'Painting faces like this is an act of mercy'

Self Portrait, 1669, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), Mauritshuis, The Hague, The Netherlands. Bridgeman Images.

The Archbishop of Canterbury says:
‘Rembrandt in his maturity always shows us faces that look lived in: not smooth, not finished, expressive of time that’s passed. Painting faces like this is an act of mercy. It is perhaps how God sees human faces, neither completely good or bad, just marked by time, failure or pain, needing to be contemplated with acceptance. To paint your own face thus shows a self-awareness and –an odd, paradoxical virtue –a sort of compassion towards yourself that is the very opposite of self-pity.’

Dr Rowan Williams was confirmed as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002.

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘This painting is the last of Rembrandt’s 80 selfportraits. He looks older compared with others from the Indian summer of his career, such as those at the National Gallery and Kenwood (Favourite Painting, February 10), but still displays his jaunty taste for a ‘hat’; he wears one in three quarters of his self-portraits. The look is pitiless and pitying. It corroborates the received wisdom that Rembrandt is the all-seeing master of the soul, the ultimate explorer of the psychological depths. Therefore, it is disconcerting to know that this most sympathetic portrayer of Christ, as well as his mortal self, never made it to the very top of his profession, despite a dazzling start, and had a decidedly disagreeable character, too.

During his life, Rembrandt was certainly recognised as a master. Cosimo III de Medici, who bought one of the selfportraits, visited ‘the famous painter’ in Amsterdam in 1667. Indeed, the late self-portraits were speedily snapped up by royal collectors. However, to mankind’s loss, Rembrandt was never a court painter, and he was never even commissioned by a burgomaster. His personality was the main problem. There is abundant evidence that he was bitter, vindictive, untrustworthy and money-grubbing. He sank so low as to steal some of his daughter’s savings, and was notorious for not paying debts, especially if they were interest free. At least his brilliance excuses his arrogance, which made him the one artist of Holland’s artistic ‘golden age’ to sign himself regally with his first name only. That modern Dutch genius Van Gogh followed suit, but we have not let Vincent stick.’

This article was first published in Country Life, March 31, 2010