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Self-Portrait with Two Circles, ca. 1665-1669

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Rembrandt made many self-portraits during his career. What makes this one so notable is his ruthless honesty in portraying himself with grooves around his eyebrows and drooping jowls, as a man marked with the vicissitudes of life.

This mysterious work usually hangs in Kenwood House, a small museum in London. Here we see the master himself, in an unsigned portrait, in the last phase of his sorely tested life. Behind the painter himself are the circles that still puzzle art historians about what Rembrandt intended them to mean. The hand holding the brushes is a striking feature in that it is so vaguely depicted. It seems as if Rembrandt also gave viewers a role in the creative process: that of using our powers of perception to complete the painting in our head. 
Eighty self-portraits

Over his entire career, Rembrandt made around eighty self-portraits. During his early period, we see him as an artist bursting with energy; he even draws himself making funny faces. In his twenties and thirties, when he had become a successful painter, he focused on portraying himself as a serious artist by including references to the great artists of the past. The approximately fifteen self-portraits that he made during the last period of his life depict him primarily as a person directing his attention to his own inner world, often in a confrontational manner. 

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When was it completed? 

It is plain to see in Self-Portrait with Two Circlesthat Rembrandt has used a pen to scratch into it. The left eyebrow with the wrinkle is unrecognisable when viewed from up close; what the paint represents becomes clear only from a distance. Critics in Rembrandt’s time complained that Rembrandt’s work looked unfinished. But Rembrandt himself determined when a work was finished and left much of it up to the viewer. This is why this self-portrait still looks so contemporary to us today: an impressionist painting avant la lettre

  • Hand with brushes

    You won’t see it until it’s pointed out, but the hand in which Rembrandt is holding his brushes is not a hand at all. What we perceive as a hand has been created in our head.

  • Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul

    In the self-portraits he made the year before he died, we see a frail, elderly man. Yet his style is fresher and more alive than ever.

Mysterious

His cap and hair look as if they were painted with a few rapid brushstrokes. The clothing was painted in a style that we would much later come to know as impressionistic. The hand holding his brushes is barely a hand at all. Much in this work is left to the imagination. Even today, art historians are puzzled about the meaning of the circles in the background. Was Rembrandt suggesting his skill as an artist by this capability of drawing a perfect circle? Or does it represent the characteristic signature of the artist? 

Self-portraits as valuable commodities

Rembrandt’s self-portraits were valuable commodities. Yet another factor in creating these painting was the quest for his inner self. It is often said that it was not until the 19th century that people really began to get involved in psychological issues. Rembrandt, however, was also fascinated in finding ways to express the workings of the soul. In his late self-portraits, we see a man preoccupied with his inner world. This is why we are still so touched by these self-portraits: they convey such a deep sense of the human condition. 

With his brush handle Rembrandt scratchted an eyebrow. Yet this suggestion made with a blob of paint looks more real than reality itself. 

Rembrandt made around eighty self-portraits. These were made primarily because of the great demand for them. In other words, he could earn good money from selling them

Drooping jowls

In his late self-portraits, he portrayed himself sometimes as a scruffy artist, sometimes as an affluent merchant. He never tried his best to make himself look better than he was. On the contrary, unevenly drooping jowls and grooves around his eyebrows show a man marked with the vicissitudes of life. His last self-portraits in particular depict a frail man with pasty-looking skin. The techniques he used to achieve this were revolutionary for his time and unsurpassed even today. His vast ingenuity and skills as an artist are still giving us deep emotional insights into the human condition. 

Over het schilderij

  • Self Portrait with Two Circles (about 1665-69)
  • Canvas, 114.3 x 94 cm
  • Kenwood, London, The Iveagh Bequest
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