Rembrandt van Rijn

Featured in Aesthetics Lessons
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Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait with Raised Sabre, 1634, Etching, Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom, by exchange, The Carnegie Museum of Art

The Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is particularly noted for his expressive portrayals of people and the human condition. His self-portraits, from brash youth to disillusioned old age, are some of the most famous in art. In this small self-portrait etching, Rembrandt depicts himself as a dramatic, swashbuckling character rather than in the sober everyday garb of the working artist. The clothes he wears; a cap with a fancy plume, an extravagant fur collar and a curved sword are pure costume.  With a direct, grave expression, holding the sword across his chest as if in salute, he looks less like a working artist than a character in a story, someone from another time and place. Like Albrecht Dürer before him, and many artists after (including Andy Warhol), Rembrandt portrays himself as a character, one who is part of the world he depicts in his artwork. By presenting himself as a personage in larger history and mythology, he implies his place in a long lineage, enlarging his reputation as an artist of his own time.   

These small self-portrait prints fulfilled a number of functions. They acted as advertisements for his work, practice pieces for new techniques in etching and affordable items for collectors. In Rembrandt’s day, as now, many interested potential buyers couldn’t afford paintings, which were only in reach for the wealthiest patrons. Printmaking, particularly etchings, with their superior detail allowed artists to show off their drawing skills. The multiple etchings became affordable examples of an artist’s work, increasing his potential patrons. Rembrandt made many prints of scenes from the Bible, everyday life or self-portraits—often in costume or with exaggerated expressions (to show his skill at depicting emotion). Rembrandt is now more famous for his paintings, but during his lifetime his reputation firmly rested upon his abilities as a printmaker. 

Etching was still a fairly new technique in the 17th century, and during Rembrandt’s lifetime he pushed the medium further than any other artist, becoming both renowned and financially successful. Unlike many artists of the time, who took their plates to a professional, Rembrandt usually printed his plates himself. Between printings, he would add to or change images, creating different versions of the same image. For this reason, the etchings he produced himself can be described as originals as each is slightly different, and each reflecting the hand and eye of the artist.

Comprehension Questions:

  1. Both Warhol and Rembrandt chose to create their artwork using different printmaking techniques (photographic screen printing and etching.) What were some of the qualities about etching that made it appealing for Rembrandt?
  2. How does Rembrandt portray himself in this work? Do you think this is a realistic portrait? Why or why not?
  3. Compare and contrast the self-portraits by Rembrandt and Warhol. Select which artwork is better art, based upon the aesthetic theory of representation; good art is an accurate mirror on the world, imitating nature or some ideal form. Defend your answer based upon details from the work.