Rembrandt's self-portrait

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, self-portrait, c. 1650, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

Rembrandt’s self-portrait


It would seem logical to assume that Rembrandt’s gloomy disposition in this self-portrait is tied to events in his private life, for it was created around the time of the death of his beloved wife, Saskia, in 1642, a period of personal and creative crisis. What is being expressed here? Acute anxiety, the painful waning of the force of youth, or even profound existential doubt?


But such an angle of interpretation is based on the assumption that the artist chose the self-portrait as a means to probe and reveal his innermost being. The great sensitivity in the rendering of different emotions and psychological states evident in Rembrandt’s many self-portraits would seem to support this hypothesis. And yet, as recent research demonstrates, this line of thought is misleading and misses the point behind Rembrandt’s self-portraits. For the artist had much less an analysis of the self in mind, and was in fact much more concerned with painting an engrossing picture that would sell well.


At this point in history, self-portraits were not private; they had nothing in common with intimate diaries. Once completed, they quickly left the painter’s studio and entered the collections of wealthy art lovers. The purchasers admired the works’ expressive qualities and powerful style of painting. In addition, they were happy to be able to look upon the countenance of an artist whose fame extended across the continent of Europe.


Rembrandt’s self-portraits show us staged emotions. As such, they are related to a genre significantly advanced by Rembrandt himself and popular in the Netherlands, called the tronie. Such portraits were studies of emotional expressivity, typically showing the heads of stock characters with exaggerated facial expressions. The costume the artist shows himself wearing also supports this interpretation – for the cap with a brocade border, the hanging earring, the wide burgundy robe, the velvet collar draped over it, and the two gold chains were not customarily worn attire at the time. They emphasise the fact that the artist has cast himself in a theatrical role.

The Karlsruhe self-portrait is rightly regarded a masterpiece, and is a superb example of Rembrandt’s extraordinary painting style. There is great variety in the execution of different areas of the painting; for while the face is very precisely and finely modelled, despite the use of impasto, the robe is more sketchily rendered, giving a somewhat unfinished impression. Rembrandt’s distinctive brushwork was criticized and discussed in some detail by the art writer Arnold Houbraken as early as 1718. A recent X-radiograph of the painting has revealed that Rembrandt painted his self-portrait over a portrait of a man executed by another hand. It is possible that the previous panel was acquired when the estate of a deceased artist’s workshop went up for sale. Rembrandt may have reused it because the fabrication of new panels was expensive.


As the upper layers of paint have gradually become more transparent over time, an ear in the underlying image has become visible, and can be seen beside Rembrandt’s left ear. The original rectangular painting was cut down to an oval form at a later date, probably in the early 18th century. Not only were the original panel’s corners removed, but paint was added on the left which is now seen as more uniformly dark. What had been a slightly asymmetrical composition now became more roundly centred on the face.



Harry L. Ettlinger and Rembrandt’s self-portrait

A print of the painting was offered to members of the Badischer Kunstverein, and one such print thus came into the possession, in 1906, of Otto Oppenheimer (1875–1951) of Bruchsal, who was the grandfather of Harry Ettlinger. Harry Ettlinger, emigrated to the US before the war, and later served as a member of the US-led Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Program (MFAA). Dubbed the ‘Monuments Men’, these men and women strove to protect German cultural heritage – in effect the cultural heritage of the enemy – in the chaotic final years and immediate aftermath of the Second World War.


As a young man, Ettlinger had always been drawn to the print, but as a Jew was prohibited from entering public museums by the Nazi regime, and thus never had the opportunity to view the original ‘in the flesh’ in the Kunsthalle, even though he lived just a few streets away. Ettlinger in fact first laid eyes on the original painting in a Heilbronn salt mine in 1945 while working for the MFAA, during the opening of the first crates of artworks removed from the Kunsthalle for safekeeping. One of the crates contained the Rembrandt portrait. Ettlinger returned the work to the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, along with its other collection holdings held in the mine.

On 15 February 2014, Harry L. Ettlinger, now one of the few surviving Monuments Men, took part in a public panel at the Kunsthalle, in which he spoke of his mission with the MFAA. After the event, Baden-Württemberg’s State Secretary for Art, Jürgen Walter, presented Harry Ettlinger with the Staufer Medal in gold, one of the highest honours for the state of Baden-Württemberg. At the event, Ettlinger once again had a chance to see the Rembrandt painting that he had found and rescued at the end of the Second World War.

Historical image of Harry Ettlinger and Rembrandt's self-portrait in the saltmine Heilbronn, Courtesy National Archives

Interview with Harry Ettlinger at "300 Jahre 300 Köpfe":
Harry Ettlinger, historical witness and Monuments Man, entire interview