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Crossing the Threshold: Rembrandt's Painted Portraits

More than any other genre of painting, portraits catch our eyes because they are often looking back at us, drawing the viewer into their painted space. Such is the case with so many painted portraits by the prolific Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). It is Rembrandt’s portraits that provide the most poignant examples of his exceptional ability to capture real individuals, as he created more than just a physical likeness of his sitters - he brought them to life on the canvas.

Self-Portraits & Portraits of his Family

Rembrandt was no stranger to depicting himself; there are almost one hundred extant self-portraits by the artist spanning over forty years. One of his earliest self-portraits, dated circa 1628, is a study in light and shadow. The artist was just twenty-two when he completed this bust-length, three-quarter profile. His face, surrounded by a halo of brown curls, is almost entirely in shadow save for his right cheek that is illuminated by an unseen light source. Despite the lack of light, the young artist’s features are still entirely visible, and his eyes gaze out steadily to meet those of the viewer. Like many of his early self-portraits in which the artist displays various facial expressions and poses, this small oil painting was most likely created as a means for Rembrandt to hone his artistic abilities. Here the exercise was clearly in chiaroscuro, or dramatic contrasts of light and shadow. The young artist could then use the work as proof of his artistic aptitude and engage potential clients.

Rembrandt was also fond of painting portraits of his

Rembrandt was also fond of painting portraits of his family, most notably his son, Titus. The seven known portraits that the artist painted of his child over the years are even more precious as Titus was essentially Rembrandt’s only family in his later adult life. He was the singular child of four that survived infancy, and Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, died just a year after Titus’ birth. A 1655 portrait is one of the most touching examples of Rembrandt the father immortalizing his young son, as this painted likeness is so natural and unposed. In the seventeenth century children were often treated (and portrayed) as small adults; there were few opportunities for children to be children. Here a young Titus sits at a desk in front of a sheaf of papers and faces the viewer. No doubt the fourteen-year-old is supposed to be focusing on his studies, but his father has caught him in a moment of reverie: his eyes are dreamily cast somewhere to the left of the viewer, and he rests his chin, mouth slightly open, on the thumb of his right hand. The inkwell and pen holder that dangle limply from his left hand are reminders of where his attention should be focused, but like most young boys, Titus can’t help but let his mind wander during his studies. Though Titus did live to adulthood, he would still not outlive his father; he died in 1668 at just twenty-six, and Rembrandt would die barely a year later.

Portraits of Private Citizens

In an age before photography, portrait commissions were one of the only ways for individuals to have a likeness of themselves created. Engagements and marriages were some of the more common events that called for a commemoration in paint. Betrothed or married couples were often painted in a pendant format, or two separate portraits that were meant to complement each other and be displayed together. Following a centuries-old heraldic tradition, the man’s portrait would be situated on the more-important right, or dexter, side (the viewer’s left) while the woman would take her place to the left, or sinister (the viewer’s right). The pendant portraits of Nicolaes van Bambeeck and Agatha Bas are a splendid example of Rembrandt’s exceptional skill in creating life-like portraits. Both Van Bambeeck and Bas are painted within rounded niches, but in an illusionistic feat Rembrandt has also allowed them to come out of their painted world and into ours. Looking out at the viewer, Van Bambeeck leans his right elbow out of the painted frame while resting his other hand on its edge. However, the deep black color of his robe and the voluminousness of his sleeve somewhat dim the effect of the elbow jutting into the viewer’s space. The effect is much more successful in the striking companion portrait of his wife. Bas’ portrait is more brightly illuminated; her left hand rests against the side of the archway to the viewer’s right, with her thumb curling over its edge, while she displays an open fan with her right hand that comes out of the painted frame. The illusion of the archway creates a painted division of space between the space that Bas and Van Bambeeck occupy and the space of the viewer. As the sitters cross this painted barrier, they force an encounter with the viewer by entering their space, blurring the line between the real and the painted; it seems as though you could reach out and take the fan from Bas’ hand. This kind of illusion was not new in the seventeenth century, but these pendants are exceptional examples of Rembrandt’s ability to render such an optical deception to a high degree.

Group Portraits

Group Portraits

Group portraits were also popular commissions used to visually record the officials of various guilds in the cities of the Dutch Republic. One of Rembrandt’s most engaging group portraits was done late in his career for the Drapers’ Guild of Amsterdam in 1662. Known simply as The Syndics, or De Staalmeesters in Dutch, the piece depicts the five drapers who were tasked with inspecting the quality of the cloth that their guild produced, along with an attendant. Here the artist has depicted his sitters in a dynamic arrangement that highlights the individuality of each man while retaining a unified composition. Though there is no physical threshold that the subjects cross like that of the Van Bambeeck/Bas pendants, the illusion that the viewer has entered the painted space still holds based on the actions and poses of the subjects. It appears as though we have just opened the door and interrupted their meeting as all of the men turn to look in our direction while still in the middle of the tasks at hand; one man is in the process of rising from his chair while another holds a page of the open ledger for examination. The only reason they’ve paused is their realization that the viewer is present. Though this piece remains a remarkable example of a natural and realistic group portrait, its execution was no easy feat. X-ray examinations reveal that the artist moved his figures around numerous times before settling on the final composition that we see today.

Though the portraits discussed here portray sitters from a range of backgrounds including public officials, private citizens, and the family of Rembrandt as well as himself, they are unified by their momentary quality. Through the artist’s ability to accurately portray his sitters by employing natural-appearing facial expressions and poses, he was able to render the illusion of a singular moment and heighten the realism of these portraits. Four portraits by Rembrandt and his workshop can now be seen at The Art Institute of Chicago through June 9, 2019.


Seymour Slive, Dutch Painting 1600-1800 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995).

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