This Early Rembrandt Perfectly Captures the Anxiety of Facing the Blank Canvas

Julia Fiore
Nov 22, 2018 3:00PM

Rembrandt van Rijn, Artist in his Studio, ca. 1628. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The 17th-century painter Rembrandt van Rijn is a giant in the history of art, and for good reason: His textural, atmospheric paintings deftly probe the inner lives of their subjects. But his favorite—and most frequent—model was himself. Over the course of a career marked by extreme highs (early success, acclaim, fortune) and devastating lows (the deaths of his wife and son, financial ruin, obscurity), the Dutch Golden Age artist composed nearly 100 self-portraits. Through these works, one witnesses Rembrandt, in the artist’s own hand, progress from a haughty, bright, young talent to a masterful elder wizened by personal tragedy and suffering.

Rembrandt’s great legacy was cemented by his intense fixation on direct observation; he insisted on studying the people, objects, and places he depicted in his paintings from life. This obsession certainly explains his ability to create psychologically complex narratives in paintings where, more often than not, nothing really happens. But the artist seems to reveal all—about himself, the nature of creativity, the fear of failure—in one small, humble, early painting that hangs, without much fanfare, on permanent display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Artist in his Studio, an oil-on-panel work dating to about 1628, measures at only 9.75 by 12.5 inches. It’s tiny, decidedly so, especially for an artist who later loved to stretch out in his work, giving his sitters ample space in large canvases that bring to the fore smudged, moody worlds brimming with feeling and intention.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self Portrait at the Age of 34, c. 1640. Courtesy of The National Gallery, London.


The setting of this painting is familiar to many artists working today: A modest one-room studio, complete with crumbling plaster walls, is outfitted only with a wooden easel and other essential tools. A painter has stepped back to confront his seemingly gigantic canvas, which looms over him in the foreground, its surface invisible to the viewer. Thanks to a daring use of linear perspective, it’s impossible to gauge the actual scale of the painting he is working on—is it imposingly large, or is that just a visual trick? This ambiguous sense of scale underlines just how daunting making a painting can be, and how an artist can feel so small before his artwork. Still, it’s also unclear whether the hero of Artist in his Studio is confronting a blank canvas, or—paintbrush in hand—is in the midst of a work-in-progress. Perhaps most mysterious is the artist’s face, which, half in shadow beneath the brim of his hat, is composed of two black dots for eyes and a barely-rendered mouth.

It’s also important to note that it has been hotly debated whether the figure shown here is, in fact, Rembrandt or a fictive archetype. The face of the figure in Artist in his Studio is vague and doesn’t seem to possess Rembrandt’s specific features that are so clearly elucidated in his many self-portraits. It’s possible that this ambiguity is due simply to the pictured artist’s relative distance from the viewer. Yet his clothing is also atypical of the time period, and difficult to date in relation to historical fashion trends.

Regardless, it wouldn’t have been the first time Rembrandt obscured his own identity in a work. Consider the remarkably modern-looking and enigmatic Self-portrait from around the same time (ca. 1628). The baby-faced artist chose to depict himself in three-quarter profile in an intimately cropped composition. Although his own visage is the specific subject of the work—and there are no other decorative or symbolic elements to distract from it—the light source is at his back, and most of his body is shrouded in shadow. Like many of Rembrandt’s works, the employment of chiaroscuro—an expressive use of light and shadow—intensifies the subject’s ruminative air. Instead of a clear look at the young maestro, the viewer is offered a wonderfully tactile examination of Rembrandt’s billowing head of curls; soft, delicate features; and furtive personality.

Why hide in this way? Perhaps the prodigiously talented painter, then unknown, didn’t feel he yet deserved a great portrait. Maybe young Rembrandt possessed humility when most brilliant young men would favor bravado. (That would change soon enough: A confident, urbane 1640 self-portrait at London’s National Gallery, for comparison, was consciously modeled on courtly self-portraits by Raphael and Titian.)

Whether the protagonist of Artist in his Studio is Rembrandt or not, he must have drawn from personal experience to so eloquently capture the torturous uncertainty that every artist faces anew with each project. More importantly, it shows that as a young man—even one so clearly at the cusp of greatness—the famous and powerful Rembrandt was still staring down his own self-doubts. Here, in an unmarked studio, wearing anachronistic clothing and a vague expression, is the archetypal artist facing a blank canvas. Rembrandt has underscored just how timeless and universal such self-doubts really are.

Over time, of course, Rembrandt would grow into his stature as an innovative and successful painter. Certainly, it’s a self-assured artist who features in two self-portraits from late in Rembrandt’s life. Self-Portrait with easel (1660) and Self Portrait with Two Circles (1665–69) both show Rembrandt as an older man, wrinkled and gray, standing by his easel. In both paintings, he is confident almost to the point of indifference: a professional of imposing stature who looks out at his audience confrontationally, head-on, without a trace of fear. In both paintings, he holds his brushes and palette close to his body, his hand poised before his canvas, which not only doesn’t come close to overwhelming him, but for the most part is cropped out of the picture. Rembrandt’s face is the central concern of these paintings, and he stands erect, with seeming ease and comfortability—a true master of his craft. The insecurity of Artist in his Studio is safely in the past.

In the end, whether Artist in his Studio depicts Rembrandt or a fictional painter doesn’t matter; it is Rembrandt, or at least a depiction of his experience as a painter who must look inward and repeatedly question every decision. This painting imparts a maddening gift by allowing the viewer to put herself in the artist’s shoes, to see what he sees, to experience the same frustrations and breakthroughs. Rembrandt also understood that the curiosity surrounding the mysterious nature of creativity—and what exactly goes on in an artist’s studio—will always persist.

Julia Fiore