Rembrandt. Self Portrait, 1640.
Rembrandt. Self Portrait, 1669.
Vincent van Gogh.
Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889.
Self Portrait with Monkey, 1938.
Though Dürer is credited for being the first artist to consistently create self-portraits,
Rembrandt is given credit for being the first artist to intensely study the self through art.
During his life time, 1606-1669, Rembrandt sketched his own face thousands of times.
He created a legacy of 60 self-portraits that depict his history, an
autobiographical story that chronicles his turbulent life. From rags to riches, through
marriages and mistresses, from youth to old age, we can witness the changing face of
His first self-portrait is dated as early as 1629; his last, a few months before his death in
1669. Between those forty years Rembrandt modeled for himself so many times that we
can't help but wonder why. There seems to be several advantages for Rembrandt to turn
to the mirror for inspiration. One notion suggests that as a young and struggling artist,
Rembrandt was the most readily available model.
He could paint himself anytime, anywhere without having to pay or rely on a professional
model. Another reason for the multitude of self-portraits may lie in the typical clientele
of the time. Rembrandt often painted his own face deep in the shadows or with grimacing
expressions, techniques that he certainly could not explore on the portrait of a wealthy
client. Kelly noted that for Rembrandt, "self-portraits became an outlet for feelings and
ideas concerning the nature of human existence which found no satisfactory channel
In this case, his own face provided a wide range of opportunity for growth and discovery
as an artist.
Janson summed up Rembrandt's use of the self-portraits well when he wrote that "...his
view of himself reflects every stage of his inner development - experimental in the
Leyden years; theatrically disguised in the 1630's; frank and self-analytical toward the
end of his life, ... yet full of simple dignity."
The self-portraits of his last two decades show that Rembrandt was beyond using himself
as a model out of convenience, and past using his face to test new techniques. It is in
these last two decades that a real exploration of self comes forth. We see a much more
honest view of Rembrandt's features in his later work than in his famous Self-Portrait,
from 1640. In his final self-portraits dated from 1660 to 1669, Rembrandt appears old,
wrinkled, and tired. Glancing in the mirror, Rembrandt said of these final portraits,
"...and I came, it may be, to look for myself and recognize myself. What have I found?
Death painted I see..."
Vincent van Gogh is as famous for his self-portraits as is Rembrandt, though instead of
creating them over a life time, he painted the majority, twenty-two of them, within two
tumultuous years. Van Gogh's images during that period (1886-1888) and for the two
years before his suicide in 1890 reveal a man who was struggling with life, and perhaps
searching for answers through his painted image. Each painted portrait captures detailed
emotions of shock, disturbance, tranquillity or confusion. He even captured his own
image, Self-Portrait with Bandaged Head, (1889) after his infamous mutilation of
his ear. In it he appears troubled and somewhat dazed. He appears to be lost within
himself, isolated, a sign of how his tragic life would ultimately end.
Like Rembrandt and van Gogh, the story of Frida Kahlo can be read in her self-portraits.
Approximately one-third of her work is the exploration of her self, physically and
mentally. Kahlo created some fifty-five self-portraits as a kind of therapy to face the most
troubling events of her life; her leg crippled from polio, permanent injuries from a bus
accident, abortions, and botched surgeries. In person, Kahlo dressed in long, rich fabrics
and covered herself in jewelry, she hid her deformities beneath an austere persona. In her
portraits she could come out from hiding and reveal her troubles in paint. In that sense,
her self-portraits are both tragic and triumphant. Just as Rembrandt could look at himself
in the mirror at the end of his life and accept his aging body and face, Kahlo could accept
and feel comfortable revealing her afflictions. But unlike Vincent van Gogh who
searched for an answers in his self-portraits, Frida Kahlo knew the answers. She used the
canvas as a cathartic release of emotion.