Rembrandt's Self Portrait

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Leiden 1606 - Amsterdam 1669)
Self-portrait, half-length, wearing a ruff and a black hat
£12,000,000 - £16,000,000
Courtesy of Sotheby's

Although London Art Week was officially running from the 3rd to 10th July, the participating auction houses - Bonhams, Christie's and Sotheby's - are holding more sales later this summer, so LAW Digital remains very much open for business.

The Exhibitor pages continue to show this summer's exhibitions. Bonhams has its antiquities auction on the 23rd July. Sotheby's 'Rembrandt to Richter' evening sale takes place on the 28th followed by Christie's Classic Week evening auction on the 29th of July.

Viewing is now open and Sotheby's star lot has just arrived in London - one of the last self-portraits by Rembrandt left in private hands. It is offered as part of Sotheby's cross-category evening sale and carries an estimate of £12-16m.

London Art Week held a talk about portraits with An Van Camp, curator of 'Young Rembrandt', the ground-breaking exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in the run up to LAW Digital (if you missed it, you can watch it online from next week).

This self-portrait is a fine example of Rembrandt's early portraits. The artist recorded his own physiognomy in some 80 paintings, etchings and drawings. These works document Rembrandt's enduring captivation with his own image throughout his career, from sketches of an ambitious and self-confident youth of 22, to detailed and sobering self-depictions of a careworn and prematurely aged old man of 63.

Almost all of Rembrandt's painted self-portraits are by now in major museum collections, and only three are known to remain in private hands. One of these, discovered and sold at Sotheby's in London in 2003, is in the Leiden collection in New York, while another is on long-term loan to the National Gallery of Scotland. The one included in this sale is the third - the earliest in date of the three, and in some ways the most revealing. Of intimate proportions, it embodies his unique mastery of self-examination.

Painted just after the 26-year-old Rembrandt set himself up in Amsterdam, the artist shows himself clad in black, with a white ruff and a felt hat, the crown encircled by a hatband decorated with gold - a rather formal type of outfit that would typically have been worn by the sitters he depicted, not by Rembrandt himself. This is one of only two self-portraits by Rembrandt in which he shows himself dressed formally in this way. Perhaps he chose this outfit as a sort of business card, to suggest that he was the social equal of the clientele he was busily building for his portraits.  But the precise dating of the painting, and the fact that it is relatively small in scale, raises another possibility: this was the exact time when the artist was courting his future wife and greatest muse, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and it is very possible that he painted this sensitive, portable self-portrait to send to her in far off Leeuwaerden, to prove to her suspicious relatives that her smartly-dressed new suitor was a prosperous and suitable husband.

This was a pivotal moment in the young artist's career, as he was just establishing himself in Amsterdam and enjoying new-found commercial success. The painting can be dated to a narrow window towards the end of 1632, thanks to the fact that it is signed with a form of the artist's signature that he only very briefly employed, and also because dendrochronological analysis shows that it is painted on a panel cut from the same Baltic oak tree as another picture of that period. One of Rembrandt's greatest masterpieces, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, now in the Mauritshuis, The Hague, was painted at exactly this time and is signed in the same way.

George Gordon, Sotheby's Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide commented: "Rembrandt's face is instantly recognizable to us at every stage of his adulthood - far more so than any other painter. In each self-portrait he reveals as much of himself as he chooses to, but always in his unique fluency in the handling of paint. We know that this painting was created in a remarkably short period of time, because he laid in the background first, but when he signed it upon completion, the background was still wet, so the signature is impressed into it by his brush."

Rembrandt's unceasing journey of self-depiction forms a central part of his artistic output, but seems to have served a variety of different purposes, at different stages in his career. Starting out as a young artist in Leiden, Rembrandt tended to use his own face when exploring depictions of moods and facial expressions, whereas in the later 1630s he typically showed himself in elaborate fancy dress.  In subsequent decades he concentrated increasingly on restrained and psychologically penetrating images.

'Young Rembrandt' will open again at London Art Week's museum partner, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on the 10th of August. Tickets need to be pre-booked and you can visit the online exhibition: ashmolean.org/youngrembrandt.