This publication maps the many developments in Rembrandt's self-portraiture during his life, and attempts to explain why this genre played such a dominant role in his work. It covers the background to Rembrandt's work and the impact of his style on his contemporaries.
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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was not a handsome man. He was, however, an exceptional painter of himself. This sumptuous catalogue, published to coincide with the exhibition of his self-portraits at the National Gallery in London, has glossy reproductions of all the paintings and etchings from the show, plus copies of lost ones and those not released by galleries or private collectors, thoroughly annotated to elucidate their history. The scholarship is impressive, being mostly drawn from the Rembrandt Research Project, which for years has been working with a combination of X-ray technology and patient research to ascertain the age of the pictures and the identity of their painter. This is not as obvious as it sounds; Rembrandt had many pupils, and he encouraged them to copy his own self-portraits as practice, leading to the unusual situation of a host of Rembrandt self-portraits not by Rembrandt. The findings of the project have been contentious, with paintings unexpectedly relegated or elevated through reappraisal. What shines through, though, is the sheer diversity of Rembrandt's genius, from the early paintings and etchings where he gurns in a mirror to study expression, through the periods of dressing up as variously an oriental potentate, a soldier, an artisan and St Paul, to the famous trilogy of self-portraits painted in his last year which seem to show a man old beyond his years. The catalogue also contains a selection of works by his pupils Gerrit Dou and Samuel van Hoogstraten, and essays by Rembrandt scholars that seek to revise the somewhat Romantic conceit that the series is some sort of spiritual autobiography. However, a difference between art and art history is the "now" factor, which means that as perceivers inextricably bound up with a modern sense of introspection we cannot avoid imposing a narrative that imbues an existential beauty. Rembrandt By Himself, an intelligent and resourceful accompaniment to the exhibition, will continue to transport the reader when the portraits in the exhibition have long returned to their respective homes. --David Vincent
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