top of page

Rembrandt and the 17th century selfie

By Steph Garratt

Throughout the 17th century, European society experienced the revival of many ideas and philosophies established in classical literature. Where the ‘Renaissance', two centuries prior, saw the shift from a God-centric world view to one that placed mankind at its centre, the 1600’s took this a step further. Trying to understand the relationship between body and soul, and considering what this might say about our interiority, became an intellectual obsession for the scholars and artists of time; a period we now refer to as ‘The Baroque’. It is unsurprising that this is the point at which Self-Portraiture gained momentum as an artistic genre, especially In the Netherlands where Dutch painters were concerned with redefining their own identities. It has been argued that Rembrandt van Rijn (c.1606-1669) demonstrated the most concerted effort to explore self-representation in the history of art; creating at least 75 self-portraits, spanning a 40-year period. He strove to capture his inner essence rather than focusing solely on physical likeness, making visible the deepest recesses of the human psyche in painterly terms.




 Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1629, Indianapolis Museum of Art

He places himself at the centre of the image, so tentatively balanced at the edge of the frame that we imagine him falling out of it. Here, he is a lone figure in a dimly lit room, immediately establishing a sense of alienation, of self-inflicted separation from the world. The desire to show oneself as this lonesome, brooding genius, is a trait long associated with the artistic temperament.

Humoral theory, established in Ancient Greek philosophy, played a fundamental role in the understanding of different character traits in 17th century society and had major bearing over the way physical and emotional conditions were understood at the time. The theory suggested that a person’s character was defined by four bodily fluids; Blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. These were held responsible, by their balance or lack thereof, for the governance of the four personality types; sanguine (optimism/positivity), choleric (bad-tempered/irritable), phlegmatic (unemotional/calm disposition), melancholic (expressive, pensive sadness). It was believed that an artist was divinely inspired by melancholy, alienated from society and acutely vulnerable to passions. It is therefore unsurprising that the melancholic temperament,
was brought to attention in this period of heightened self-awareness. It was a ‘fashionable disease’ that artists of the 17th century wanted to be afflicted by, for it is where true creative genius was said to find its roots. It is, perhaps, for this reason that Rembrandt chose to paint himself partially obscured by shadow, a technique used in many of his other works, and in the works of his contemporaries. It is the shaded eyes especially, that help to construct this image of melancholy, as It was believed that only through concealment could a spirt oppressed by sadness be fully revealed.


Further focus on introspection is exhibited in his use of colour. We immediately we see the earthy tones; cold, stone greys and deeply rooted, muddy browns, but through closer inspection we begin to notice areas where these sombre colours have been removed to reveal an undercurrent of vivid orange. This technique reminds us of the multi-layered nature of the image, clarifying the reality of paint spread over paint. By paying attention to the materiality of his work, Rembrandt evokes the idea of skin stretched across flesh and shadow lying over skin, thus convincing us of the image’s, and therefore his own, interiority.


Through an exploration into his own remarkable individuality, Rembrandt discovers himself and with that, the value of self-portrayal and self-fashioning. He demonstrates better than any other artist of the period that self-portraiture is not only a reflective activity, but also an inventive one. With it, a person can formulate an image of themselves to fit any criteria, constructing a false version of reality that plays to the society that surround them; not unlike the images we choose to post of ourselves on social media today. In a virtual world we can be anyone that we decide to be, painting a picture of what it is we think others would like to see. ‘Self-portrayal is essentially self-creation, self-invention and fiction’, a fiction happily adopted by Rembrandt the melancholy genius.

My own work is self-labelled as documentary photography, out of a lack of a better title. By carrying a camera daily, I aim to embody the spirit of the Brownie in making the means to photography ready to me at every moment, without obstruction – by doing so, I can take a photograph of anything that captures my eye and interests me enough to preserve. Any of us can do this these days, with a camera readily available in our pockets around the clock – and many of us do so without even thinking about it. Next time you take your phone out to take a photograph, whether it is of your friends or of something that caught your eye, think about how you are participating in the act of documenting your life through photography. Make prints of your favourites, display them on your walls, share them with your friends and family. Follow the tradition of those who came before you and took their own snapshots documenting their lives. Everyone is a documentary photographer today, and this is a good thing.

bottom of page