Rembrandt was born 408 years ago today. Of course, we never really know about people born around that time unless they were royalty. But you know how it goes, he was born a long time ago, we pick a date and go with it because it gives us an excuse for talking about the man. But I don’t really want to talk about the man. When I was researching the birthday post today, I noticed that he painted a lot of self-portraits. So you actually get to see him age over time. I want to talk about that.
Just two years later, he looks quite the artist. A big difference is that at this point, he had been “discovered” and was getting real work to do with the good feelings and cash that it brings. If you ask me, he looks a bit smug, but I can hardly blame him.
At 34, Rembrandt was firmly established as a painter. He was rich too, having just purchased an expensive house. Still, like Mozart at this time of his life, he managed to spend at least as much money as he brought in. When this painting was made, he and his wife Saskia had had three children, all of them dying within about a month of their births.
As far as I can tell, Rembrandt didn’t paint himself for over a decade. Here he is at 46. Ten years earlier, Saskia gave birth to a boy, Titus, who managed to live to adulthood. But soon after giving birth, Saskia died.
At 54, I think Rembrandt looks sadder but wiser. He had continued to spend beyond his considerable means—mostly on works of art. He was forced to sell pretty much all of it and move into a much more modest home to avoid bankruptcy, shortly before he painted this self-portrait.
Finally, we see Rembrandt at 63—the year he died. This was one year after the death of his one surviving son, who died at 27. There is speculation that Rembrandt made himself look better—more healthy—than he was, because earlier self-portraits looked worse. I don’t find that a very compelling argument, since I have looked much worse than I do today. Anyway, he looks his age.
What I think is interesting in this series of paintings is the process of life. Rembrandt was hugely successful—creatively and commercially—at what he loved to do. But we all have tragedies. We all get worn down over time. There is an arc to life. And it is the same for us all, be we as great as Rembrandt or as insignificant as an unpaid blogger. I don’t find that sad though. It is, what it is.