Rembrandt used his early self-portraits to explore the effects of light and to experiment with facial gesture.
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”.
This self-portrait was the first painting by Rembrandt to enter a British collection. It was presented to Charles I in the early 1630s by one of his courtiers, Sir Robert Kerr, Earl of Ancrum. Sir Robert had acquired it after a diplomatic visit to The Hague in 1629, along with another painting by Rembrandt 'An old woman: ‘The Artist’s Mother’', which is still in the Royal Collection today.
The painting remained in the palace at Whitehall until the sale of the Royal Collection after the king's execution in 1649.