Portraits used to be a mark of class. You could only get an artist to paint your likeness if you had enough money or social stature.
These days, though, it’s no problem. You just grab your phone and snap a “selfie”.
But, the “selfie” has a lot of haters. People point to them as examples of our runaway narcissism.
And yet, the self-portrait is a pillar of fine art. So, what’s the difference between a self-indulgent “selfie” and a self-portrait worthy of generations?
He pointed me in the direction of this self-portrait from Rembrandt, created just four years before his death, around 1665.
Gary notes that in this portrait Rembrandt paints himself as “artist in the studio”. He wears simple clothes, carries his palette and brushes, and sits in front of a wall with two simple circles painted on it.
When Rembrandt painted this he was out of fashion, bankrupt, and watching his students rise above him in wealth and social stature; students like the fellow below, Ferdinand Bol.
Bol learned his craft from Rembrandt, even teaching the style to students of his own. When he painted this, Bol was more financially successful and socially well-regarded than Rembrandt, and he painted himself like that. Sumptuous fabrics, a pricey statue and a Roman column were the trappings that Bol chose for his self-portrait, portraying himself as “successful man”.
Gary says that Portraiture was big business during the Dutch Golden Age. In an era before advertising and social media, portraits were branding. The wealthy class commissioned portraits to show the world how successful they were.
Rembrandt’s contemporary, Frans Hals, painted this portrait of Dutch merchant Pieter van den Broecke. This guy comes across as friendly, and he was in fact a close pal of the artist. But, Gary did research and found that van den Broecke wrangled a nutmeg monopoly for the Dutch in the Banda Islands, killing and enslaving natives. The portrait captured the image van den Broecke wanted, not reality.
So, what message does Rembrandt’s portrait convey? Gary Faigin believes the secret message is in those simple circles.
Like many other art historians, Gary thinks the two circles are a reference to another great painter, Giotto. The Italian painter of the Middle Ages was said to have been able to draw a circle, perfectly, free-hand. By putting those two, simple circles so large behind his head, Gary says that Rembrandt thumbed his nose at the fleeting fashion of the Dutch art scene. Rather than portraying himself as rich or successful, Rembrandt painted himself, quite simply, as a Master. He connected his image to one of the greatest artists of all time, branding himself as bigger and more enduring than his era.
Now, very few of us intend to set our image as Great Masters of Art, but Gary Faigin says there is something we can learn from the way Rembrandt crafted his own “selfie”. It’s something Gary thinks about when he paints his own self-portraits.
Portraits should do more than just show what you look like, whether you’re fat or thin or beautiful. In fact, portraiture as art has very little to do with what a person looks like. The test of a portrait is what someone will be able to connect with one hundred years from now. It should reveal something about the life of a particular person in a particular place at a particular time.
So, the next time you snap a “selfie” for your profile pic, ask yourself, what am I really saying with this picture?
Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles, and other portraits from The Kenwood House, London, are on display at the Seattle Art Museum through May 19, 2013.