Masterpiece Tour 2016: Self Portrait at the Age of 63

17th-century self portraits

When Rembrandt started out as a young artist, the self portrait as a discrete painting genre was a relatively novel concept. In fact, the specific term ‘self portrait’ did not exist until two centuries later. Nonetheless, it is Rembrandt who in many respects can be credited with having cemented the importance of self portraiture as the genre we recognise today.

As part of a broader rediscovery of Antiquity, the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries had seen a renewed interest in individual achievement, and with it, a promotion of the status of the artist beyond ‘mere’ artisan. Artists began to be feted as ‘uomini famosi’ (famous men) alongside prominent writers, poets, and statesmen.

By Rembrandt’s time, printed portraits of famous artists had become popular. These were often published in series, such as that produced by Hendrick Hondius the Elder in 1610, which Rembrandt knew well.

A spread from Pictorum aliquot celebrium, præcipue
Attributed to Hendrick Hondius the Elder, ‘Jan Van Eyck’, engraving, in 'Pictorum aliquot celebrium, præcipué Germaniæ Inferioris, effigies' (The Hague, 1610).
© The British Library Board


Self portraits allowed artists to participate actively in this cult of famous men, giving each the opportunity to carefully craft the persona he wished to present to the world. They became an important means of promoting an artist’s talent and fame, and were highly sought-after by collectors as both a record of an artist’s appearance and an example of their technique. In fact, despite his prolific output in this genre, an inventory of Rembrandt’s possessions made in 1656 does not list a single self portrait, suggesting a keen market for likenesses, by his own hand, of the great master.

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