UK’s National Trust is really excited they now have an “authentic” Rembrandt self-portrait, and they want everyone to know. The painting dates to 1636 and portrays a 29-year-old Rembrandt wearing a velvet cap and a fetching cape, and no, National Trust, it is not a “selfie” or “the original ‘selfie’.”
Previously thought to be “school of Rembrandt,” a dreaded label that taunts museums and collectors the world over eager to own the real thing, the painting was finally authenticated by the world’s leading Rembrandt expert, Ernst van de Wetering, after much scientific testing (close visual examination under magnification, infra-red reflectography, x-radiography, raking light photography, pigment and medium analysis), and a cleaning. As van de Wetering explains it:
Although I was pretty certain the painting was a Rembrandt when I saw it in 2013, I wanted to further examine it after cleaning and see the results from the technical analysis as this had never been done before. With all this additional scientific evidence, I am satisfied it is by Rembrandt.
The new Rembrandt self-portrait is one of about 70 self-portraits (you can see 42 of them online) painted by the Dutch Golden Age Master, and it might not really add a new dimension to the series it does reinforce the artist’s obsession with his image. Why did Rembrandt paint so many self-portraits? No one is sure, and it remains one of the major mysteries of art history. What we do know is that he did sell the paintings during his lifetime, suggesting they were not for personal use. As Ferdinand Portzman wrote in the Washington Post back in 1999 during a major Rembrandt self-portrait exhibition:
Art historians know that Rembrandt’s self-portraits sold because none are listed on the exhaustive inventory of his house done by the bankruptcy court and because several ended up in royal or imperial collections across Europe. Van de Wetering writes that the pictures were valued as “typical” Rembrandts that “had an added attraction in that they showed the face of the creator.”
Looking at Rembrandt’s life, it’s hard to imagine that he was intrigued with just supplying the market with paintings of himself or showing off his skills. Getting rich wasn’t his chief ambition. And he didn’t seem to care much what anyone thought of his art or his chaotic personal life. In 1678, Italian artist and writer Filippo Baldinucci described him as “a first-class crank” who looked down on everyone.
The thought of Rembrandt as a crank is endearing. It gives the man of many self-portraits a more human quality, even if he might’ve been undesirable to be around during his lifetime.
The National Trust painting was originally donated to the National Trust from the estate of the late Lady Samuel of Wych Cross in September 2010, and her husband purchased the painting in the 1960s. The painting cannot be sold as the National Trust’s mandate is to care for items important to British culture in perpetuity.
In case you were curious, this is what a Rembrandt selfie could’ve looked like.