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Self-portraits - Van Gogh and Rembrandt
Each artist is an individual with a unique style, and although these styles can be similar in practice – the individuality of the artist often proves the discriminating factor for a successful artwork. Self-portraits are beneficial when looking at the individuality of the artist as there are two aspects to look at – the artist’s style, and the artist’s view of him/herself. The latter can provide a brief insight into the mental situation of the artist as well as any apparent influencing factors of the artwork. This view can often also include fragmental insights into the society and culture of the time. Rembrandt van Rijn and Vincent van Gogh are 2 artists of whom are well represented by this statement.
Rembrandt was born into a Dutch society of the Baroque era . This time period influenced his style of artwork heavily as these were the Post-High Renaissance years. This meant that the accepted artworks of the society at the time were religiously based works influenced by the efforts of the Reformation which was also occurring at the time. This meant that Rembrandt painted his works using religious artwork methods such as the art of chiaroscuro, strategically planning the composition of light and dark to give the figures an enlightened or holy appearance. Therefore when Rembrandt painted self-portraits he carried over these methods, painting himself in this almost holy presence with the use of chiaroscuro. The self-portraits show a vast expressiveness that make the works successful. Rembrandt longed to be like his Renaissance predecessors, often painting himself in the garments and fashion trends of the Renaissance era. The most common of these portrayed garments were the generic Berets that have now been typically associated with the common artist as a stereotype. Looking at the untitled self portrait of 1657 (Figure 1) you can see Rembrandt’s attention to detail and his persistence to achieve life-likeness. He has built up the wrinkled brow, the puckers of skin, in very detailed and effective passages of reddish colours. You can see the application of chiaroscuro in this painting which is obviously intentional as even his clothes, including fashionable beret, are dark to help with the distribution of light and dark with the focus being on his face. This self portrait is one I consider to be among his best. This work provides an insight into Rembrandt’s indifference to self-consciousness as you can see an aged, wrinkled man with a large broad nose and gray wisps of hair, all of which he has made no attempt to positively alter, he simply strives for realism in his works and finds no reason to alter the physical reality of his work for mere aesthetic purposes. It provides an insight into the culture of the time with the fashion state Rembrandt has depicted himself in as well as the common chiaroscuro methods used in the painting which were common for the culture or society of the time. The self-portrait of 1630 (Figure 2) shows how even from early in his career Rembrandt strove for realism in his works. You are once again struck by the honesty shown in this portrait. The absence of self-flattery helps to prove its success as an expressive, realistic artwork. This work has another insight into the culture of the time through his fashion. This time you can see him wearing black again, but with a lighter coloured frilled collar on the shirt, simply showing fashion trends at the time.
These self-portraits by Rembrandt prove his individuality as an artist and as a person, not being afraid to hide the imperfections of the human form. This in itself shows the nature of society and culture at the time with the Post-Renaissance stance on art still being to focus on realism not aesthetics, but with the fashion Rembrandt portrays himself in, we also are provided with an insight into how people at the time would have been dressed, showing society trends.
Van Gogh, like Rembrandt, was born into a Dutch society but into the Post-Impressionist era of art. Unlike Rembrandt’s religious motif, van Gogh’s works weren’t based on a particular society trend. His subjects were based on raw emotion and were expressed through vibrant colour and brush strokes. This method proved interesting when applied to his self-portraits. The almost wild strokes appear disorganised from up-close but from a distance they merge into an expressive, more than often successful artwork. Looking at the self-portrait from 1887 (Figure 3) you can see how van Gogh has attempted to intensify the face and the expression on it, mostly by using a variety of colour and shortened brush strokes. This work shows a similarity to self-portraits by Rembrandt as the focus of the work is on the face, and the way this focus is produced is by the distribution of light and dark in the picture. They differ in that Rembrandt’s method is the more tone based chiaroscuro practice, and van Gogh simply radiates the strokes from the face creating an illuminated effect. The work shows an approximate image of van Gogh’s appearance, the lack of severe realism with van Gogh’s methods means that a totally accurate representation of his individuality cannot be presented as in Rembrandt’s portraits. With the coat and hat van Gogh is wearing in the portrait you are presented with an insight into the culture of the time. Van Gogh’s painting methods also present an insight as it shows how the society at the time more openly accepted deviation from traditional art practice.
Van Gogh and Rembrandt’s self-portraits can be compared openly due to their expressiveness, society representation and the common technique they appear to share. Their artworks not only reflect their individuality but also provide fragmental insights into the society and culture of the society in which they lived.