'I keep an aged postcard of this portrait on the wall beside me as I work. One can engage with a Rembrandt again and again and confront human truth exposed.’

Self-portrait as Zeuxis laughing, about 1662, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), 321⁄2in by 251⁄2in, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. 

Maggi Hambling says:
‘When Rembrandt was 22, he painted a self-portrait (now in the Rijksmuseum), his face mysteriously half-veiled by shadow. Then, 34 years later, he painted this portrait of himself as Zeuxis, the Greek artist (late 5th century BC), who reputedly died from excessive laughing. Here, there is no veil. Every fold of flesh is on the move as Rembrandt laughs, both at himself and with the viewer. The moment is physically gouged from time by the life force and fluidity of the paint. I keep an aged postcard of this portrait on the wall beside me as I work. One can engage with a Rembrandt again and again and confront human truth exposed.’

Maggi Hambling is an artist. Her exhibition ‘Maggi Hambling: Walls of Water’ opens at the National Gallery, London WC2, today.

John McEwen comments:
Rembrandt was famous enough to have his self-portraits bought in their own right by collectors, but their record number is partially explained by the Dutch fashion for ‘tronies’, head-and-shoulder portraits showing an exaggerated facial expression or a stock character in costume. Tronies could be used as samples for commissioning clients, but were usually sold as genre paintings on the open market.

This self-portrait is a tronie, but whether sold as such we do not know. It came after a rocky period in his life. bankruptcy had forced him to sell his possessions and Amsterdam mansion (now the Rembrandt House Museum), which also served as his studio, showroom and workshop. He rented a smaller house and, in 1660, his son Titus (1641–68)— by his wife, Saskia (1612–42)— and his mistress, Hendrickje Stoffels (about 1625/6–63), took legal control of his finances.

His fame survived, but the increasing freedom of his brushwork began to be criticised, some claiming his pictures were unfinished. Fashion also changed, with formal Classicism preferred to his robust realism.

The legend that Zeuxis died laughing when painting an old woman who wanted to look like Aphrodite, goddess of love, appealed to Rembrandt and his circle. One of his pupils wrote about it; another did a painting. Age-induced discoloration of Rembrandt’s thickly varnished version makes it difficult to see the cause of mirth: the portrait of the crone barely visible to the left. But perhaps Rembrandt, after all his misfortunes, was having the last laugh.

The picture was deemed too fragile to travel for the National Gallery’s historic ‘Rembrandt: the Late Works’ (until January 18, 2015).

This article was first published in Country Life, November 26, 2014

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