Rembrandt's Self Portrait. Authenticity and Attribution

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Attribution and Authenticity: REMBRANDT.

The attribution of the Self-portrait as a Young Man in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, from around 1630 to Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606 – 1669) has raised questions over the past. The painting was examined by the Rembrandt Research Project as well as by other scholars throughout the last decades. However, the opinions regarding the painting’s authenticity are divided. While its current owner, the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, accepts it as autograph Rembrandt others like Ernst van de Wetering as part of the Rembrandt Research Project reject its authenticity and attribute the portrait to his workshop.1 On behalf of the Museum of Greenland this study analyses the different viewpoints, illuminates the issues of the object’s authenticity and formulates an argument for its attribution. However, the following debate is based on an assessment of degrees of likelihood as a unanimous and definitive conclusion seems improbable at this point.

This essay aims to examine the aforementioned painting and to illuminate and contribute to the debate on its authenticity and attribution. Preliminary, the object’s condition and material are examined to ensure a comprehensive visual analysis. Next, the portrait’s visual and stylistic characteristics are explored while considering possible changes due to damage, restoration, and alteration. The following section investigates the portrait from an art historical point of view and in the light of the research on the object, on Rembrandt, and on seventeenth century workshop practise. The essay concludes with an attribution of the object to Rembrandt’s workshop and reflects the author’s opinion based on the detailed visual examination and the comprehensive study of the research regarding the portrait in question.

The object’s condition and characteristics aside its painted surface assist the following visual analysis and the attribution process. The support of the Self-portrait as a Young Man is similar to other works by Rembrandt and is painted on a single plank of presumably oak with a vertical grain. However, there is no technical information for the support beside that the panel has been thinned which caused the flattening of the painted surface. The condition of the object obstructs the visual examination as the portrait is generously covered in a yellow varnish. X-Ray analysis discloses many tiny retouches, mainly in the background and the attire of the sitter but shows few alterations in the man’s face.2 However, it is assumed that the face has been retouched in several but tiny areas around the eyes and around the chin. Ultraviolet light inspection suggests that the right corner of the man’s mouth has been retouched, that the whimsical smile is a later change. These changes are of considerable age of at least a hundred years as they are merely visible on the X-Ray photograph or the ultraviolet image. While the support underlines the assumed attribution to either Rembrandt or his workshop the condition partly hinders a thorough visual analysis.3

The visual examination of the posture in the Self-portrait of a Young Man is rather unlike Rembrandt’s comparable self-portraits. The painting shows the bust of a young man, presumably Rembrandt, in dark clothes in front of a plain background, which is encircled by a painted, lopsided oval. Although the man is depicted frontally his posture is a little twisted, which reduces the naturalness and plasticity of the figure. While the head of the figure is rather facing the right of the painting, the body is slightly turned to the left side and therefore the posture appears almost posed. Normally and with little variety, Rembrandt depicted himself from one side only where his posture appears more natural. (See for example: Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1629, Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Rembrandt, Study in the mirror, c. 1629, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis; Rembrandt, Tronie with Rembrandt’s features, c. 1629, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg.) The unusual twist adumbrates a sense of movement, as if the man just turned his head, which is likewise different to the rather static postures of other portraits by Rembrandt, who rather explored the expression of the sitter than their interaction with their surrounding space. The posed and less convincing posture of the discussed portrait is subtly different compared to contemporary self-portraits of Rembrandt.

The young man is portrayed with a profound and complex facial expression, which is characteristic for Rembrandt’s style. The figure is gazing at the viewer in a quite indistinctive manner and leaves the ambiguous impression of a thoughtful, indecisive, and insecure young man. This is generated by the inconsistent expressions of the almost smiling right side of the face compared to the other rather sombre half. The differing positions of the almost squinting eyes and the asymmetrical corners of the man’s mouth create this complex effect only while the eyes lack expression and give the man an idle glance. The vacant eyes potentially relate to artistic inferiorities, as they are painted without significant accents. Further, technical analysis suggested that the smiling side of the man’s mouth is a later enhancement. Therefore, it is questionable whether this ambiguous effect is originally intentional or if it is the result of a later retouch only. This approach seems to be without precedent compared to Rembrandt’s other self-portraits, which further diminishes the probability of the original intention of the asymmetrical facial expressions. (In addition to the previous examples, see: Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1630, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; Rembrandt, Laughing soldier, 1629-30, Koninklijk Kabinet van Schilderijen Mauritshuis, The Hague; Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1632, The Burrell Collection, Glasgow; Rembrandt, Self-portrait in oriental attire with poodle, 1631-33, Petit Palais, Paris.) Still, the unapparent mood of the sitter imparts the painting with an intimate, sublime tranquillity. This inconclusive and profound atmosphere is regarded as characteristic for Rembrandt’s mastery and is already apparent in his early work.4 Further, the portrait’s unusual face suits to Rembrandt’s pronounced ambition to experiment with facial expressions throughout his entire career.5 While the atypical manner of the expressive but unobtrusive countenance of the sitter suits to Rembrandt’s endeavour to explore his portraiture its original intention remains debatable.

The colour palette and the modelling are partly reminiscent of Rembrandt’s style. The overall colour scheme of this portrait echoes Rembrandt’s dark and earthly palette of mainly cold, greyish brown tones. Further, the flesh tones and the skin within the discussed object are built up of different white, red, brown, and black tones similar to other portraits by Rembrandt. Yet, the face of the portrait in question is merely accentuated although highlights and accents are one of Rembrandt’s famous devices to create lifelike flesh and solid, three-dimensional faces. However, the object’s mediocre condition, the retouches and the layer of varnish make a proper examination difficult. Still, the overall modelling of the face and of the figure is rather flat and seems to depend on the strong contrasts of light and shadow. Rembrandt greatly explored the different effects of changing light sources as apparent in his early works. Here, however, the light source is conspicuously inconsistent as the figure appears to be lit from the front as well as from behind, which results in a halo effect and is rather atypical for Rembrandt’s work.6 Summarising, the colour palette and the modelling strongly remind of the young Rembrandt; however, their execution is cruder and less finely applied as in comparable works.

While the brushwork of the Self-portrait as a Young Man is rather different to many of Rembrandt’s other self-portraits of the time the paint application echoes Rembrandt’s manner. Typical for Rembrandt the paint’s thickness varies greatly and reflects the texture of the painted material as well as it suggests spatial depth.7 The lit parts of the face are painted with thick and oily colours while the paint used for the shadowed parts of the face is matter and thinner applied. While the hair appears almost translucent as it is very thinly painted and seems to merge with the background the scarf is more textural but not as convincing as in other paintings. The brushwork is rough yet controlled and less expressive as in comparable works by Rembrandt, which are characterised by almost erratic and wild but masterfully placed brushstrokes. Further, the bold strokes seem to follow the form and accumulate to larger monotonous planes of colour as visible in the lit cheek. This is unusual for Rembrandt’s depiction of skin, which is normally built up of fine, random strokes of different colours. However, the X-Ray of the painting unveils thinner and wilder brushstrokes below the top layer. Additionally, Rembrandt’s brushwork varied greatly in a short period of time. The painting technique in Self-portrait as a Young Man attempts to recreate the surface textures of the depicted objects and resembles other works by Rembrandt. The controlled yet bold and imprecise brushwork differs from Rembrandt’s fine, diverse, and expressive brushstrokes.


1 A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings IV: Self-Portraits 1625 – 1669, ed. Ernst van de Wetering (Dordrecht: Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, 2005), p. 601. Walker Art Gallery, ‘Self-portrait as a Young Man by Rembrandt van Rijn’, Artwork Highlights <> (accessed 18 April 2015).

2 For the X-Ray image, see: A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings IV: Self-Portraits 1625 – 1669, ed. Ernst van de Wetering (Dordrecht: Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, 2005), p. 601.

3 Xanthe Brooke, ‘Transcript of ‘Self-portrait as a Young Man’, by Rembrandt van Rijn’, Podcasts <> (accessed 18 April 2015). A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings I: 1625 – 1631, eds. J. Bruyn et al. (London: Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, 1982), pp. 324-326.

4 Christopher White, Rembrandt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984), p. 13.

5 A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings IV: Self-Portraits 1625 – 1669, p. 158.

6 Ibid., p. 158.

7 Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop – Paintings (exhibition catalogue: Gemäldegalerie SMPK at the Altes Museum, Berlin, 12 September – 10 November 1991; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 4 December 1991 – 1 March 1992; The National Gallery, London, 26 March – 24 May 1992) ed. Sally Salvesen (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 31-33.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Rembrandt's Self Portrait. Authenticity and Attribution
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Holland, Netherlands, 17th century, Dutch Golden Age, scientific analysis
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2015, Rembrandt's Self Portrait. Authenticity and Attribution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Look inside the ebook
Title: Rembrandt's Self Portrait. Authenticity and Attribution

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free