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Rembrandt produced around 80 self-portraits during his 40-year career. This is one of his last, painted in c.1665, four years before his death. He presents himself as an artist confident in the legacy of his work, with the tools of his trade – brushes, palette and mahlstick (used to steady his hand whilst painting). The expressive diversity of his brushwork is masterful and creates a richly textured surface. Rembrandt was well known for using elaborate costumes in his portraiture. Here he wears simple studio attire: a fur-lined ‘tabard’, popular with artists since the Renaissance, a crimson doublet with a linen undershirt and a plain linen cap. Rembrandt’s latter years were marred by devastating losses and financial struggle. By the time this portrait was painted, he was bankrupt, had been forced to sell his home and art collection, and to avoid creditors, was working under his son’s name.
The eponymous circles in the background have continually puzzled scholars. The most literal theory suggests they are there to balance the painting’s off-centre composition. Others suggest they are unfinished hemispheres of a world map. One of the more popular theories argues that Rembrandt was alluding to a story involving the Italian artist Giotto, who allegedly proved his artistic brilliance by drawing a perfect circle freehand.
Self Portrait with Two Circles
oil on canvas
H 143.5 x W 125.2 cm
Iveagh Bequest, 1929