Rembrandt’s reputation as the painter of the human condition is so unassailable that it is hard to believe that it wasn’t always so. In his paintings, and especially his self-portraits, one can read both universal human experience and his personal tragedy, or so the story goes. In the lines of that doughy face, with its bulbous nose and small eyes, lies the evidence of bankruptcy and the deaths of his wife and three of their children. Rembrandt is art’s everyman, buffeted and bowed by a malign fate.
Rembrandt worked at a time when art was undergoing a moment of change that bordered on crisis. The Italian Renaissance – Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo – had given way to Mannerism. To his contemporary critics, Rembrandt (1606-69) fell uncomfortably between the two. He was too gifted to be classified as a mere recorder of appearances.
Most of his figure paintings are tronies – the Dutch term for pictures that represent a character, type or historical personage. Despite the differences between the sitters, it is hard not to see them as a group self-portrait.
It's hard not to see Rembrandt in his most famous paintings: The Jewish Bride, c1665 and Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, from 1656. The first is a picture of tender marital felicity, the second of family harmony. Rembrandt’s experiences of both were fleeting. That’s the thing about Rembrandt. It's almost impossible to think about the paintings without thinking about the man.
At one time about ninety paintings were counted as Rembrandt self-portraits