Rembrandt’s ‘Self Portrait at the Age of 34’ on loan from The National Gallery, London

Rembrandt van Rijn’s Self Portrait at the Age of 34, a striking painting from The National Gallery, London, makes its U.S. debut this December in the galleries of the Museum. Created in 1640, this imaginative, ambitious and exquisitely painted image corresponds to a high point in the artist’s personal and professional life. Rembrandt established his practice in Amsterdam, the commercial center of Europe, in 1632. Shortly thereafter, he entered into a business relationship with the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh—a significant alliance, given the latter’s interest in arranging portrait commissions. Equally significant was Rembrandt’s marriage to van Uylenburgh’s niece Saskia, in 1634. In a few years’ time, and with the help of her dowry, they moved to a large house on Sint Antoniesbreestraat. By the end of the decade, the vigorous market that already existed for his mythological and religious works was superseded by the demand for his portraits.

The London self-portrait, one of more than 80 produced in various media over the course of his life, is rich with clues about Rembrandt’s industry and far-ranging aesthetic interests. We meet him seated in an arched opening, his torso turned three-quarters to the right, looking out at the spectator with an unflinching gaze. Light falls from the left on a neutral background. His right arm rests on a ledge that extends parallel to the picture plane. Immediately below, and to the right, he signed the painting “Rembrandt f (fecit) 1640.” Dressed in opulent attire, he exudes a magisterial air that underscores his self-presentation as an affluent, confident artist-cum-gentleman. His curly hair, fuzzy blond mustache and slight tuft of beard have been rendered with a meticulous, delicate facture. In comparison, the brushwork broadens and becomes more dynamic in the folds of fabric surrounding his right arm. A warm palette of red and yellow ochres, browns and grays defines the textures of velvet, fur and gold in his elegant clothing. SHOW MORE

It is not surprising that Rembrandt, the greatest painter-printmaker of 17th-century Holland, created this flamboyant likeness. The artist was fond of appropriating various guises in his self-portraits. However, the underlying concept for this depiction is unique in the master’s oeuvre, nurtured by his desire to emulate his renowned Renaissance precursors both north and south of the Alps. Though he never traveled outside Holland, Rembrandt eagerly surveyed the art of the European Old Masters through reproductive prints after their work and by means of his own collecting practices, which included engravings by the great German artist Albrecht Dürer, who, like Rembrandt, was an innovative painter-printmaker. The vigorous art market in Amsterdam provided additional opportunities to see important works from the past. In April 1639, for instance, one year before Self Portrait at the Age of 34, Rembrandt attended a sale that featured a famous portrait by the Italian Renaissance master Raphael: the renowned image of the courtier Baldassare Castiglione, now in the Louvre. Rembrandt recorded his viewing of it in a small sketch. The growth of local collections too provided occasions to study great works of art. The so-called Ariosto by the Venetian painter Titian, also in the National Gallery in London, resided at the time in the Amsterdam home of Portuguese entrepreneur Alphonso Lopez.

Inspired and challenged by his exposure to giants of Renaissance art, Rembrandt created a self-portrait that resonated with this experience through elements of dress, pose and even by signing the painting with his first name only. He presented himself as heir to artistic tradition. In the lively market for self-portraits of famous artists, where the painting provided both a likeness of the master and an example by his own hand, cultivated patrons would have appreciated such a significant association.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.