Als Ich Can (How can I): these are the words engraved on the frame of the first self-portrait in history, a work by Jan van Eyck. Three words and a challenge to generations of artists to measure themselves against this challenging artistic claim. In the case of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), his success was exceptional; the painter brought this painting genre to a level of perfection that had never been reached before in the art of self-portraiture.
As a beggar, or as the Prodigal Son, a monarch with a scepter in his hand or in military dress, next to his beloved bride Saskia, or in the guise of the famous Greek painter Zeuxis, in total there are more than 70 faces of the same individual that mark, for more than 40 years, moments of intense activity, moments of human and spiritual fervor. He who was considered the “miracle” of his generation (G. Bucelinus, 1664), “a humorist of the first category that everyone despised” (F. Baldinucci, 1686), has remained in the eyes of posterity as an artist whose cup overflowed with the wine of celebrity and, at the same time, disappointments.
Rembrandt in the guise of Saint Paul
In one of his last self-portraits, from the year 1661, the artist presents himself as imprisoned in Rome, as the Apostle Paul. The painting is exhibited from June 11 until September 30, 2020, in Rome at the Corsini Gallery, near the Vatican, from where it was hastily removed in 1799, after being sold at the time of the French occupation. At the end of the exhibition, the canvas will return to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The Roman initiative to bring it back is praiseworthy, not only because it draws attention to the collection of Cardinal Neri Corsini (1685-1770), but also because it allows a re-evaluation of the Roman artistic climate in the mid-eighteenth century.
In the context of what Giulio Carlo Argan called “the depressing Roman environment,” aimed only at “moderating the excesses of the Baroque,” the presence of a new generation of artists to work (Anton Raphael Mengs) or to learn (Jacques-Louis David) cannot be understood without referring to the role played by collectors, who made Rome a multi-purpose artistic home, oriented not only to antiquity, but also to the recent past.
Rembrandt’s self-portrait as St. Paul could be quickly dismissed as a new extravagance of the master and soon forgotten. However, the question of the artist’s identification with the “Apostle of Nations” is intriguing. Let us first observe that Rembrandt was a man of the Reformation, who, as we know, took on the task of educating people through Holy Scripture. At that moment in history, with the spread of the printing press, the Bible also became the reference book for the less educated, and from a treasure within the reach of a few it became a mirror of the lives of many people. The artist’s mother herself profited from it. When Rembrandt decided to paint a portrait of her, he presented her engaged in reading Scripture. Her hands, aged by time, touch the sacred text, perceiving not only the roughness of the material, but also the power of the Word radiating to the innermost recesses of the heart. When he painted that portrait, Rembrandt was 25 years old.