Rembrandt van Rijn Self-Portrait 1659 National Gallery of Art, Washington
Last week, I saw the latest National Gallery ‘blockbuster’ exhibition, Rembrandt – the late works. There were many fine works on display, of course, from collections all over the world; and the exhibition presented another of those ‘unique opportunities’, especially for someone of my age, to experience them together in a way that will certainly not happen again in my lifetime. That ‘threat’ in the publicity for such events could sometimes prompt us to go to something we’re not actually that bothered about, but I was quite keen, in this case, for the chance to look first hand on some of his famous self-portraits. Actually, Simon Schama had done quite a persuasive job; and I had also seen Rankin ‘recreating’ some of the portraits on TV, too; so there were a few influences.
In fact, the Rankin programme had given me an idea as to how I might resolve one of my own planned ‘self-portraits’ – the left-wing politician. It had gone through various iterations in my mind – ex-Cabinet Minister photographed outside the London School of Economics; veteran back-bencher photographed in his study – but the programme prompted me towards a retiring local politician being photographed for a Town Hall portrait, in the style of a Rembrandt. I noted that Rankin didn’t go the whole hog and try to create something that looked just like the paintings; more a case of ‘in the spirit of’ Rembrandt. I researched some of the self-portraits online; and it soon becomes clear – not surprisingly – that viewing online, or even in print, only gives a clue as to what the painting might look like, in terms of tones and colours; and then there is the question of surface, of course. I had a go, anyway, with warm, subdued lighting, warm colours of clothing; a chair and pipe as props; a neutral but not plain background; dignified but human stance and gaze. When I shared the portrait on Flickr – here – the response was good, with many people suggesting it was the ‘best’ of the portraits so far. One comment, from Clive, suggested that it might look under-exposed, which it certainly does, out of context; but further clarification led to a feeling that it was its flatness that might be the issue. To be fair, I hadn’t paid too much attention to the detail at that stage – because I was going to the exhibition and wanted to get a feel for what the paintings themselves looked like. Recreating the exact feel of a painting is impossible, but I wanted to see the actual tones and colours and lighting.
The 1659 Self-portrait above – the very first painting in the exhibition – was the one that really attracted me and kept me looking. It normally hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and there are notes about it here. Rembrandt was 53 at the time and, seemingly, emerging from some tough times – financially, personally and professionally. It is a deeply engaging image and I spent some time in that first room (which it shared with a group of other self-portraits). This reproduction, from the NGA website, is a good one; and the portrait was nicely lit in the National Gallery, reproducing the quite warm front light from above, as in the painting itself. The notes tell us that it went through restoration in 1992, and the light really glinted off the surface on the forehead and nose – little highlights and brushstrokes on the surface that ‘brought it to life’. A photograph – whether presented on-screen or in the form of a high quality print – is never going to match that, as I have already said! However, informed by the painting and by Clive’s comment, here is Councillor Stan’s portrait, adjusted slightly from the original ‘out-of-camera’ shot, ready to hang in the Town Hall.
My colours area little warmer than the version of the Rembrandt at the top – but I recall it looking a bit warmer than that when I saw it. And I have the light at a slightly different angle – but it’s ‘in the style’’ of’, and it may get a bit more tinkering as time goes by. How, though, could I dream of getting even remotely close to anything like the real thing?