Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud


Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
c. 1668

The painter has portrayed himself as visibly aged in this work, which came at the end of a long series of some 70 self-portraits. And like no other, Rembrandt used them as a means of psychological research into his self. Thus his gaze, which is currently directed to the viewer, was primarily directed to his reflection. His raised eyebrows and open, perhaps laughing, mouth tell of the way he flouted every convention, with a buoyancy that only advanced age allows. And so Rembrandt documented his own physiognomy with a ruthless directness, and with so much paint we almost literally feel the furrows on his brow and cheeks and the heavy bags under his eyes. But what might have prompted Rembrandt to laugh?
This question has occupied art historians for decades, because the painting does not give any clues that allow a definite answer. Is the just vaguely distinguishable figure on the left-hand margin a sculpture, or is it a painted image on an easel? Is Rembrandt showing himself here as a painter with brush and maulstick? A variety of interpretations have been found for this painting: some have concluded that the god Terminus is standing before Rembrandt, reminding him of his approaching end. Others have seen this figure as the weeping Heraclitus, so that Rembrandt – as a champion of a cheerful approach to life – is portraying himself in the contrasting role of the laughing philosopher Democritus. And, finally, some have tried to see it as the antique painter colleague Zeuxis, who allegedly laughed himself to death at the sight of a ludicrous wizened old woman.

But is Rembrandt even laughing? The Cologne self-portrait will remain a riddle to us for many years to come!

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam): Self-Portrait, c. 1668, oil on canvas, 82.5 x 65 cm. Acquired in 1936 as part of the Carstanjen collection. Inv. no. WRM 2526. Photo: Rheinisches Bildarchiv

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Leiden 1606 – 1669 Amsterdam

c. 1668, oil on canvas, 82.5 x 65 cm
Acquired in 1936 as part of the Carstanjen collection
Inv. no. WRM 2526
Photo: Rheinisches BIldarchiv Köln