Self-Inspection or Self-Promotion?: Two Self-Portraits

Diego Velázquez used a self-portrait to ennoble art itself as a profession in Las Meninas. Peter Paul Rubens used one to portray his heightened social status upon his marriage to his new wife in Self-Portrait with Isabella Brandt. Caravaggio dramatically inserted himself as the gory head of Goliath in David with the Head of Goliath. By the mid 1600s, the artist’s self-portrait had the substantial precedent of a long line of artists across Europe who took brush in hand to paint themselves, often with some ulterior motive beyond the mere portrayal of self.

In 1630 and 1659, respectively, Judith Leyster and Rembrandt van Rijn painted what would become two of the most recognizable self-portraits of all time, Leyster for the first and last time and Rembrandt for approximately the hundredth time. At first glance, the two portraits appear quite similar. Both paintings portray the artist looking directly at the viewer, and each artist’s body, painted in half length, is turned away from the picture plane. However, a closer look at each self-portrait reveals crucial discrepancies that point to two dramatically different motivations: While it is clear that Leyster’s work falls into the self-promotion category, Rembrandt seems to be moved by a desire to understand himself both as a man and as a subject.

First of all, Rembrandt and Leyster have chosen to portray themselves as subjects in entirely different ways. Take a look at Rembrandt’s dark, unadorned clothing and simply folded hands: He has painted himself almost like any other patron, without the regular trappings of an artist or even one of the costumes his patrons so often don.  

Compare this to the way Leyster has left no doubt as to her profession. She depicts herself at work, her left hand dexterously balancing a palette and more than a dozen brushes and her right hand poised to paint a stroke on the canvas or dab at the various colors on her palette. Furthermore, Leyster’s clothing—her stylish pink dress and delicate lace cuffs and collar—projects a definite sense of prosperity. Already, this suggests that Leyster wants her professional success to have prominence in this work. Rembrandt, on the other hand, has disregarded these props in favor of an undistracted look at himself as a person.

Then there are the artists’ contrasting uses of color and light. Notice how Rembrandt’s self-portrait is almost monochromatic; the predominant colors are varying shades of deep brown. The brown is relieved here and there by subtle hints of gold: A bit of his hat’s gold band sparkles from between the folds of his cap, and there are golden flecks in his gray hair and pale gold tones in the skin on his face. As a consequence, the figure of Rembrandt has a hazy, almost glowing quality. The lower section of his body, including his hands, falls into Caravaggio-like shadow. This draws the viewer’s focus to his face, the lightest, and thus most important, section of the painting. The emphasis on his face is symbolic of character rather than profession (an emphasis on profession would have focused on the hands), and it further demonstrates Rembrandt’s desire to depict himself as merely a man, rather than a painter.

The coloring and shadows also lend the work a sense of depth and dimension. Rembrandt is clearly exploring how to create a realistic depiction of his figure in three-dimensional space. This is an illusion he strove to achieve in most of his paintings, and it adds credence to the idea that, for this self-portrait at least, his focus is on himself as a subject and not on promotion of himself as an artist.

By contrast, there is a wide spectrum of color in Leyster’s portrait: from her pink dress, which stands out beneath her black bodice and overskirt and contrasts with her white cuffs, hat, and collar; to the golden-green paint of the chair upon which she sits; to the pale blue of the fiddler’s costume. The fairly uniform lighting of Leyster’s painting contributes an overall flatness to the work. Here and there, such as on Leyster’s wide collar, one sees a hint at a shadow; and the chair, which protrudes backwards into the space of the painting, suggests some depth. However, the painting lacks an overall sense of three-dimensionality. Large sections of the space appear flat, including Leyster’s smooth, black bodice. This lack of dimensionality suggests that Leyster has paid more attention to the depiction of self-promotional details, such as her tools and her pose, than to the illusion of real human space.

The colors in Leyster’s painting also contribute to its lively spirit, imbuing the self-portrait with joy and confidence. Leaning over the back of her chair and smiling, Leyster looks at ease. Her mouth is open; even her teeth are visible as if she is speaking or laughing, which is unusual in formal portraiture. The fiddler she has been painting seems to join in Leyster’s merriment, also facing out of his picture plane and grinning. While these details may indeed offer a glimpse into Leyster’s character, they also indicate her desire to use this portrait as advertisement: The casual pose, the laughter, and her depiction of a musician are all excellent examples of her other works.

In comparison, Rembrandt’s mood seems decidedly somber. His gaze is grave and concerned, with a prominent crease between his brows. The overall emotion in his portrait is anxiety. In stark contrast to Leyster’s self-confidence, Rembrandt depicts himself as vulnerable and sad, his interest apparently more invested in portraying a true emotion than in projecting a self-aggrandizing image.  

On that same note, it is also important to note that Leyster has painted herself on the “heraldic right,” or viewer’s left, a position usually reserved for men in seventeenth-century paintings as a sign of importance and dominance. Rembrandt, on the other hand, has painted himself on the heraldic left, in keeping with this self-portrait’s sense of vulnerability. This pose  serves to draw the viewer’s eye once again to the most crucial element of his painting: The wide triangle formed by his torso and folded arms come to its point, so to speak, at Rembrandt’s intently gazing face.

Finally, the detail work in each painting suggests a difference in motivation. The brushstrokes on Rembrandt’s hands are rough and sketchy, as are those in the background and on the fabric of his cuffs and the cloak over his right shoulder. However, the brushstrokes on his hat and collar are much more blended, once again drawing attention to the face, the true centerpiece of the painting. No detail, however unflattering, is lost in his face or his hair. He  has convincingly portrayed the wrinkles of his forehead, the wispiness of his fuzzy, gray curls, and the tiny beard below his bottom lip. His left eye (on the viewer’s right) is slightly hooded, and he has a deep crease between his eyebrows—both details that are distinctive of Rembrandt’s face throughout his many self-portraits. This is a wholly honest portrayal of his physical self.  

What about Leyster? Her hands and face are almost too smoothly blended as her flawless complexion exhibits few of the creases that would accompany a smile. The same smooth blending is visible in her hair, cap, and collar. She does use rough brushstrokes elsewhere, most noticeably in her pink skirt—every crease of her skirt seems to be painted with a different, wide stroke. This brushwork is clearly inspired by the work of Frans Hals, a contemporary of Leyster’s who became famous for his brushwork. Leyster, then, is not only creating a more flattering image of herself, she is also demonstrating that she has mastered the techniques of a master of Dutch portraiture and genre scenes, thus placing herself on her competitors’ level.

In the end, both artists seem to have achieved their goals: With her smiling and colorful portrayal of herself at work, Leyster places herself on the same artistic plane as Dutch masters, such as Frans Hals, and promises the viewer that she can hold her own in a male-dominated art market, while Rembrandt’s rich and mysterious shadows allow the exquisitely executed details of his face to reveal the emotional and spiritual nature of the man himself.


Helen DeCelles-Zwerneman is Operations Manager, Web Master, and Artistic Director for Cana Academy.  

Images cropped and combined from images courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Research for this post based on the following sources:

Debra Bricker Balken, “Dutch Master Recovered,” Art in America (1 May 1994), Vol. 82, 96-98. 

Terry Sullivan, “Multiple Personalities: Self-Portraits in Series by Four Masters,” American Artist (1 September 1997), 80.

Catherine B. Scallen, “Book Review: Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project’s A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings IV. The Self-Portraits,” Oud Holland Jaargang, Vol. 123, No. 2 (2010), 172-5.

Yael Even, “Judith Leyster: An Unsuitable Place for a Woman,” Konsthistorik Tidskrift, Vol. 71, No. 3 (2002), 115-123.