REMBRANDT’S LAST LAUGH
During his lifetime Rembrandt painted about 90 self-portraits. Psychoanalytically challenged art historians claim he did so as psychological research into his ‘self’. Self-reflection cannot be totally excluded, but reality is more down-to-earth. The art market especially required historical pieces and ‘tronies’ – heads expressing a particular emotion. By not using a model but himself, posing as a biblical or mythological person, Rembrandt saved time, money and addressed different art-buyers simultaneously. Moreover, famous masters painted themselves for collectors of celebrities’ heads, and most also kept self-portraits in their studio to show their skill to potential customers.
The ‘self-portrait as Zeuxis laughing’ is Rembrandt’s second last one, painted 6 years before his death. He does not hide his old age; thick layers of paint make the furrows on his brow and the heavy bags under his eyes literally touchable. But in spite of this rough and realistic style (a contemporary critic wrote ‘you can pick up a portrait by Rembrandt from the floor by its nose’), it differs from his other self-portraits. For once, the brush and maulstick in Rembrandt’s hands identify his profession. But why is he laughing, looking directly at the viewer? The image of the old woman in the shadows on the left gives the answer. It refers to a legend about the antique painter Zeuxis, who laughed himself to death after painting an old hag who ordered a portrait of herself as Aphrodite, goddess of love. No doubt this story appealed to the painter of real life, at a time in his career when buyers abandoned him in favour of a new, idealizing classicist style. By portraying himself as Zeuxis, who also often felt misunderstood by the public, Rembrandt ridicules a world that pretends to be better than it is. Rembrandt’s last laugh in this provocative painting is on the beholder: his ironic gaze challenges the old woman in all of us (but not you, of course).
(text: Jos Hanou)