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Rembrandt van Rijn aspired to be a painter of biblical and mythological subjects, which were held in higher regard than portraits. But portraiture was more profitable, and after settling in Amsterdam around 1631, Rembrandt enjoyed enormous success as a portrait painter. From the middle of the 17th century, his increasingly rough and brooding style of painting was out of step with a new fashion for smoothly painted and more evenly lit works. He nevertheless continued to receive portrait commissions from some of the most prominent people in the country, who remained impressed with his unparalleled skill in conveying character.

Rembrandt frequently depicted specific models without intending them to be portraits. In these works (called 'tronies') he studied facial expressions or a stock character. Occasionally he would study his own face in such tronies, but he also depicted himself in more formal self-portraits. Rembrandt’s self-confidence is not only apparent from the fact that he invariably signed his works with his first name (Rembrandt), but also from the sheer number of works in which he painted his own likeness (some 40). It means we are now as familiar with his face as we are with his art.