Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, "Self-Portrait"

Of the many self-portraits Rembrandt painted over a lifetime, this is perhaps the greatest, not only for its poignant revelations of the self, but for his sure handling of paint. The initial effect on viewers is daunting, as though they are confronting an ill-tempered monarch. The strange costume he wears is timeless. In place of a crown, he wears a large velvet artist's beret. He holds a painter's stick as though it were a scepter. Yet this feeling of uneasy confrontation diminishes as we study the face. The wariness and impatience seem like a veil shadowing the man's real expression, which is blurred and scarred — by time, by sorrows, and by illness. Yet Rembrandt was only fifty-two in 1658 when he signed and dated this portrait. He was also a small man, but he portrayed his figure in monumental dimensions. It is almost as though he decided to pack his entire life into this image of himself, both what had gone before, and what lay ahead. The gigantic hands that loom before us are crucial to the portrait's effect, reminding us of Rembrandt's dependence on them.

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