Rembrandt van Rijn was famous, wealthy and generally in clover when he painted this majestic portrait that’s now at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. It is, of course, a self-portrait — a painting of the “ugly and plebeian face by which he was ill-favored,” as one early Rembrandt chronicler, Filippo Baldinucci, rather brutally put it.
I don’t know. With his black beret, his gold chain (a clear marker of prestige), and one hand neatly slid inside his coat, I think he looks pretty dashing. The pose — clearly an Important Person’s Pose — is likely a nod to Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, now in the Louvre. Rembrandt had seen the Raphael when it went to auction in Amsterdam. He made a pen-and-ink sketch, and proceeded to base several self-portraits on it, emulating the pose, the black beret and the picture’s general aura, which combines authority with throat-catching tenderness.
There’s a slight irony in the connection, since Castiglione (1478-1529), a Renaissance diplomat and courtier, wrote “The Book of the Courtier,” which is pretty much the last word in etiquette. Enormously influential, it offered a guide to a new, humanist form of moral urbanity rooted in classical education.
Rembrandt, especially in his pomp, might have aspired to match Castiglione’s model. But it is not how others saw him. Baldinucci (an Italian who never met Rembrandt and was way off the mark in many of his judgments) described the Dutchman as “a temperamental man” who “despised everyone” while Joachim von Sandrart, another early biographer, said Rembrandt was “a most hardworking and indefatigable man” who, unfortunately didn’t know “how to keep his station, and always associated with the lower orders.”
These early reports were written after Rembrandt’s death, when Dutch art was reverting to classical values: nature idealized, decorum upheld, vulgarity disdained. Rembrandt’s career represented a threat to all this. He was seen, in the words of the art historian Charles Ford, as “classicism’s ‘other’: the self-made, self-validating, craft-based painter for profit.”
What’s more, he painted ugly flesh, flabby bodies, unbeautiful faces. He etched women urinating and defecating among trees, rat catchers, and monks fornicating in cornfields. He saw “each sitter,” wrote Kenneth Clark, “as an individual human soul whose weaknesses and imperfections must not be disguised, because they are the raw material of grace.”
And of course, he turned this same sensibility on himself. The Norton Simon self-portrait is, on a technical level, incredibly refined. The costume, the jewelry, the decorous pose are all conveyed with superb dexterity, dazzling finesse. But there, as always, is Rembrandt’s “raw” face, which all those accoutrements set off, drawing us in, like the cool smell of a deep well as one approaches its lip.
Up close, you can see how Rembrandt’s application of wet paint over dry creates a texture, or scumble, uncannily close to human skin, with its pores and subcutaneous blood vessels. Both the red around his cheekbones and the darker, green-tinged hue of his shaved beard feel astonishingly lifelike, as do the sagging corners of his eyelids and his wispy eyebrow hair.
When a portrait is that much better than everything around it (almost always the case with a Rembrandt) its authority seduces you into projecting states of mind onto the subject’s expression. What is Rembrandt here? Self-assured? Vulnerable? He could be almost imperceptibly wincing. Or is it that he’s concealing a skeptic’s amusement? (That minutely raised eyebrow.)
But it might be better to abandon this fool’s errand. We might abandon, too, the wafty, sentimental notion that Rembrandt is “baring his soul.” (Who can even agree on what that means?)
For me, Rembrandt’s self-portrait is a case of maximum aesthetic force and maximum embodied awareness exerted in the cause of maximum epistemological uncertainty. The artist, in other words, is asserting the fierce, bewildering fact of his own living presence and telling us, with every power at his disposal, that we’ll never, ever know him.