Rembrandt was an artist who revelled in the superabundance of earthly life. He found it everywhere he looked. “His sketchbooks reveal much of what inspired him,” says Rosalind Ormiston, author of Rembrandt: His Life & Works in 500 Images and the forthcoming Vermeer and the Dutch Masters. “His drawings feature passers-by that Rembrandt spotted in the street; scenes from the outskirts of Amsterdam; country lanes; trees; nearby cottages—everything about the Dutch world around him.” Rembrandt’s insatiable fascination was hardly limited to his sketches. When city officials arrived at his home in 1656 to conduct an inventory of his now-bankrupt estate, they stumbled upon a cornucopia of curiosities: four flayed arms and legs; a set of Javanese shadow puppets; 47 specimens of land and sea animals; “a quantity” of antlers; a box of minerals; a wooden trumpet. In the words of Schama, this eclectic compendium was not quite “an Olympus of junk,” but certainly “something more than a magpie’s nest.”
Yet there was also a side of Rembrandt that was decidedly more gritty; more visceral. “From the beginning he was profoundly drawn to ruin; the poetry of imperfection,” Schama elaborates. “He enjoyed tracing the marks left by the bite of worldly experience.” As an artist, Rembrandt gloried in illuminating the very real facets of human life often shielded from the public imagination. Perhaps most flagrantly, a number of his sketches feature an exactingly rendered scene of incontinence, whether by a man, woman, infant, or animal. His depiction of the homeless, too—at a time of great moral disdain for those living at the margins of society—is similarly unstinting; fueled, no doubt, by the same urge to render life in all its unmitigated vitality.
This defining approach and mentality is at the heart of all of Rembrandt’s most enduring work, though nowhere more so than in his self-portraits. Over the course of his artistic career Rembrandt would distinguish himself by painting his own likeness dozens of times
, bequeathing, through these works, far and away the most comprehensive surviving record of his life. Today, these pieces offer our clearest window into the painter’s soul. We see Rembrandt as a young and enterprising upstart; a surly would-be aristocrat; a pallid, weary elder crushed beneath the weight of his own hubris.
Like perhaps no one else, Rembrandt relished the brutal honesty of the mirror, captivated, always, by his own capricious nature. It would prove to be his most enduring muse. “He introduces himself to us in every stage of his life,” Ormiston tells Artsy. “To view these portraits now is a unique experience—one that brings us closer to him, to his family, to his patrons, and ultimately to ourselves.”