A Dutch kind of practical egalitarianism permeates the big white tent built atop a canal that leads visitors to "Rembrandt by Himself," the once-in-a-lifetime exhibition that brings together most of the enigmatic, intensely human self-portraits by the 17th-century master who defined the genre.

Just inside the specially built structure is a broad concourse leading to the show's entrance. On one side is a large gift shop full of Rembrandt books and tchotchkes. On the other side is a spacious self-service cafeteria where the midday crowd is piling sandwiches, cake and cups of coffee onto trays covered with the artist's face.

There's a certain symbolism in the use of Rembrandt van Rijn's visage as a place mat. Holland has traditionally coped with societal extremes by co-opting them into a generous and expansive middle ground.

Even in exalting the man who is unquestionably the best-known self-portraitist in history, that leveling mechanism kicks in. It's as if the prodigal son is returning to a nation that greets him by putting him to work in the gift shop and cafe.

Only on the way out, after spending a couple of hours steeping in the man's presence, does one realize that Rembrandt probably wouldn't mind looking into his countrymen's gullets as they knock back their snacks.

He was also a stocky fellow, this miller's son from Leiden. Like most 17th-century Dutch, he adored sweets and paid for that addiction with crumbling teeth and rotting gums. Research by two American dentists in 1980 concluded that Rembrandt was "a dental cripple." Maybe that's why the last glimpse we get of his teeth comes in the 1635 "Self Portrait as the Prodigal Son in the Tavern," where he showed himself smiling, with his wife, Saskia, on his lap and a wine glass in his hand, raised in a toast. They were young newlyweds, he was the hottest portrait painter in Amsterdam and their future looked very bright indeed.

The Man in the Mirror

From our vantage point, we know that their story didn't play out like a fairy tale. We also know that the picture was one of the early paintings depicting the artist. What we don't know is: Why did Rembrandt portray his likeness so frequently, right up to his death in 1669 at age 63?

It is the inescapable question that confronts visitors to the Mauritshuis museum after they come face to face with some 60 of the 75 Rembrandt self-portraits known to exist.

While the exhibition's stated purpose is to shed new light on the meaning and purpose of those works--the largest group of self-portraits ever produced by a great artist--Rembrandt left few clues.

In their joint foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Frederik J. Duparc, director of the Mauritshuis, and Neil MacGregor, director of the National Gallery in London, speculate on the reasons but conclude, "What that significance was--and it was very probably not the same throughout Rembrandt's life--remains one of the puzzles of the history of art."

In other words, it's a marvelous, unsolvable mystery. "No one really knows why Rembrandt made so many self-portraits," says Quentin Buvelot, a curator at the Mauritshuis and editor of the catalogue. "All we have to go by is the pictures. Rembrandt's written record consists of seven letters he wrote to the Stadholder, the head of the Dutch government, and those have nothing to do with the self-portraits."

That mystery hasn't prevented art historians the world over from spewing out treatises on the subject of Rembrandt's self-portraits. Their views tend to shift with the Western world's intellectual and cultural currents. During the "me" era of the '70s and early '80s, for example, some scholars suggested the painter was on a search--a quest of self-analysis--with his psyche ending up on the canvas because there were no psychiatrists' couches at the time.

But the exhibition, a child of the bottom-line 1990s, veers to the other extreme by taking a highly practical approach. Catalogue essays by Ernst van de Wetering, Volker Manuth and Marieke de Winkel, noted Rembrandt scholars all, describe how the self-portraits and the wild variety of costumes Rembrandt wore served as tools to further the artist's career by spreading his fame and showcasing his technique. Those findings are supported by historical research and presented with a minimum of speculation. But they shortchange the artist's ego.

Scholarship isn't what has people standing in line to see Rembrandt's forceful, bulb-nosed face in its various guises. It's the chance to read the story of his life, written with brush, pen and etching needle. The self-portraits draw visitors into an intimate, three-way relationship with the artist and the unblinking mirror image. The self-portraits become complete only with the viewer's emotional involvement, when his story and ours meet in Rembrandt's mirror.

Success and Sorrow

Rembrandt's eventful life began on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, a city halfway between Amsterdam and The Hague. He was the ninth of 10 children born to Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn, a prosperous miller, and Neeltgen Willemsdr Zuytbrouck, the daughter of a wealthy family.

He must have been a precocious child because he was the only one of his siblings to be sent to Latin School and then on to Leiden University, where he enrolled in 1620, before his 14th birthday. But Rembrandt never completed his studies. Instead he began a three-year apprenticeship with Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh, an undistinguished local painter.

Three years later, Rembrandt's face appeared in one of his paintings. "The Stoning of Saint Stephen," from 1625, is his earliest dated painting, and Rembrandt's features--a mop of curly hair, round face, dark eyes and that prominent nose--can be seen in the face of a spectator. Around the same time, the artist spent six months in Amsterdam studying with Pieter Lastman, a prominent history painter.

In 1626 Rembrandt returned to Leiden and became an independent painter. Two years later, a lawyer visiting from Utrecht noted in his diary that a miller's son was causing a sensation as an artist, something the lawyer judged to be premature.

Rembrandt's break came in 1629, when he completed the earliest dated picture for which he is the subject. That same year, Robert Kerr, the English ambassador to the Netherlands, gave several paintings to King Charles I, among them "the picture done by Rembrant, being his owne picture & done by himself."

More important was the visit paid around 1629 by Constantijn Huygens, the secretary to Stadholder Frederick Henry, to the studio that Rembrandt shared with his friend and rival, Jan Lievens. Huygens deemed them both brilliant--but too introverted--and suggested they travel to Italy to experience the work of the great masters firsthand. The young painters replied that they were too busy for such a trip.

That visit was a tremendous career boost to both artists. Huygens later got Rembrandt important commissions from the court in The Hague. Buoyed by his success, Rembrandt in 1631 moved to Amsterdam, the vibrant commercial hub of the Netherlands. There he began working for a local art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and painted a portrait of Amsterdam fur merchant Nicolaas Ruts (the painting is now owned by the Frick Collection in New York). He also etched "Self Portrait With Hat, Hand on Hip," his first formal self-portrait. It appears to be modeled on an engraving of a Rubens self-portrait. Portrait commissions established Rembrandt's fame and fortune, and he worked hard to meet the burgeoning demand in Amsterdam. In 1633 he became engaged to Saskia van Uylenburgh, his employer's cousin. They married a year later.

In 1635, when Rembrandt painted himself and Saskia in "Self Portrait as the Prodigal Son in the Tavern," he was already financially successful, with a budding international reputation. The faces in the painting are smooth, young and carefree, reflecting that status. But tragedy found them not long after. Their first child, a son named Rumbartus, died early the next year, two months after his birth.

The couple would have four children during their marriage. Only one, Titus, born in 1641, would live to adulthood. Before Saskia died in 1642, she made a will leaving her sizable estate to Titus and allowing Rembrandt the use of it if he didn't remarry.

Rembrandt never did. But he was left with a young son and a big merchant's house in the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat that he purchased in 1639. He needed someone to care for his son and run the house, so he hired a widow named Geertje Dircx. They soon began a relationship, and she began pressing him to marry her.

His messy personal life began to affect his artistic output, and for the next few years he produced little work of any kind. In 1647, a young woman named Hendrickje Stoffels began working as his housekeeper. Two years later they began a relationship that lasted the rest of their lives. Dircx responded by suing Rembrandt. The case was settled when the artist agreed to pay her alimony.

In the "Self Portrait at the Window, Drawing on an Etching Plate," from 1648, Rembrandt's face reflects that emotional wear and tear. The greatest etcher ever is not a happy fellow. The bravado that prompted him to tell Huygens he was too busy to go to Italy isn't gone, but it has been tempered by death and sorrow. His jaw is set, his brow furrowed and the eyes stare straight ahead. It's a portrait of resolve.

That resolute look never left Rembrandt's eyes. It was there through his nasty and successful scheme to have Dircx incarcerated; through Stoffels's public censure for "practicing whoredom with the painter Rembrandt"; through the birth of their illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654; through financial reverses that culminated with bankruptcy in 1656 and the loss of his house two years later.

Over the last 15 years of his life, he would produce a slew of painted and etched self-portraits, overcoming Stoffels's sudden death in 1663 and Titus's equally sudden demise five years later.

Given the obstacles Rembrandt faced and the transcendent art he produced while the people he loved most died and his career waned, the question of why he painted the self-portraits only becomes more intriguing.

A Head for Art

Art historians know that Rembrandt's self-portraits sold because none are listed on the exhaustive inventory of his house done by the bankruptcy court and because several ended up in royal or imperial collections across Europe. Van de Wetering writes that the pictures were valued as "typical" Rembrandts that "had an added attraction in that they showed the face of the creator."

Looking at Rembrandt's life, it's hard to imagine that he was intrigued with just supplying the market with paintings of himself or showing off his skills. Getting rich wasn't his chief ambition. And he didn't seem to care much what anyone thought of his art or his chaotic personal life. In 1678, Italian artist and writer Filippo Baldinucci described him as "a first-class crank" who looked down on everyone.

In the end, we're left with the pictures. On a technical level, the painted self-portraits shed some light on the mystery.

Like many of his pictures, "Self Portrait With Two Circles" has an unfinished quality. The painter's left hand, which holds his mahlstick, is a mere suggestion hidden by a few scrubby strokes of red paint. X-rays have shown that the hand was there and wasn't well done, so Rembrandt made it vanish, keeping the focus on his face and the two large circles in the background. Art historians have suggested that they are cabalistic symbols or an unfinished map of the world or a large canvas about to be painted.

In that painting, as in others, Rembrandt makes dramatic use of the chiaroscuro, the interplay of light and shadow. In "Self Portrait at the Age of 63," a pinpoint of white paint on the dark pupil in the eye to the viewer's left becomes an incandescent twinkle, a beacon of human warmth. The other eye, hooded by its lid, is a black hole, like a portal into the artist's mind. The effect is stunning and enigmatic. You can't tell whether he's happy or sad. And after touring the exhibition, it's impossible to say for certain what color his eyes were.

Yet some conclusions seem obvious. One reason for making so many self-portraits is that he liked the subject, liked it enough to take the time to devise different ways of portraying himself. Only Rembrandt's tronie"--an archaic Dutch word for "heads" that is used to describe his early etched studies of facial expression--have a spark of spontaneity. None of the paintings are captured moments. They are premeditated, the work of someone who understood quite well who he was, what he was capable of and what his artistic gift meant.

It meant immortality. Even as a young artist, Rembrandt was confident enough of his ability to decide that he didn't need to go to Italy, the art mecca of the time. He would keep on working, pursing his idiosyncratic style and quirky vision.

Whether or when Rembrandt ever consciously decided to create a body of self-portraits is irrelevant. Even he may not have remembered why he embarked on that course. But at some point he must have looked back and realized a body of work existed. As an intelligent man and a student of art history, he knew that no one else had done anything like it. And he pressed on regardless of what was going on in his life. That seems like a willful act, as if he were painting himself into the pantheon of artistic greatness, a genius running at full throttle against the fading light of time.

'REMBRANDT BY HIMSELF'

"Rembrandt by Himself" opened this summer at the National Gallery in London, then moved to the Royal Cabinet of Paintings Mauritshuis in The Hague. It closes Jan. 9. The exhibition includes around 30 of his etchings and sketches in addition to the almost 30 self-portraits. It also includes works by Rembrandt's students, showing how they were influenced by him when painting their own self-portraits. Information on the exhibition is available at www.visitrembrandt.com. Tickets may be ordered by calling 800-669-8687.