Rembrandt would be remembered as an extraordinary self-portraitist if he had died young at, say, 45. But he lived much longer and it is the work of his old age that one most admires: that intimate, unflinching scrutiny of his own sagging, lined and bloated features, with the light shining from the potato nose and the thick paint: the face of a master, the face of a failure and a bankrupt. Life, and his own mismanagement of life, has bashed him but no one could say it has beaten him.
Such is the message of a work like the late Kenwood House self-portrait, 1661-62. By now Rembrandt was the supreme depictor of inwardness, of human thought, whether it is the self-reflection of Bathsheba or the meditation of Aristotle. He had done pictures of himself that fairly radiate a gloating success, but the deepest was saved for the last decade of his life, when he painted himself as a painter at work, holding brushes, palette and maul-stick. He has his back to a wall, or perhaps a large canvas. On the canvas are two large arcs, incomplete circles. What are these abstract forms doing there? They come from Rembrandt’s reading of a well-known and indeed exemplary story in Pliny. The great Greek painter Apelles, so Pliny’s story goes, went to visit an equally famous ancient master, Protogenes, on the island of Rhodes. But Protogenes was out, and so Apelles, rather than leave him a note, drew on his studio wall a perfect circle, freehand. Protogenes would realise that only an artist of Apelles’ skills could possibly have done this. So Rembrandt places himself before the message that compares him to Apelles, king and ancestor of his art. Old age has at last freed him to make an incontrovertible, utterly simple proof of mastery. The circle has closed.
more from Robert Hughes at the Guardian here.