Rembrandt's exceptional number of self-portraits seem evidence of a deeply soul-searching nature. But, says Christopher White, the Dutch master may have had a far more pragmatic purpose
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REMBRANDT stands out as one of the immediately recognisable figures of the past, and perhaps the most readily identifiable artist, before Van Gogh. The reason is simple. No great artist has depicted himself more frequently or in a wider variety of guises. He had already started to sketch and paint himself when, as a young man, he was becoming established as an independent artist in his hometown, Leiden. He continued for four decades until 1669, the year of his death in Amsterdam. Although the exact number of his self-portraits is disputed, we know of some 40 paintings, 31 etchings and seven drawings. And in addition to these, there are a number of instances in which he introduced his likeness in a biblical or historical work. He hardly let a year go by without recording his appearance in some form or other. It was common for an artist to leave to posterity some illustration of how he looked, but it was exceptional to do it to this degree.

The artist must have had some special reason for this seeming obsession with his own appearance - perhaps a private reason; perhaps one that he could share with his con- temporaries but which is not easy to fathom today. This phenomenon in his art continues to exercise us, and a forthcoming exhibition at the National Gallery attempts to give some new answers to this old problem. Given the changing nature of his self-portraiture, we have to find multiple answers. Were they just straightforward self-portraits? Were they an intimate personal dialogue which the artist was holding with himself? Or is it possible that they served a dual purpose for his contemporary admirers?

Studies of the human face occur among Rembrandt's earliest works (portraiture, with its clearly defined concept of a specific person, came later in his career). His first works were more concerned with an analysis of human expression and emotion, and for this he took his models from around him. The face he portrayed most frequently was the one that was most readily available, namely his own. One of Rembrandt's pupils, perhaps recalling his master's advice, recommended his own students to depict "your own passions, at best in front of a mirror, when you are simultaneously both the representer and the represented".

Rembrandt's early exercises in front of the mirror, etchings for the most part, reveal a variety of expressions - a scowl, a leer with a toothy grin, a look of astonishment, with eyes wide open and the lips pursed, or a cry of pain, the mouth open. They tell us more about Rembrandt's artistic interests than about the man himself. The outcome of these studies can be seen in the religious compositions he made at the time. The facial expressions in these are often no less extreme, and they eloquently convey the artist's interpretation of his subject.

Such studies can also be seen as examples of "tronies" ("heads") illustrating particular characteristics or emotions, which became a popular genre in 17th-century Holland, and one for which Rembrandt became famous. Although his move to Amsterdam coincided with a greater range of self-portraiture, he continued to use his own image in a series of "heads", executed both in paint and on copper. Reflecting both his rapidly growing practice as a portrait painter and public recognition of his appearance, he now gave more emphasis to the facial features. Whatever the chosen form of presentation - sometimes in oriental or fanciful costume, sometimes carrying a large sword, sometimes wearing a beard - the man we see is clearly the artist himself.

When he moved to Amsterdam in about 1631, the 26-year-old Rembrandt decided that more formal portraiture would serve to impress the sophisticated inhabitants of the country's major city. To this end, he produced two paintings and an etching. The etching, which was started first, reveals most about the way the artist met the challenge he had set himself. He started his work by etching his head beneath an impressively large soft hat with the brim turned up at one side. Even at this stage he conveys a stylishness not seen before. Yet though he had decided to make a formal likeness, he apparently could not then make up his mind how to proceed. To break his mental block, he tried out two possible solutions by drawing in black chalk on two impressions of the early stage of this portrait; both show him bust-length, one with his body in profile, recalling the famous self-portrait Rubens had just painted for Charles I; the other with the body turned more to the front. But neither pleased him, and he finally opted for a half-length pose, with one hand resting ostentatiously on his hip. Swathed in a voluminous cloak and dressed in fashionable bourgeois costume, he was sending out the message that he was someone of consequence.

Over the next decade Rembrandt established himself as a highly successful and much sought-after artist, especially of portraits. Yet his mood was changing, and in 1639 he gave expression to this in a formal self-portrait - done both in etching and painting - very different in character from his earlier "calling card". His basic aim of producing a formal image may have remained the same, but the artist had different ambitions. Although the etching and painting vary somewhat in detail, both depict the artist leaning on a stone wall. Rembrandt now appears as a far more serious and solemn figure than he had previously. Though a grave expression was becoming to the fashionable painter of the day, it signified something far deeper in Rembrandt's case. A profound metamorphosis was taking place in his art. He was slowly turning to a new, more personal style. It took years to achieve but already, as this new image of himself was intended to convey, a critical examination of his art was under way.

This portrayal may have contained a further message for his contemporaries. His pose was consciously influenced by a portrait by Titian which was in the collection of one of Rembrandt's patrons in Amsterdam. The Titian was thought (incorrectly) to portray the distinguished Ferrarese poet, Ariosto. Rembrandt was consciously rivalling the achievement of a famous artist of the past, and, it would seem, by associating himself with Ariosto, that he was proclaiming a parity between the art of painting and literature. The battle for the status of the artist in the Netherlands had still not been entirely won. It was irksome to someone of Rembrandt's position that the traditions of artist as craftsman lingered on in the restrictive rules and practices of the local guilds. He was making a point about the dignity of the artist.

The year after the painted self-portrait, Rembrandt's life dramatically changed. His wife, Saskia, died and he was left to care for his infant son, Titus. Some reflection of this family circumstance can be seen in the subjects he now treated, during what can be regarded as a quietest period in his career. Notably absent from his work is any desire to study himself; landscape becomes a major preoccupation and there is a fondness for intimate domestic scenes representing the Holy Family, which in spirit can perhaps be equated with his son's nursery years.

Apart from an imposing etching of himself seated at a window, working on a copper plate, he made fewer self-portraits over the next decade than at any other time during his career. Then, in 1652, for no obvious reason, his attitude suddenly changed. During the last 17 years of his life, Rembrandt was to produce a series of masterly and moving images of himself, largely in paint, in which the viewer feels himself confronted by the artist's moods, thoughts and aspirations. No more affecting musee imaginaire of self-images exists.

This last group of self-portraits is remarkable for the variety in their presentation. Rembrandt seems consciously to have taken the basic theme of his face, and then, with as much inventiveness as Beethoven applied to a theme of Diabelli, to have created a series of variations. Sometimes we see no more than the head and shoulders. In several he is depicted half-length; in two he includes his hands clasped together, creating an accent of tension in the lower part of the canvas.

In one of the most magisterial and sombre of these pictures, Rembrandt stands in a strictly frontal pose, dressed in working clothes, with his hands placed firmly on his hips. His stare at the viewer is uncomfortably defiant, and we can easily believe the contemporary report that "when he worked he would not have granted an audience to the first monarch in the world". In contrast to the dark colouring of that picture, another no less monumental image glows in gold, yellow and red, and Rembrandt's massive figure seems to burst forth from an invisible chair; here he is dressed in a mixture of 16th-century European costume, adorned with various oriental features. This stern but exotic figure reduces the viewer to a state of awe.

Following the taste of the time for portraits presented in some historical or imaginary role, Rembrandt portrays himself with the attributes of St Paul, one of the most militant of the apostles, but here seen as a frail old man. In another extraordinary image he represents himself laughing, probably in the role of Zeuxis, the legendary painter of antiquity who, according to the Dutch writer Karel van Mander, "departed this life laughing immoderately choking while painting a funny wrinkled old woman in the flesh". Whether we are to suppose that the artist retained a sense of lighthearted humour, or whether he was being rather more sardonic is difficult to tell.

The role in which one would, above all, expect to find Rembrandt is that of the artist. Only twice before in his career had he represented himself as an artist, in each case in an etching, shown in the act of drawing with the etching needle on his copper. Yet in this last phase of his life, he frequently depicts himself with the tools of his profession. Unlike the self-portraits of some other artists, these are strictly limited to painting materials - he included none of the favoured symbols of learning.

In no other work does he present himself more powerfully than in the painting that is in Kenwood House in London. He stands facing us, holding his palette, brushes and maulstick; he is dressed in working clothes, with a white linen cap on his head. Whatever their symbolic meaning - if any - the two mysterious circles in the background establish a breadth to the design and provide a counterbalance to the triangular shape of Rembrandt's massively realised figure. The simple geometry of the basic design concentrates the eye on the sitter's face, and compels the viewer to meet the artist's piercingly direct gaze.

In his execution of a painting or etching, Rembrandt was a free spirit. Throughout his career, he never hesitated to make changes. (Unlike most artists, he very rarely seemed to have a precise image in his mind before he set to work; he felt his way as he proceeded.) And just as he sought variety in the way he chose to present himself in these late self-portraits, so he seems to have been increasingly prepared to alter his initial work on the canvas.

Many of the alterations would seem to have been made in order to achieve a more harmonious and balanced result. But in several important cases the actual presentation was altered as a result. In one instance, a linen cap was substituted for the usual beret; in another the linen cap became a turban. In two paintings (that of himself as Zeuxis and that at Kenwood), he originally showed himself in the act of painting. And in one self-portrait, made in the last year of his life, the paintbrush, which he initially held in his right hand, was removed - and so, therefore, was all reference to his profession.

Another striking feature of Rembrandt's later self- portraits is the variation in the degree of finish within any one picture. Some parts may be carefully modelled, while others may only be very broadly laid in with the brush. It is difficult to know whether a picture we see today represents the artist's final intention, or whether it was left unfinished. Rembrandt was supposed to have said that "a work is finished when the master has achieved his intention in it". It's an elusive pronouncement, and does little to help us reach a conclusion.

Much of Rembrandt's fame was due to his remarkable painting technique, which was quite unlike that of other artists. It was the antithesis of the finely executed and highly finished manner of such fashionable painters as Gerrit Dou and Frans van Mieris who, like Rembrandt, produced self- portraits (although many fewer). Rembrandt's freedom in his handling of the paintbrush allowed each of his strokes to be read on the canvas. He was particularly praised for the way in which he broke up his colours, so that the picture came together only when viewed from a distance. He is reputed to have frightened away inquisitive visitors who wished to inspect his pictures closely by warning them thus: "The smell of the colours will bother you."

What was the purpose of this large group of magisterial images of the artist himself? They were not written about at the time, which suggests that they were not regarded as being out of the ordinary. For want of other evidence, they have often been interpreted as a searching self-analysis carried out by the artist for his own benefit, to help him come to terms with the undoubted suffering of his later years. As one writer claimed, these works "in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself as he painted". But the objection can be made that this approach of "know thyself" is more a projection of 19th- century psychology and Romantic self-awareness than the likely attitude of a 17th-century man. While it may be a beguiling notion, it must be regarded as an anachronistic explanation of the paintings' purpose.

A new interpretation that has been put forward by Ernst van de Wetering, one of the authors of the catalogue to the National Gallery's exhibition, has much more to recommend it. Rembrandt achieved fame at an early age, and, contrary to the myth that he was ignored and forgotten in later life, this fame stayed with him to the end. "The miracle of our age" was how one writer described Rembrandt a few years before his death. Van de Wetering points out that one consequence of fame was the public's desire to acquire an image of the person in question. And the more famous that person, the greater the demand for images; hence, the more images there tended to be. But an artist's self- portrait could serve a double function, in providing both his likeness and an example of his work. So it is distinctly possible that it was commercial gain which prompted Rembrandt to produce this remarkable series of late works.

Christopher White is a former Director of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and is the author of 'Rembrandt' in Thames & Hudson's World of Art series.

'Rembrandt by Himself' will be at the Sainsbury Wing, National Gallery, London WC2 (0171 747 2885) from 9 June to 5 September. Admission pounds 7 (pounds 4.50 concessions) Top row, left to right: 'Self-portrait as a young man', circa 1628; 'Self-portrait, Open-mouthed', undated; 'Self-portrait with Gorget and Beret', circa 1629;

'Self-portrait with Tousled Hair', circa 1629; 'Tronie of Young Man with Gorget and Beret', undated.

Middle row: 'Self-portrait with Helmet', 1634; 'Self-portrait', undated; 'Self-portrait at the age of 34', 1640; 'Self-portrait', 1652; 'Self- portrait', 1658.

Bottom row: 'Self-portrait as St Paul', 1661; 'Self-portrait as Zeuxis', 1662; 'Self-portrait', mid-1660s; 'Self-portrait at age 63', 1669; 'Self-portrait', 1669

Clockwise from top left: 'Self-portrait with Hat, Hand on Hip', 1631; 'Self-portrait, Leaning on a Stone Wall', 1639; 'Self-portrait, Wide-eyed', 1630; 'Self-portrait, Seated', circa 1636

Above: 'The Painter in his Studio', circa 1629. Below: 'Self-portrait', undated