Artistic Creation of a Self-Portrait Masterpiece

With healthy creativity, Rembrandt produced outstanding self-portraits.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

In a recent study of Rembrandt's self-portraits exhibited in London and the Hague, the art critic Carlos H. Espinel and others have made medical and psychiatric diagnoses as though the paintings were a series of autobiographical photographs. However, the self-portraits are neither photographs nor even direct autobiography. They are, as Espinel himself states, artistic masterpieces.

To interpret the image, therefore, the aesthetic purpose and impact of the paintings must be appreciated and understood. Rembrandt produced more self-portraits than any major artist in history. According to art historians, his aims included advertisement, practice at mastering facial expressions, acknowledgment of his celebrity, and improvement on the tradition of great painters before him. A particularly distinctive feature has been his use of costumes from various historical periods and especially his use of different types of hats. In some paintings, he is dressed as a military man, or a noble, or a saint; only rarely does he dress as a painter.

Much of Rembrandt's aesthetic power resides in the expressiveness of his portraits, his construction of historical visual metaphors, and the overall composition of his paintings. With respect to expressiveness, it is important to remember that the most expressive portion of the human face is the mouth. Twenty-one muscles insert bilaterally around the mouth, compared with only six around the nose, and another six in the ocular and forehead region. The consequent range and variety of expressive movement in the mouth area exceeds that of other facial regions. Although Rembrandt may not consciously have known these anatomical facts, he arranged the composition of his self-portraits to emphasize the mouth.

I have found that in 83% of these paintings, the lines formed by the costume hats have the same visual configuration as the area around the mouth, as shown by computer rendering. This is hardly an accident, since X-ray analyses of Rembrandt's self-portraits show that he invariably painted the hats in first. The effect of this compositional technique is to enhance expressiveness and visually unify costume and face; thereby Rembrandt used the self-portraits to make artistic statements. Uniform and artist are integrally related, and the artist therefore may be seen either as noble, saintly, or as the exemplar of strength or historical tradition.

Other factors, including his use of color and brush technique, also contribute to the beautiful unity and vibrancy. Espinel's interpretations focus on particular features such as the width of the nose- mouth fold, but he does not consider their place in the total context of the artwork. Also, he regards Rembrandt's use of dark colors in the later self-portraits as a sign of clinical depression, but neglects the darkening over 350 years of a large number of this artist's paintings, as well as the fact that all painters use dark colors for various contrast effects. Rembrandt was a master of chiaroscuro—the contrast between extremes of dark and light. Rather than a highly questionable source of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, the self-portraits should be appreciated as the creative depiction of human expression and artistic values.


 Espinel CH, Depression, physical illness, and the faces of Rembrandt, Lancet 1999; 354! 262-63.