Self-Portrait, 1658, Oil on Canvas, 133.7 x 103.8 cm, (52 5/8 x 40 7/8 in) , The Frick Collection
Will you come with me to the Frick Collection? I want to look at Rembrandt’s self-portrait again. I like to stand in front of it and take it in with my body. I like to sit on the bench at the opposite wall and look at it; look at it as people stop by it, pass by it; look at it hoping that the painted artist will gesture at me; look at it waiting for his gaze to meet mine. Has he been looking at his beholders strolling by him at the Frick, day after day, for years? What a change from a solitary studio, where the only person the self-portrait had to confront was his own creator. I recall this self-portrait: majestic, tilted slightly forward, with arms calmly spread (suddenly I don’t remember if his arms are holding something or are just on the knees, even though I saw it many times), in a costume of steadily shimmering gold. I think of the knotted, composed hands and the eyes that see something inaccessible from my side of the frame.
I don’t trust my memory, and here I am in front of the self-portrait again. They moved the painting further to the left, and it is harder to see it from the bench where I like to sit. I come up close. It is softer than I remembered it, mistier, more subdued. Oh, he is holding a stick. Scholars disagree which one: a maulstick or a walking stick. That day I see the artist a little wearier than I recall, as if he has to endure us looking at him. We are moving, stopping, pointing, listening to audio guides; talking. And the artist in his self-portrait in his calm presence, observing and at the same time removed, in his thoughts.
I imagine Rembrandt in his studio, working on his self-portrait. Just himself and himself and himself; in the flesh, in the mirror, on the canvas. Looking at his self-portrait now, three and a half centuries later, I feel another person's distance, another’s quest to recreate oneself in another matter, in a different form. I wonder what he is considering, which aspect of creativity in its sense of inquiring into life (and death) via a medium that seems utterly random, profoundly subjective, and finite. In this very instance I am in awe that over a few hundred years nothing happened to this self-portrait; that it did not rot somewhere, got burned, or destroyed by water.
I look closely at the painting. I notice its uneven surface: in a way it is like skin, the varnish, the brushstrokes form a unique pattern; the delicate cracks - lines on the painting's palm. What are his eyes seeing? They are on the brink of the shade, same distance from the top of his head as the brim of his hat… two black points of detached focus. The frontal pose, traditionally reserved for royalty or divinity. Two arms, painting smock (or fur-trimmed mantle?) embracing the light, holding it, gathering it. What is this presence?
The late Kenneth Clark called this self-portrait the “philosopher-king.” Rembrandt painted it in 1658, the very year he had to sell his collection having declared bankruptcy two years before, yet it is, as Clark beautifully described it, “the embodiment of philosophical calm.” But, why, after all, shouldn’t one feel absolute calmness in the midst of a financial crisis? It is certainly possible to have a relationship with and to life, in which upheaval means a profound rotation. Self-portraits go far beyond exterior biographical reality. I wonder if self-portrait as genre is about putting a finger on the connection between internal and external, following the Möbius strip of the continuous passage. Perhaps, this is a portrait of letting go of the world in one’s previous understanding of it. The king leaving his throne and possessions to continue his journey unencumbered by what is no longer needed.
Imagine having done dozens of self-portraits. Think of being in a room surrounded by canvases from which you are looking at yourself across time. What is a self-portrait? I imagine seeing myself on paper or canvas in front of myself. Brush in hand I am touching my painted face. Is it me? I see myself looking at myself. I am not meeting my own eyes. What am I seeing (and not seeing) at the moment of committing myself to canvas? Do I recognize myself now? Who am I? The brush connects my living flesh with the painted one. Where am I? I see myself forming in front of my eyes. Is this me? A part of me. A slice of me. A glance of me. Who am I? Imagine having done dozens of self-portraits. Think of being in a room surrounded by canvases from which you are looking at yourself across time.
I savor T.J. Clark’s breathtaking review of the exhibition at the National Gallery in London last year Rembrandt: The Late Works. In his essay Clark considers both at Rembrandt’s portraits of others and his self-portraits. He tries to unlock the mystery of the latter looking back 20 years, at his own earlier view of self-portraiture:
Let us assume – this was my previous starting point – that what we are looking at in a self-portrait is the image a painter saw in a mirror. It seems to follow that the kind of attention we are shown is special, not to say exotic: the look of someone looking at himself looking. The trouble is that we can only decide where to put an end to that final phrase by pure fiat. It seems designed to go on for ever:
The look of someone looking at himself looking at the look he has when it is a matter of looking not just at anything, at something else, but back to the place from which one is looking…. Would that do better? Is that what self-portraiture is about? Simple questions in this area seem to open onto infinite dialectical regress. And isn’t one of the things we admire in the best of the genre precisely the effort to represent this dialectical vertigo? Isn’t that what Rembrandt is doing?
I wonder. I think Rembrandt is doing much more. Self-portraiture is not limited to looking at oneself looking. Rembrandt completed almost 100 portraits over his life time. Picture what is it like to look at yourself so many times, to re-create yourself so many times, and to be confronted by these re-creations so many times. I imagine that by the time you work on your 40th self-portrait, your brush knows the way your eyebrow bends, your chin curves, your wrinkles entangle your eyes. Your brush carries the memory of your face as time imprints it; it remembers the changes that have taken place. But besides, you have a sense of yourself from inside. I found the expression of this kind of knowing in Sándor Márai’s “Portraits of a Marriage”, as heroine describes accidentally running into her former husband:
He was calm, his eyes closed, and I could see his face through my tears, the way women see the baby’s face when the child is still inside them. You don’t need eyes to see what is yours.
You don’t need eyes to see what is yours. And what is yours, I wonder?
Suddenly, Picasso’s thought that “painting is a blind’s man profession” comes to my mind. I always thought he was talking about an artist’s intention to paint not what was seen, but what was unseen, thus making it visible. But now, I wonder if this something that is unseen is known; known intrinsically, viscerally, from within. Perhaps, Picasso was also trying to say that it was the artist’s hand that had eyes. And what if I take Picasso literally? Can painting be a blind’s man profession? Is it possible to re-create another human being (and their world) without experiencing it physically – seeing with the eyes or by intermediary of touch?
Imagine painting yourself. We can never see our own face as it is, just its reflection. But we can touch it (and we do). We wash it, we dry it, we scratch the head, we hold the chin, and we rub the temples. What is the relationship between touch and vision? Psychologist Richard Gregory describes a 52 year old man (Bradford) blind from birth who regained his sight through surgery. And it was only his knowledge acquired through touch during his blindness that allowed him to interpret what he saw correctly, a phenomenon known as cross-modal transfer from touch to vision. For instance, he could judge the distances between scattered chairs in the ward (familiar from touch), but not from the hospital windows to the ground. Gregory mentions that perspective meant nothing to the man’s visual system. He goes on to say that:
….vision was generally thought to be separate from other senses, and is still mainly studied in isolation. Yet Bradford showed that exploratory touch – as well no doubt as taste, sound and other sensory experiences – gives richness and meaning to retinal images.
Imagine yourself painting yourself. Seeing only a reflection of your own face, your own head, which you not only touch from outside, but live in, inhabit from inside. How do I differentiate outside from inside? Where am I when my hand is touching my face? And it is not only my own touch, but my own being in myself that finds its way into self-portrait. I am taken by Rembrandt’s two late self-portraits from the early 1660s with the tools of his trade in his hand, in the Louvre and in the Kenwood House.
Self-Portrait, 1665 / 1669, Oil on Canvas, 114.3 cm × 94 cm (45 in × 37 in), Kenwood House
Self-Portrait at an Easel, 1660, Oil on Canvas, 110.9 x 90.6 cm (43.7 x 35.7 in), Musée du Louvre
I look into the artist’s eyes, but they are still. I don’t feel the act of active looking, of inquiring, of questioning. I see a look of pause, of recognizing, of knowing, of accepting. It is tranquil; it is calm and somewhat distant. The artist is looking in more than he is looking out. Perhaps, the brushes in his hands, as an intermediary of continuous touch both of one’s face and of one’s canvas, make note of his knowledge of himself that has come from beyond looking.
I go back in time and look at the artist’s self-portraits chronologically. I pause at the 1648 etching self-portrait, self-portrait of the artist in studio clothes, drawing at a window.
Self-Portrait, 1948, Etching / Drypoint, 16 x 13 cm (6.3 x 5.1 cm), Rijksmuseum
Clark saw in it “an indication of how little we know about Rembrandt’s life that we have no idea what happened to him in the late 1640s to change his attitude from self-satisfaction to anxious self-questioning.” Clark notes that “in abandoning his romantic disguise he has also abandoned all romantic illusions about his face, and although he was to dress himself up again, he never again shows us the plump, confident visage of the 1640s.” This is an incisive observation. An artist’s face, of which he only sees a reflection, yet by which his fellow humans recognize him, reveals the most inner of changes. This begs the question of a self-portrait in relation to change, and what it means if an artist engages in painting him or herself in a sustained manner over a lifetime. Ten years later, at the time of the “philosopher-king”, even though we do know something about the artist’s life at this time, it is not enough for us to understand the seemingly discordant arrival of his otherworldly composure. The 1658 signals another major turning-point in Rembrandt’s attitude to himself and the world. Look at his eyes in the self-portraits of the last ten years. Where is he looking? Mirror? Canvas? Is he thinking? His detached look makes one want to lightly touch him on the shoulder asking “where are you?” Where is he? The artist is not looking into the outside world. To me, it is a state of having arrived, but not somewhere glorious or full of promises of a bright future, but to seeing himself and life as they are, unadorned, beset with pain and finite. It is a realization that makes the vertical wrinkles between the eyebrows sharper and gathers the lines around his eyes in tighter ripples. His body recedes into darkness. The intensity of his gaze has turned inward.
Will you come with me to the Met? I want to look at Rembrandt’s 1660 self-portrait. I also want to see him looking at other people, looking outward. Here I am in front of the self-portrait.
Self-Portrait, 1660, Oil on Canvas, 80.3 x 67.3 cm (31 5/8 x 26 1/2 in), The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The look is detached; the eyes are two black rounds with no spark; the artist is thinking deeply. The two lightest spots are on the forehead and the tip of the nose. The forehead is wrinkled, the furrows are of concentration. The vertical crease between the eyebrows repeats the vertical folds of his coat. I come close. The brush strokes are perceptible, definite, and physical. The contact of his body with the darkness is soft. The figure has weight; it is subject to gravity; and it is comfortable in darkness. His portraits of others are sharper in touch, yet nowhere do I feel that I am facing another human being: I know I am looking at a portrait. T.J. Clark has beautifully forged this feeling in words: “Rembrandt and I – the look was our term of agreement – were face to face.” Only I think the look is our term of the disagreement. We are looking largely in the opposite directions in the case of the artist’s late self-portraits. In his self-portraits he is looking beyond looking; he is face to face with himself.
Imagine Rembrandt as a viewer of his own self-portraits. What it is like to face yourself in this way? You are looking at an image of yourself that you have created through more than visual means. It is an image truly made by the human hand, your very own, on the linen cloth. There’s no miracle. Perhaps, self-portrait is the most human of all in painting. Think of painting portraits of others; it is as if one is looking across the universe. There’s an unsurmountable distance between an artist and his subject. When painting yourself, you touch the painted you directly, you push the canvas with your brush as you apply layers and layers of paint, imprinting your image with your hands. I savored T.J. Clark’s observation that “perhaps blue is excluded from Rembrandt’s worldview because he knew that the other great colourists, who were always in his sights, had made it so indelibly the marker of heaven on earth. And in Rembrandt there’s no heaven.” I wonder if Rembrandt’s darkness is also a darkness of knowledge - of aloneness, impermanence, evanescence, uncertainty, mortality, love, and of limits of knowledge itself. What is it like to see yourself emerge from this darkness?
Look at Rembrandt’s self-portrait of 1661, as the Apostle Paul.
Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661, Oil on Canvas, 91 x 77 cm (35.8 x 30.3 in), Rijksmuseum
I examine the artist’s face: his brows are raised as if he is surprised, his forehead is wrinkled, his eyes have a look of him thinking, considering something, the look is directed more in than out, though it acknowledges having seen something, something that made his eyebrows go up in arches. I think of self-examination, of conversion, of transformation from one state to its opposite that St. Paul embodies. I wonder if this might be one of the reasons that impelled Rembrandt to put this guise on. If this might be so, from which and to what opposite did the artist go? Is it the turn in the direction of the artist’s gaze? Or is it recognition of the profound transformational character of the self-portrait as such? The continuous, unremitting tête-à- tête between vision and touch, between apperception and knowing, between man and portrait. Each look, each brushstroke is a change. How does self-portrait alter his creator?
The view of the self-portrait from a beholder’s perspective is a painting of a likeness of its author, a representation of its creator. But for an artist, I think, the act and the process of painting a self-portrait is in a way another body; a body not only as a noun, but as a verb; not only as enduring entity, but also as unceasing activity, ongoing change; not only as subject of painting, but also as instrument of creating. Can you find the line separating one from the other? For an artist, the self-portrait (in its unity of object and process) is as close as one can get to the core of the profession – one is artist, his own subject, his own instrument, his act of creation, and his own viewer. What is it like to be in this place? It is difficult to imagine. What is interior and what is exterior? Where am I in the world? What do I see and from where? What happens when you become part of your profession; when it is no longer something you do, but something you are? What happens when you regain your distance?
Look at the 1663 laughing self-portrait in Cologne, self-portrait as Zeuxis.
Self-Portrait, c. 1668, Oil on Canvas, 82.5 x 65 cm (32.5 x 25.6 in), Wallraf Richartz Museum
Two legends about Zeuxis, a Greek painter, came down to us via Pliny. Zeuxis was able to paint a bunch of grapes so that the birds tried to nibble on it as if it were real. Yet, he lost the painting contest to another painter Parrhasius, extending the hand to pull the curtain to see the latter’s painting, not realizing that the curtain was it. Pliny continued that “with a modesty that did him honour he yielded up the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.” What is this story about? What does it tell us about the meaning of the profession? Is it about the border separating art and life? How does an artist look at a painting of another artist? Is it about the limits of looking? The intention of painting? The second legend tells of Zeuxis working on a painting of Helen. He “held an inspection of maidens…. paraded naked and chose five, for the purpose of reproducing in the picture the most admirable points in the form of each.”
Rembrandt did not strive for the ideal. He recorded his own every wrinkle. He asked the question of meaning not through trompe l’oeil, but by painting himself. He brought forth the paradox of the profession, which is rooted in vision, yet at its highest levels arrives at the very limits of looking and seeing. For Rembrandt, touch did not ascertain the limits of vision (and painting) as it did for Zeuxis. The meeting point of painting and life lay in and with the artist himself. The relationship between the two wasn’t (and isn’t) of confusion or rivalry, rather the artist’s touch reached beyond seeing and made unseen visible. There can be no mix-up of a man with his self-portrait, yet I wonder again what the relationship is between the two.
Zeuxis is said to have died laughing. He was laughing at his own painting of an old woman imagining her to be alive. Why is Rembrandt laughing? Might he be laughing at Zeuxis who seems to have thought that painting is to perfectly mimic visible reality? Or at his own old face looking at him from the canvas? Or as Kenneth Clark wonders:
He is laughing and, as so often with Rembrandt, we are dumbfounded. Hendrickje was dead; Titus had married and left him. He was in the worst money trouble of his life, and actually had to break open his daughter Cornelia’s money-box in order to pay for a meal. Rembrandt had no reason to laugh. Of course one could compose a little piece of literature on the subject of tragic laughter; but I doubt if this would really interpret his intention. I am more inclined to think that he looked back, as elderly artists often do, at some of his early successes, and thought he would see if he could still achieve that vivacity of expression that first brought him fame.
Perhaps. I think the real question is what does Rembrandt’s laughing has to do with his looking. In his self-portrait(s) Rembrandt is at a place in his profession where painted images are directly related to the primary vehicles of the profession; one of which is looking and seeing, or not-seeing, or making visible. Laughter actually changes the way we see. The usual visual state of a human being is a binocular rivalry, because each eye sends slightly different picture to each side of the brain, and the brain has to switch awareness between the two. The most well-known demonstration of this phenomenon in action is the Necker cube that can be seen as a transparent solid or as an empty grid. But the switching stops during laughter, a theory being that in state of amusement the material in both halves of the brain merges more than usual.
The Necker Cube
Laughter erases duality? Which is the duality that Rembrandt is beyond, laughing? Painting and Life? Self-portrait and Artist? Life and Death? Does self-portrait change just as artist? Does it become different when the artist is no longer? It’s unlikely that Rembrandt was aware of the connection between laughter and vision; he might have known it viscerally. In his self-portrait, artist knows the least separation between him and his painting, because he is his own subject, process, and instrument. I think this is as close as one can bring painting and life (apart from laughing along). One of the theories of humor is a resolution of an incongruity or a conflict. I wonder if for an artist self-portrait is it: an image of oneself that emerges from the unseen. I think Rembrandt’s laughing self-portrait is the result of the life-long sustained engagement with the very core of profession: creation of an image that is profoundly about the nature of vision, one’s own ability to see, and the limits of both. This is the conundrum of the profession in flesh.
Every time I see any of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, I see them differently. But now I wonder if it is not only me who (I hope) changes, but self-portraits as well. Next time I go to look at them, I will go laughing. I will remember that this is as close as painting and life can come.
 Clark, Kenneth, An Introduction to Rembrandt, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 28
 Clark, T.J., “Word of Faces,” London Review of Books, December 4, 2014, p.16
 Márai, Sándor, Portraits of a Marriage, Alfred A. Knofp, 2011, p. 284
 Gregory, Robert, “The blind leading the sighted,” Nature, Vol.430, August 2004. I also feel compelled to mention Esref Armagan, a blind from birth figurative painter, able to represent the world which he never saw.
 Clark, Kenneth, p. 23. H. Perry Chapman gives an account of the artist’s life in her Rembrandt’s Self-Portraits. A Study in Seventeenth-Century Identity enriching the understanding of his life and work, yet deepening the enigma of his self-portraits.
 Clark, T.J., p. 16
 Ibid., p. 18
 Pliny, Natural History, Book XXXV, 61-67, Harvard University Press, 1999
 Mentioned in Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, book 4, chapter 17; cited in Elizabeth Mansfield, Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth and Mimesis, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, P. 155
 Clark, Kenneth, pp. 35-37
 Carter, Rita, The Human Brain, Dorling Kindersley 2009, p. 87 [see about more scholarly source]
 Restak, Richard, “Laughter and the Brain,” The American Scholar – get the date. Weems, Scott, HA! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Basic Books, 2014, pp. xii-iii, xv, 47.