Sun, 10 Oct 1999

Rembrandt seen through his own eyes

By Stevie Emilia

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (JP): The first exhibition ever to be devoted to rare self-portraits of Dutch painter Rembrandt offers a unique overview of his stylistic development and distinct personality while at the same time revealing how the prominent artist saw himself.

The Rembrandt by Himself exhibition, featuring 28 paintings, 31 etchings and seven drawings that account for over 80 percent of the artist's known self-portraits, is currently on display at the Mauritshuis until Jan. 5. Ten more paintings, etchings and drawings by the master's pupils are also available for public viewing.

Obtained on loan from, among others, Austria, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the United States, the composition of the works on display are not very much different from a previous exhibition at London's National Gallery, which ended on Sept. 5 after luring more than 225,000 visitors.

But the Dutch style exhibition -- featuring the earliest Rembrandt self-portraits that date from 1626 to the last before his death in 1669 -- presents the works in natural light and in the 17th century environment of a Dutch state palace, while the prints and drawings are on display under artificial lighting.

The ongoing exhibition also features a chance to see all of Rembrandt's last three self-portraits that he produced in 1669. In the London exhibition, the painting from the Uffizi in Florence was missing from the trio.

The Mauritshuis' director, Frederik J. Duparc, said there was a strong bond between the museum and Rembrandt, but never before had an exhibition been specially devoted to his self-portraits.

"No other artist has portrayed himself as often as Rembrandt did throughout his career, and in so many different ways ... And we're proud to present a wide-range of his self-portraits," Duparc said in a recent media conference. The Mauritshuis was built during Rembrandt's lifetime and houses some of the master's paintings.

In his early self-portraits featured in the exhibition, Rembrandt played with light and shadow, depicting different facial expressions and evoking different moods.

In Self Portrait as a Young Man, done in 1628, Rembrandt played with lights to create dramatic illumination, by lighting only the neck, left cheek, earlobe and top of the nose, while the rest of the face is left in shadow.

But the master did not only do a study on the effects of lights on a face, but also of facial expressions, such as pictured in his work Self Portrait as a Young Man, which was done in 1629. In the self-portrait, Rembrandt's raised eyebrows create furrows in his forehead, while his wide open eyes and mouth create an expression of surprise.

In his other self-portraits, Rembrandt cast a wide variety of parts for himself, ranging from soldier to beggar, from biblical hero to Oriental man. He also adorned himself with jewelry and flamboyant costumes.

Rembrandt's first known self-portrait, Historic Piece, appears to take place in classical antiquity, showing him as an eyewitness to an event in which soldiers greet a princely personage standing on the steps of a palace.

The oil-on-canvas, done in 1626, of the painter's face, with his signature brownish-red head of curls, can be distinguished although partly hidden behind the main figure's raised scepter.

In his other work, Self Portrait in Oriental Attire, Rembrandt presents himself as some sort of Eastern ruler standing in a self-assured pose while holding a cane. He wears a heavy cloak with a coat of gleaming fabric fastened at the waist with a striped sash under it. The master also added a plumed turban to accentuate the oriental nature of his garb, thus evoking an exotic atmosphere.

The painting was later copied by a pupil. In the original painting, before it was copied, Rembrandt initially showed his feet in full, but later on, after the copy was completed by the pupil, he removed his feet as shown in the self-portrait with a poodle.

In several self-portraits, Rembrandt, who was born in 1606 in the university city of Leiden and died in poverty in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Amsterdam, also appears as himself, a painter, wearing informal dress with his trademark beret.

But in later self-portraits, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn -- who stopped using his second name at the age of 30 as he started to regard himself as a great painter -- portrays himself as a charismatic old man with an air of dignity with his hair grown thin and his face wrinkled.

In the last decade of his life, in 1661, he portrayed himself as the Apostle Paul in Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul, featuring an aged Rembrandt in a sitting position with his head wrapped in a turban. Apostle Paul wrote much of the New Testament and was the leader of the early church after Christ's crucifixion.

"All his self-portraits do not only show his maturing expression but also development of painting skills," said Mauritshuis' chief curator Peter van der Ploeg.