If the aim of self-portraiture is defined as the production of a painting displaying perfect likeness to ones physical self, Rembrandt van Rijn was a master of this medium for much of his artistic life. However, when one defines the aim of a self-portrait more subtly, that of providing an honest window into the deep and personal character of an artist, Rembrandt only began to succeed towards the end of his life. This truth is exemplified in what many consider to be one of the artists greatest masterpieces, Self-Portrait with Two Circles.
In his earlier self-portraits, Rembrandt depicts himself as handsome, successful, and fashionable – indeed, far more like a gentleman than an artist. From his clothing to his posture, the artist reflected upon the glamorous fruits of his labour, rather than the labour itself. In doing so, Rembrandt neglected a fundamental part of himself in order, we can only imagine, to satisfy his own vanity. As a result, while these portraits provide an accurate impression of Rembrandt’s physical appearance, they are entirely superficial.
In this way, Self-Portrait with Two Circles marks not only the artistic but also the personal advancement of Rembrandt van Rijn. With the gradual loss of his wealth and the increment of his age, Rembrandt visibly changes in his self-portraiture. The man depicted in Self-Portrait with Two Circles has clearly shed the arrogance that comes with status. He appears more humble, modestly dressed in an artists cap and most notably, holding his paintbrushes and paint palette.
Indeed, in Self-Portrait with Two Circles, Rembrandt is determinedly asserting his identity as an intelligent artist. Not only does the inclusion of his tools emphasize this, but also the manner in which he has painted himself. While the body is painted to depart a great sense of monumentality and therefore lacks dynamism, the face reads to the contrary. With thick brush strokes and nuanced colours, Rembrandt gives life and realism to his face, and with it, his mind. The soft shadowed arch above his left eye and his frowning forehead both contribute to the impression of an intelligent mind, while also clearly displaying immense artistic skill.
It is therefore fitting to suggest that by including two perfectly drawn circles behind him, Rembrandt hoped to allude to an old Italian fable. It is said that when the artist Giotto was summoned by the Pope to prove his skill, he responded by drawing a perfect circle in a single motion. That Rembrandt meant for this allusion to be drawn inevitably cannot be proved, but the story undoubtedly reflects the artists desire that through his Self-Portrait with Two Circles, his audience would unquestionably know who Rembrandt van Rijn truly was; an artist.