The self-portrait is a well-established tradition in Western art. Though it flourished in the Renaissance an age when the individual was a focus of attention it didn’t begin there. The self-portrait has shown up in all periods of history of art, as argued by James Hall in The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History. I take up this subject because I want to give brief attention to a work that has graced my work environment for several decades. It is visual art I refer to not the self-portrait found in a poem, a biography or a memoir.
There are many reasons why an artist would paint or sculpt themselves. I want only to note that it need not always be a matter of ego, pride or self-promotion. Though some believe that such motives may be present not only in art history but also in contemporary digital versions of the self portrait.
In a recent book on this theme, Self, Self, Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age, author Craig Detweiler explores our obsession with images of ourselves. He writes: Our smartphones serve as our paintbrush…Selfies are a more democratic form of that enduring artistic tradition, the self-portrait. They communicate “I was here” and “My life mattered”. The
contemporary selfie seems more about making a simple declaration than
an effort to discern who we are as humans. The selfie may be an effort to generate memories in a culture where memory has faded and we are enmeshed only in the present. They may give us location at a time when we feel adrift and placeless. And they may provide us with a needed sense of significance letting others know where we are or who we are with. Do selfies reveal a narcissistic culture where we succumb to the constant call to self-interest? Or are they a means to provide us with an identity – in a world where we are no longer sure of who we are? In this way at least the selfie may be a useful step on the path toward shaping an identity – but then we must ask what identity we are shaping. The question “Who am I?” is a constant refrain in a culture that has lost its central narrative. There is no agreed upon account of what it means to be human.
Seventeenth century Holland was a quite different world. It was the Golden Age of Dutch art and the world of the great painter Rembrandt. About one fifth of his artistic output was self-portraits. At a time when I had just begun to explore art history and had recenly discovered Rembrandt while on a trip to Holland, I stumbled on a reproduction of his 1659 self-portrait. I don’t know what moved me to make the impulsive purchase. What I do know is that this image has provided an “icon” of humanity that has spoken to me through its silence over many decades. This year is the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death – his work continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of art connoisseurs and a wide public of art appreciators.
Rembrandt’s religious beliefs are difficult to ascertain but his work is expressive of themes in Calvinist theology. For example through paintings, prints and drawings he explored the biblical story of Abraham and the covenant and was seemingly fascinated by the subject of divine encounter. He also did a self-portrait as the Apostle Paul suggesting his admiration for the Apostle and his important role in the shaping of Christian theology not least its Protestant expression.
In his paintings Rembrandt captures our humanity in all its ordinariness. He resists idealization of both the human and our environment. I am particularly taken by the artist’s ability to depict the human face. And for Rembrandt the face was of great importance.
In the self-portrait of 1659 the background has little detail while the face is the subject of extraordinary attention and profound artistic skill. It is primarily in the face that we discover the other. The face is a call to relationship, it’s the visual locus of our humanity, a window into the spirit and soul of the person. It is interesting to note that twentieth century self-portraits have to “conceal or suppress the face” and as James Hall observes there has been “a shift in focus away from the face to the body which is harder to individualize and memorize…”.
This shift suggests our culture may be entertaining a diminished sense of what it is to be human. I find Rembrandt’s self-portraits deeply humanizing capturing character and emotion and hints of moral sensibility all found in the face. I expect that the biblical theme of the “image of God” is at the heart of these deeply personal images found in the work of Rembrandt. His attention to the face affirms the person as subject not mere object and the painting is an invitation to discover through what we see a bit more about who we are.