Our venues

Self-portrait as a Young Man, by Rembrandt van Rijn


See a larger version

About the artwork

This year is the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) in the Dutch university town of Leiden, where his father was a miller. Rembrandt became one of the most  celebrated European artists. His contemporaries admired his printmaking and portraiture. Later artists and collectors praised the compassionate humanity and psychological realism of his images, drawn from the Bible and ancient mythology, and above all his series of often profound self-portraits, of which he painted more than any other artist of his time.

The Walker Art Gallery’s 'Self-portrait as a Young Man' is one of the best documented of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Although it is not dated we know fairly well when it was painted, between 1629-31, who first owned it and even under what circumstances and for whom it might have been commissioned. Rarely is there this amount of documented information for the other 80 or more self-portraits that Rembrandt produced in painted and print form over the course of his life.

Rembrandt’s earliest images of himself, produced in the late 1620s when he was still in Leiden, were small. They were often tiny etched prints in which he used his own features to practise varying facial expressions and gestures and capture different  moods and characters. He would then insert these into the narrative history paintings that formed the core of his work at the time.

Rembrandt realised that the essence of creating an action picture was to introduce reactions. His only recorded statement about art was that he sought in his work to create: “the greatest and most natural [e]motion”. The etchings were essentially produced to teach himself the skills and hone them so that he could depict inner emotion through outer facial expression. This was especially important in his early, often very dramatic, pictures relating Biblical stories that required very emphatic facial gestures, such as those in 'Belshazzar’s Feast' in the National Gallery, London.

Once he had moved to Amsterdam, in the winter of 1631, he quickly established himself as the leading portrait painter of the cosmopolitan city’s business and professional establishment and its religious leaders of different faiths - Calvinist, Catholics and Jews. He used his painted self-portraits to explore the effect on the overall mood of an image of the fall of light and shade over the face, before embarking on commissioned portraits. Later self-portraits from the 1650s and 1660s, painted after his bankruptcy sale in 1656, seem often to have had a personal symbolism of particular significance to Rembrandt. 

Listen to a recording of Xanthe Brooke's gallery talk on 'Self-portrait as a Young Man' online now.

The Walker’s self-portrait was painted shortly after the young Rembrandt’s career prospects improved greatly. Towards the end of 1628 he and his close friend and rival Jan Lievens (1607-74) were ‘discovered’ by Constantijn Huygens, the Secretary to Prince Frederik Hendrik, the Stadholder, or hereditary president, of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. One of Huygens’ tasks was to scout out artists for the court of his employer.

In 1629 Huygens seems to have commissioned for the Stadholder two paintings by Rembrandt, one of which was a self-portrait. The Prince then gave them to Sir Robert Kerr (1578-1654), an ambassador from the British court of Charles I who was in The Hague in 1629 to present the King’s condolences to his sister Elizabeth, the ‘Winter’ Queen of Bohemia, on the death by drowning of her eldest son in January. Kerr’s own son was serving with the Stadholder’s army and Kerr stayed on at the court until at least September.

Kerr was also a friend of Huygens, with whom he shared an admiration for the poetry of John Donne, whose portrait, recently bought by the National Portrait Gallery, he owned. As one of Charles I’s  most loyal Scots courtiers, keen to curry favour with the King, Kerr presented the paintings to the monarch.

The other Rembrandt painting in the Dutch gift, 'An Old Woman (The Artist’s Mother)', is still in the Royal Collection. label on its back states that it was given by Sir Robert, which suggests that it, along with the Self-portrait  were presented to Charles I sometime before June 1633 when Kerr was created the Earl of Ancram. Both paintings show the figures painted within a feigned oval frame which focuses the viewer’s attention even more closely onto their faces and features, the texture of their hair and skin and lips. Both also reused wood panels, on which x-rays reveal Rembrandt had previously painted a male figure, possibly intended for a biblical theme.

The self-portrait was certainly in Charles I’s collection by 1639 when an inventory described it as: 
“the picture doen by Rembrant, being his owne picture & done by himself in a Black cap and furrd habbitt with a little goulden chaine upon both his Shouldrs in an Ovall and a square black frame” .
It was hanging at Whitehall Palace in the ‘longe gallorie towards the Orchard’ and above the door to Ancram’s private apartments.

Yet despite this precise description, that corresponds so closely to the Walker’s portrait, the painting has recently become a very controversial ‘self-portrait’. The head of the Dutch-based Rembrandt Research Project, which has been examining Rembrandt’s work since 1968 in an attempt to classify them, has claimed in the latest volume published in 2005, that the portrait was not by Rembrandt but by Isack Jouderville (1612/13-1645-8), one of Rembrandt’s two studio assistants between late 1629 and the end of 1631. This claim has subsequently been disputed by other British and Dutch Rembrandt scholars.  An earlier RRP volume published in 1982 had accepted the Walker’s portrait as an authentic work by Rembrandt, though in imperfect condition and probably painted sometime between 1630 and 1631.

The RRP’s latest volume was theoretically dedicated to all Rembrandt self-portraits but in fact focussed primarily on those painted from 1642 onwards. Its research showed that there was evidence that in the 1640s, when Rembrandt was an internationally known and admired artist for whose painted portrait there was a large and increasing market, his workshop, full of trainee students and studio assistants did produce a number of paintings on canvas which were copied ‘self-portraits’.  They were portraits of Rembrandt painted by studio assistants and then passed off at some point as by Rembrandt. But there is no evidence that in late 1620s the same market existed for Rembrandt’s painted image.

Besides which neither Rembrandt nor the Stadholder had any motive for sending a copy of a Rembrandt self-portrait to the British King. For the Stadholder his diplomatic gift to the British court came at a politically important time when he wanted to make a good impression on Charles I. The previous year the Catholic King of Spain had appointed the artist Rubens as his special peace envoy to Charles I on behalf of the Habsburg monarchy. If Rubens was successful the Stadholder would lose a crucial ally in his Protestant anti-Habsburg coalition.

Rembrandt was a young ambitious artist who had yet to make his mark on the artistic scene in Amsterdam. He might also have had hopes of working at court, either in The Hague or in London, where his friend Lievens went to work between 1632-35.  Rembrandt had no reason to blight his career prospects at both courts by sending a supposed self-portrait painted not by himself but by a less accomplished studio assistant, Isack Jouderville, whose only known portrait is significantly different in brushwork style to that in the Walker’s portrait.  Rembrandt was also aware that the most celebrated artist of the day – Rubens – already had his self-portrait in Charles I’s collection.  Rembrandt’s self-portrait, therefore, joined a small group of self-portraits – which eventually included a Durer, Titian and Van Dyck, in Charles I’s rapidly expanding collection. The King’s collection became one of the largest and most impressive royal collections of the time before it was broken up by a massive sale of the King’s goods after his execution in 1649. The Walker’s painting was sold in December 1651.

Further reading: An exhibition catalogue containing more information about the Walker’s painting and several other Rembrandt self-portraits, Face to Face: Three Centuries of Artists’ Self-portraiture, is available from the Walker Art Gallery shop.

Listen to a recording of Xanthe Brooke's gallery talk on 'Self-portrait as a Young Man' online now.