Baroque and Beyond C. 1600–1850

Dutch and Flemish Painting

How did Rembrandt achieve such thoughtful expression in his work?

Rembrandt’s paintings invite subtle, emotional engagement. When gazing upon a Rembrandt portrait, it feels as if you are looking at a real, living person, whose thoughts and emotions are fully accessible. This is no easy feat. Throughout his life, Rembrandt painted more self-portraits than any other artist in the seventeenth century. He practiced by making faces in a mirror in an attempt to capture the likeness of multiple emotions and states of mind. In some of his early drawings, youthful Rembrandts can be seen displaying shock, disgust, fear, and confidence. With his great painting skill, he was able to effectively represent textures and tangible details of clothing and skin. In his 1631 portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, a fur merchant, the man’s fur coat looks supremely soft and luxurious, highlighting his wealth and business success. And yet Ruts appears humble and modest due to his thoughtful gaze, furrowed brows, and slightly bent posture. One of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits, from 1661, shows the artist after significant financial failures and the death of his beloved wife, Saskia. Rembrandt’s illuminated form emerges from the darkness, his eyes in shadow and his clothing simple. His familiar face is now lined with wrinkles and his former confidence is now lost to sloping shoulders and puffed cheeks. Through subtle manipulations in texture, lighting, and detail, Rembrandt demonstrates his masterful ability to facilitate an emotional connection between viewer and painting.


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