Neil MacGregor, gallery director, said yesterday that there had never been an exhibition of the artist's self-portraits anywhere in the world. "It's a startling fact," he said. "It seems such an obvious idea."
No artist before or since Rembrandt has portrayed himself with such obsessive frequency, leaving 70 images - paintings, drawings and etchings.
The National Gallery has borrowed from public and private collections in Europe and the United States to assemble 30 paintings, 8 drawings and all 29 of the etchings.
They record Rembrandt's self-image from youthful insecurity to the booming self-confidence of his middle years and, in his late portraits, an examination of his ageing features.
One portrait shows the artist at the foot of the cross taking part in the Crucifixion. Mr MacGregor said this was a statement that all humanity had to share responsibility. Another work shows Rembrandt in the pose of a famous portrait of a poet by Titian. This, said Mr MacGregor, was a declaration that the painter could explore emotions, love and tragedy as much as the poet.
Many such artistic statements and insights into art history will be evident in the array of self-portraits. A painting from 1640 of Rembrandt at the age of 34 shows him in elegant pose and splendid costume both echoing and challenging his Renaissance predecessors. In the decade of personal and professional setbacks after the death of his wife Saskia in 1642, the number of self-portraits he painted declined dramatically. When he returned to painting himself, he often abandoned elaborate dress and glamorous poses to confront himself frankly as a working artist with brush and palette in hand.
Mr MacGregor said that in the late portraits and his observation of his own ageing features, "Rembrandt revels in his ability to sculpt the image in paint, engaging us in the very process of making a masterpiece. It was for such virtuoso displays of painterly technique - as much as for his image that Rembrandt self-portraits were prized."
Also included in the exhibition are groups of self-portrait paintings and drawings by Rembrandt's pupils, revealing how his images influenced his followers.
The exhibition - Rembrandt by Himself - opens on 9 June and runs until 5 September.Reuse content