Art Confidential Magazine Fall Edition 2022
A Luxury Lifestyle Magazine Dedicated to the World of Art
|Enigmatic Final Act|
The Mysterious Circles in Rembrandt’s Last Self-Portrait
|Written by Shane Guffogg|
There are fewer names more synonymous with art than Rembrandt. Known for his portrayal of light, he was a master at pulling the eye to precisely where the viewer should look. The resulting dramatic effects can be evidenced in his painting, The Night Watch, which utilizes 14 different light sources. It would be amiss to forget this was a time be- fore the incandescent bulb, meaning all light sources were conceived in his mind serving as a kind of illumination safari guiding the eye through. Rembrandt was a film director before the notion of moving pictures was ever hatched. His name is in the Parthenon of art history, and one that people lacking any historical art background recognize. He painted over 40 self-portraits. And if we add his cameos in his historical paintings it is closer to 90. He made a total of 300 paintings, 400 etchings and 2000 drawings. Prolific as a qualifier comes to mind. But it is his self-portraiture that set him apart. Rembrandt artistically documented the inquisitiveness of his youth, his early success as a portrait painter, his rise to living in a posh home with a beautiful wife, and ultimately his fall, where he was left penniless and forgotten. It is a Hollywood movie ready to be made. One particular self-portrait is a bit of an enigma- the Self-Portrait with Two Circles.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15th, 1606 in Leiden in the Dutch Republic, now the Netherlands. He was the ninth child born and at the age of 13, enrolled at the University of Leiden but was already showing interest in painting. He transitioned from the University to apprenticing with a Leiden history painter, where he spent three years. At the age of 23, Rembrandt was commissioned to create a painting for the Hague, capital of the Netherlands. It was a commission that would essentially launch his career.
From the beginning to the end, Rembrandt painted himself. Sometimes in standard portraits, gazing at his own image with attitude. In others he is laughing, and in the strangest twist, he placed himself in historical moments, such as in Crucifixion. Rembrandt affixes himself on a ladder holding the arm of Jesus being taken down off the cross. He can also be seen on the boat in The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, painted in 1633. There he is in the same blue outfit, as the boat is being tossed at sea while Jesus and his apostles hold on for their lives. Rembrandt grasps a rope looking out at us. He almost always looks out at us- breaking the fourth wall of theatre, as if to say, can you believe I am here? He again appears in The Night Watch, at the back just to the left of center, peering over the shoulders of two men. Even though Rembrandt places himself as a witness of historical moments, these moments are his incarnation of history as he invites us in, like a sci-fi TV show featuring time travel.
In Self-portrait with Two Circles Rembrandt seems to be setting the stage for his final act. A final act clued in by the enigmatic use of two circles. What possible message was he relaying to the viewer with these geometric halves? Here is a man who has seen fame and fortune, love and loss, and finally, poverty. Rembrandt takes one last look into his soul – a very honest and sober self-portrait – as a painter nearing the end of his life. Started in 1665 and finished the year of his death in 1669, Self-portrait with Two Circles shows us a reckoning of truth. In this painting he is tired, but strong. His hair is white and gone are the fancy outfits that he would often paint himself wearing.
“What possible message was he relaying to the viewer with these geometric halves?”
Upon initial viewing, if Rembrandt were looking in a mirror, it would appear he is left-handed as he holds his palette and brushes in his right hand. However, he was right-handed. Most likely using two mirrors, Rembrandt painted from the image of the second mirror which was reflecting the appearance of the first, righting the image. He doesn’t paint a complete circle – he paints two uneven halves and places himself in front of the circle on our left. Following that line, it runs through the right side of his face. The circle on the left includes a dimension, with the part of the arc closest to him being brighter. I think he is telling us two things. First, he reveals the direction of the double light source as the arc of the circle is exactly where the light falls on him. Second, the passing of time. Rembrandt casts a slight shadow on the circle as he stands in front. A shadow that very interestingly lands at 6 o’clock.
Returning to his face, we see the light lands on his right side signifying the source originates from the upper left of the canvas. Curiously, a shadow would not normally be cast on the bottom of the left circle from that direction of light. The shadow would land on its right counterpart. The circle on the right strays off the canvas cutting it perfectly in half, as if at six and twelve on a clock. Rembrandt’s elbow dissects the other circle at the same mark. Finally, his maul stick and palette both point to the bottom of each circle as if to blatantly bring their attention to the viewer.
What can be inferred from the shadows of six o’clock? Self-portrait with Two Circles began in 1665 and was completed the year of his death in 1669. Working on the painting from the age of 60 to 63, the circles represent a symbolic measurement of his life as he so eloquently reveals this is his sixth decade of work. More to the point, Rembrandt tells us his age.
He looks out at us, yet again, as a traveler of time. He is now humble, his body is large and appears heavy, but stoic. He has seen things mortals miss. His portraits all capture a moment when the soul can be seen through the painted eye, he looks out at us a magician of the highest degree, but now recognizes his time is running out. He is dressed in his painting attire, no frills and showmanship, just a final moment as he stares at his own mortality, a suspended moment of eternity as the lights go out and the stage curtains are drawn.
Art Confidential Magazine, Fall 2022