of a mundane, finite contemporary reality and rise to eternity. Virtually, the magnitude of his talent turned out to be really historic and monumental.
Rembrandt’s incessant attempts to develop and get to know own psyche and inner world resulted in considerable autonomy. Chapman asserted that he managed to develop a new conception of the artist, who was able to preserve the sense of worth notwithstanding the mundane social position of an artist in the contemporary Holland. His self-portraiture helped him invent the desired image, which would stay in the minds and souls of contemporaries and posterity. In spite of the demands of the rich and powerful people of the time, he was always loyal to his inner vision of art and life values. He was ever eager to reveal the inner nature of his sitters and demonstrated in his paintings the truth he was able to detect. His love for freedom made him hate the influence of patronage system on the Dutch art of the time. In his studio, Rembrandt aimed to be a free individual, who was not beholden to patrons and did not serve anybody but his own artistic ideals (Alpers 89). Due to developing professionalization in the artistic sphere of the seventeenth-century Holland, the artistic ideals came to the attention of painters. Professionals aimed to achieve freedom in their art and overcome the restrictions of the craft guilds. However, despite academies and groups supporting the process of professionalization, the socio-economic situation in the country still did not allow artists to be independent in their creations. They remained powerless in the relationships with clients that produced an adverse impact on the results of artistic performance. Alpers described an example of the negative consequences of a creator’s identification with the buyer that often resulted in the end of the artistic career (89).
In contrast, Rembrandt was never willing to identify with the patrons in spite of the fact that they commissioned his paintings. Unlike many contemporary artists, he did not get along with prominent patrons and was not going to entertain them at the expense of artistic worth of the works (Alpers). Chapman highlighted that he hated to depict the life in the Dutch bourgeoisie republic, especially in his own portraits. The very fact that he chose to present himself in various images expressed not only his vast imagination but also the willingness to demonstrate his perseverance of authentic artistic ideals. The painter was not going to conform to the constraints of the middle class Dutch milieu, “the backwater of a court,” and did not consent to the demands of “burgerlijk clientele” and their love for still life or landscape (Chapman 8). Instead of entertaining the rich, he strived to perceive the human soul through numerous attempts to understand “the pattern of his own” self (Chapman 10).
Just as he recognized the value of art and identity, Rembrandt realized the possibility of making money from his production. As Alpers put it, he preferred the authority of market and his workshop to that of the rich clients. Moreover, Rembrandt appeared to have a “propensity to truck, barter and exchange” and the ability to make works suitable for such transactions (Alpers 89). He realized an immense popularity of self-portraits in Leiden and the Netherlands, and therefore, tried to meet the existing demand (Chapman). Alpers is right saying that Rembrandt can be regarded in different roles: as a painter, actor, director and an enterpreneur (9). To suceed in the enterprise, he learned to masterfully remake etchings by adding only a slight detail and make it look like a completely new production. In other words, the master actually deployed an efficient marketing device that brought considerable success. At the same time, one should not forget that Dutch genius never failed to express and mark his individuality. He did it through various means including inventioin and execution, distinctive handling of paint and a signature on the works. He established the type of an artistic work marked by both individuality and valuable quality, which are basic aspects of enterprise in our culture as a whole (Alpers 102). Additionally, Rembrandt’s individuality grounded on his outstanding skill and willingness to present a profound analysis of a face rather than simply depicting it. That is why his portraits were popular and he earned his first money from them (Schwartz 58).
Based on the above-described interpretation of Rembrandt and his creations, the paper will further focus on the analysis of certain master’s self-portraits. Specifically, the following paintings will be discussed: Self Portrait (1628), Self Portrait in a Cap, Laughing (1930), Self -Portrait of a Young Man (1934), Self Portrait at the Age of 34 (1640), Self Portrait at the Window (1648), Self Portrait As Zeuxis. First, the basics of a historical genre learnt at Leiden school produced an impact on artist’s general approach to painting (Chapman 15). Besides, Rembrandt believed that in self-portraiture it was vital for the artist to transform into an actor. As Chapman cites Hoogstraten (student of Rembrandt), one “gains unique insight in being both performer and beholder, or represented and representer” (20). Rembrandt demonstrated this ability to “reform himself totally into an actor” in Stoning of St. Stephen as early as in 1625. Van de Wetering supports Hoogstraten and claims that what most attracted the public to the work was the artist’s skillfully hidden self-portrait, which could be easily recognized by the inner circle (Van de Wetering 22).
All of the above-mentioned self-portraits reflect Rembrandt’s values and artistic ideals. He does not pay attention to precise likeness and existing conventions of the genre at the time. Instead, his masterpieces are marked with strong psychological insight into the human inner world, and also, as Chapman puts it, the authenticity of emotions and the strength of imagination (21). Particularly, his early self-portraits of a young man demonstrate strong, anxious emotions and intent consideration of own thoughts, strivings, and perhaps, his values and beliefs. These are shown in his facial expression: slightly parted lips, eyes deep in shadow and raised brows. On a related note, Chapman admits that Rembrandt’s early self-portraits render reflective self-consciousness, through which the young professional conveyed his melancholic self-image and artistic temperament. Further, he accurately notes that the feature of an early Rembrandt is his shadowy countenance that was meant to express his “overcast mind” and “heightened emotionalism.” His shaded eyes must be turned inward to own spirit and soul; that is why they seem “concealed, unreadable, impenetrable” (Chapman 30). Schama argues with Chapman’s interpretation of a shaded face as a sign of troubled melancholic mind of a creative genius. The scholar suggests that the dense shadow covering a considerable part of the face enlarges the power of the painter’s eye. Furthermore, he adds that the whole painting aims to play with the viewer, to puzzle and make think; everything is serving this purpose, from the literally made-up curls up to the eyes cut like holes in a mask (Schama 296-300). Overall, the opinions suggesting profound psychological insight of the painter into his own and human emotions and thoughts in general, appear more eligible and convincing.
Speaking about the Self Portrait in a Cap, Laughing (1930), one can agree with Chapman that somewhat rough and careless, even sketchy manner hides strong character, emotional facial expression and intense self-scrutiny. Karl Van Mander also supports the view that in this etched self-portrait, Rembrandt managed to convey a striking individuality and bright emotions through facial expressions. He states that Rembrandt perfectly knew the roles of different features: “the eyes half closed, the mouth somewhat open and merrily laughing.” The scholar specifies that eyes are able to reveal the depths of the soul, heart and human passions while the thoughts and state of mind can be read from the forehead and brows. Further, wrinkles and furrows can conceal troubles and sorrows. Van Mander even likens the forehead to the sky and the weather. Opposing Van Mander, Chapman emphasizes that the painting is not merely a naturalistic study. Rather, its purpose is to convey a specific image. Therefore, artist’s loose handling can be detected in every detail: shaded eyes, expressive brows, unruly hair and careless garments (Chapman 24). Van de Wetering even proposes that such an etching could be not exactly a self-portrait but just an attempt to “depict a cheerful expression” (127). In such a way, the scholar also believes that Rembrandt was not purposefully concerned with the issue of likeness and precise representation of own physiognomy (21). His primary target was rather to convey emotions and moods and create lifelike characteristics. In addition, Van de Wetering admires the delicate lines of the small etchings and the play of light, which enabled fine and lively images. As he puts it, “the left eye just catching the light and the glimpse of a few teeth are both features that serve to emphasize the subject’s merry mood.” (Van de Wetering 127)
In the Self -Portrait of a Young Man (1934), which was performed after his move to Amsterdam, Dutch genius depicted himself wearing a gold chain, beret and armor. Schama draws attention to a studded military gorget at his throat, which was the epitome of worldly success (362). Rembrandt utilized armor as a symbol of patriotism and loyalty to the fatherland that was a typical characteristic of the time. However, his archaic clothes (cloak, beret or a silk scarf) were rather a deviation from the contemporary norm (Chapman 36). The artist used old-fashioned beret and a gold chain as the attributes and symbols of the art itself. The beret is even believed to have intellectual connotations and embody Rembrandt’s vision of a virtuoso (Chapman 50). Alpers admits that a chain was a sign of honor, but it was not in Rembrandt’s usual sense of honor that associated the value of art with the value of money (Alpers 105).
In the Self Portrait at the Age of 34 (1640), Rembrandt continues depicting himself in imaginary roles. Besides, the master is predominantly concerned with own conceptual ideal of the virtuoso artist since Amsterdam promoted the establishment of his professional identity (Chapman 55). In this painting, Rembrandt is dressed in the romantic 16th century garb, which Chapman claims to be the manifestation of the painter’s intellectual commitment to the renaissance ideal of a gentleman (69). In addition, Schama draws attention to Rembrandt’s mastery of subtle details that made the images alive such as “a fine line of white paint that extends from the corner of the right eye where it meets the bridge of the nose down toward the lower edge of the check”, a technique that belonged to Titian (469). Particularly, this line together with the white area on top of the nose makes his skin shine a little hence showing that the heavy clothes make the man perspire. Finally, the important feature of this self-portrait is the impression of authority through which Rembrandt equals himself not only to the great Renaissance predecessors but also to his own patrons (Schama 470). Overall, in this self-portrait the artist presents himself as a man of great distinction and authority in the society, concentrating on analogy with Titian. His citation of Titian as well as Raphael is also a part of fulfilling the intention to pose himself among the immortal mastered geniuses.
Self Portrait at the Window (1648) appeared when Rembrandt was producing fewer self-portraits and seemed to have lost an interest in the ideal of the virtuoso artist (Chapman79). In this etching, one can behold a completely revised image of himself, dressed as an ordinary painter in the plain studio clothes. In an expressive naturalistic approach, the painter is presented working at the window in a shirt, working coat and a narrow-rimmed hat. His prevailing naturalistic study also shows itself in the depiction of dark walls, which contrast sharply with the window light. Similarly, the window is shown having only a frame and an opening in the wall (Outside source). It seems that Rembrandt awoke from a pompous Renaissance dream and came to the ideal of an artist as a craftsman, who performed his work confidently, yet quietly. Instead of melancholy and shaded eyes, here appears seriousness and rationality (Chapman 82). The portrait suggests that the master is full of pride and respect to his craft along with professional dignity. Alpers proposed that the refusal from “expressive heads, lighting . . . gold chains, feathered hats, armor” enabled an artist to even harder concentrate on identifying self in his paintings (115).
Looking at the Self Portrait As Zeuxis, one can get a first impression of the artist’s decline. However, the emotion demonstrated by the painter is merry laughing, perhaps at his own devastation and approaching death. It is symbolic that Rembrandt depicted himself as a Greek painter Zeuxis who was known to have died from laughing (Schwartz 354). The immortal Dutch genius had a similar mood in his final moments and thus, rendered his own decline satirically and naturalistically, without invention. Another important idea behind this painting is the reference to Zeuxis’ mastery and artistic talent, who was known as a painter of great artistic skill that not merely depicted the reality but surpassed it (Outside source 216). In addition, Rembrandt included the figure of Zeuxis in his self-portrait. An outside source states that his motive was to use this image for depicting emotions. In general, Dutch genius was enormously engaged in rendering emotions and this portrait is no exception.
Overall, Rembrandt is famous for his innovative paintings, which combined invention with the naturalistic study. The central preoccupation of a genius was the mastery in rendering the inner world of a human being, either of a sitter or of his own. Throughout his career and the entire life, he demonstrated interest in the feelings, emotions and thoughts of a person. Besides, he remained loyal to his artistic integrity in spite of the mundane contemporary reality and the necessity to serve the powerful patrons. Instead of building relationships with the rich buyers, he engaged in marketing and enterprise, where an artist turned out to be quite skilful as well. Finally, he lived following the three values: person, property and art.