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  • Writer's pictureRomina Rosso

Rembrandt: Self-Portrait with Two Circles

Updated: Apr 10, 2021

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, ca 1665, Kenwood House, English Heritage, London

For more than 500 years Britain was a country devoted and lover of portraits.

For this reason, it is one of the few countries in the world that had dedicated an entire museum to the genre of the portraiture The National Portrait Gallery and have also a Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

Britain has a long tradition of portraiture starting with Hans Holbein, who gave to the Henry VIII’s portraits an imperial power, or the Flemish as Van Dyck who Charles I’s paintings led to images of almost divine power, and through Lely, Dobson, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Lawrence.

Portraiture allowed painters to express their own concerns and interests about the human condition.

This is part of a long tradition that in some ways could be said to have begun with the introspection of Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

For this reason, I would like to analyse one of the last self-portraits of Rembrandt, displayed in the beautiful Kenwood House, a neoclassic house inside Hampstead Heath, in North London.

The collection inside Kenwood House was collected by Lord Iveagh, maybe not really known for his title, but really famous for his real name Edward Cecil Guinness, one of members of the family owner of the famous Irish brewery. Edward Cecil Guinness has a long history of philanthropy.

He saved Kenwood House that had been threats from builders. He bought the house 1924 and donated to the nation in 1927 with his reach collection of Flemish artists as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Hals, Vermeer and English painters as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Romney and Constable.

Kenwood House, the south front
Kenwood house, Dining Room

The Red Dining Room contains the pictures by Dutch and Flemish Old Master painters and it is the only in the world to exhibited in the same room Vermeer with his Guitar player and Rembrandt with his Self-Portrait with Two Circles.

Guinness bought the self-portrait by Rembrandt in 1888 from the art dealer Thomas Agnew for the value of £ 27,500 together with another painting at the time attributed to Rembrandt but today considered of the hand of his pupil Ferdinand Bol.

Rembrandt is one of the most celebrated artists in art history. In 40 years of his career, he painted 80 self-portraits, enormously high number for any artist up to that point, divided in 40 paintings, 31 etchings and 7 drawings. The self-portraits create a visual diary of the artist over a span of forty years.

Self-Portrait with Two Circles is one of his last self-portraits started in 1665 at the age of 59. Among all the Rembrandt’s self-portraits, it is celebrated for his technical brilliance and ruthless honesty, offering one of the most distinctive and defining images of the artist.

The self-portrait of Rembrandt can be divided in three stages: young, middle-age, and older age.

Rembrandt in his early portraits is a young man focused on his outward appearance and description, in the middle-age appears confident, successful, and even ostentatious painter taking inspiration from the great Italian painters as Titian and Raphael and in the portraits of older age is more insightful, contemplative, and penetrating.

In this Self-Portrait with Two Circles depicted himself as a painter in his studio not in the act of painting in front of the easel, but staring straightforward to the viewer with one hand in his pocket and the other one holding the tools of the painter.

Rembrandt is plainly dressed in working clothes with a fur-lined tabard, traditionally worn by painters since the 16th century, along with a simple white linen cap.

His working clothes are humble, not the elaborate costume of his early self-portraits, but depicted with great dignity and greatness.

Hidden in his white shirt, it is possible to see a golden chain probably a public honour.

In his left hand he holds the tools of his trade: a wooden palette, brushes, and a long mahlstick.

Mahlstick is a Dutch word maalstok, it is a stick with a soft leather or padded head used by painters to support the hand holding the paintbrush.

To the right can be seen the edge of the canvas on which he is working.

In the painting there are some areas more highly finished and others that are merely painted.

A huge debate about the status of the painting as finished or unfinished have risen among the art historians.

There are some details in the painting that I always found superb looking at it. One is the hand, so important for an artist, is almost vanishing through the tools and the other one is the white linen cup done with its short and thick brushstrokes, that anticipate the impressionist’s technique and style.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, detail of the hand
Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, detail of the cup's brushstrokes

The status of the painting as finished or unfinished has shifted through the centuries.

Today, many people admire Rembrandt’s bold, painterly style, but when Sir Joshua Reynolds saw the picture in 1781, he described it as painted: “…in a very unfinished manner, but admirable for its colour and effect: his palette and pencils and mahlstick are in his hand, if it may be so called; for it is so slightly touched, that it can scarce be made out to be a hand”.

The face, instead, is really detailed with areas of light and shadow. He used different colours as pink, yellow, orange, white and grey for his wrinkles and the expressions of his face of a man signed by his own difficult life. Rembrandt forced us to see this picture as a biography.

His gaze is straightforward, intense, steady but with a glimpse of melancholy and sadness.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, detail of the face

Rembrandt was a keen observer of human expression and activity but also his profound understanding of and sympathy for the human condition.

This self-portrait depicted himself as proud and self-respect artist even if he had lost everything for bankruptcy, his beloved wife died and he was living with the help of his son Titus.

The painting is neither signed nor dated, which is unusual for Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

Some scholars have argued that he no longer felt the need to sign his work, as he was a celebrity in his lifetime, known as nostrae aetatis miraculum (the wonder of our age) and his face would have been recognisable to many.

Some art historians have even gone so far as to suggest that by the 1660s, Rembrandt may have felt that his distinctive style of painting was a signature itself.

The self-portrait could have been inspired by Titian’ self-portrait in the Gemäldegalerie in Belin.

Titian’s painting was reproduced as an engraving in 1550 and, as a great collector of prints, Rembrandt may have owned a copy. The two self-portraits are very alike in composition, colour and technique. By following Titian’s example, Rembrandt may have hoped to create a similarly iconic public image for posterity.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, ca 1665, Kenwood House, English Heritage,London
Titian, self-portrait, c. 1546–47, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

In this painting Rembrandt is not a desperate man who look with vulnerable eyes on a mirror, he painted himself as a powerful painter who is creating a strong imagine of himself that is looking at us throughout the centuries.

The painting presents a mystery with the two enigmatic circles in the background, from which the painting takes its name and fame, have fascinated and perplexed viewers and scholars for generations.

Rembrandt Van Rijn, Self-portrait with Two Circles, detail with the two circles

There are many theories surrounding the meaning of the circles. One is that they are mystical symbols representing the perfection of God, while another suggests they are symbols of theory and practice, with Rembrandt himself as the ingenium (the genius), the link between thought and execution.

There is also the theory that the circles reflect a double-hemisphere world map, a map that depicts the eastern and western hemispheres as two globes. World maps were normally displayed in Dutch houses as in the paintings of Vermeer and other Dutch painters. The world map in this painting was seen as the universality of Rembrandt as a painter of the visible world.

It has been suggested that the circles represent the rota aristotelis, the Aristotelian idea of the true form of the world, or have kabbalistic significance.

The most popular theory focuses on a story about the great Italian painter Giotto, who reputedly proved his artistic skill by drawing a perfect circle freehand. Although Rembrandt paints two incomplete circles rather than one perfect circle, scholars have suggested that he is associating himself with Giotto’s legendary genius, using his own distinctive, virtuoso style.

While Rembrandt's self-portraits reveal much about the artist, his development, and his persona, they were also painted to fulfil the high market demand during the Dutch Golden Age for tronies studies of the head, or head and shoulders, of a model showing an exaggerated facial expression or emotion, or dressed in exotic costumes. He was able to satisfy consumers while also promoting himself as an artist in the rich and competitive art market of Amsterdam.

His deeply personal and revealing self-portraits, particularly those of his older years in which he does not hide from pain and vulnerability, resonate strongly with the viewer.

Rembrandt's self-portraits lend credence to the adage that "what is most personal is most universal," for they continue to speak powerfully to viewers across time and space, inviting us not only to look closely at his self-portraits, but at ourselves as well.

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