Theatricality of Self-Identity

Rembrandt’s self-portraits capture the dualistic nature of theatricality and realism in Dutch painting. Rembrandt was known for his use of tenebrism, rough brushstrokes, and his keen attention to detail. Rembrandt’s self-portraits embody the dichotomy between reality and nature that creates an impactful painting. Rembrandt’s techniques when both sitter and painter encapsulate art as a means of introspection and evocation. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait in Painters Costume or Self-Portrait with Two Circles explores the duality of Dutch style and subject. This work was likely unfinished, allowing the viewer to intimately analyze the creation process for Rembrandt, revealing his techniques and intentions behind the painting. Rembrandt’s extensive collection self-portraits invite us into his process as an artist and as a sitter. Unlike Sweert’s Portrait of a Young Man that Grootenboer discusses, Rembrandt’s self-portraits have little to no objects around him to give the viewer any indication of his private or public identity. Rembrandt uses his costume and style to show the viewer his impressions of himself and his character.  When you look at the portrait in the context of theatricality, you can see the dichotomy of confrontation and introspection, roughness and delicacy, reality and fantasy, all creating a composite representation of Rembrandt. 

Michael Sweerts, Portrait of a Young Man , 1656. Oil on canvas, 114 × 92 cm. St Petersburg: The State Hermitage Museum. Photo: © The State Hermitage Museum.

Art historian Hanneke Grootenboer introduces the concept of theatricality in Dutch portraiture to examine the techniques and impacts of several portraits. To Grootenboer, the theatricality enables the painter and subject to convey a self through a posed and performance-like artificiality. Only through creating these theatrical falsehoods does the subject express their own identity to the viewer. The interactive nature of Sweert’s portrait breaks down the fourth wall of painting, creating a conversation between the artist, sitter, and viewer. Every “player” has a subjective view of the moment being portrayed. Grootenboer shows this concept through the Portrait of a Young Man’s facial expression and personal attributes on the desk. For Grootenboer, Sweert’s portrait shows that “theatricality brings out a profound dualism in the body by playing with inside and outside, presence and absence, interior and exterior, and position and exposition,” (Grootenboer, 332). However, Grootenboer’s portraits rely upon the dualism to be conveyed between subject, viewer, and painter.  

KENWOOD HOUSE, THE IVEAGH BEQUEST, London. ” Self-Portrait ” c1665 by REMBRANDT Van Rijn (1606-1669).

Rembrandt takes Grootenboer’s theatrical technical tools a step further by removing personal attributes and creating the same conversation seen in Sweert’s portrait with merely his costumes and face. Rembrandt explores the idea of the duality of art posed by Grootenboer in his earlier Self-portrait, 1658. His lavish golden dress almost and positioning look less authoritative and authentic, but still poised in its air of irony in the falseness of his garb. In Self Portrait, 1658, he is donned in elaborate and lavish 16th-century attire, reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance while in the other, he is in simple contemporary painters garb. These different costumes make us question the reality of who Rembrandt is, as he looks comfortable and self-assured in both. This truth evident even in fake attire for his time shows the truth of his nature and who he sees himself as, making this portrait just as realistic as his simpler one. In this, we see how his brush’s roughness creates a realism that isn’t possible without the meticulous decision of where he should be rough or smooth. The naturalness of his costume feels as though one could feel the fabric juxtaposes the fabricated means to create it. We see the plan in style to make it look as realistic as possible while giving more detail than the eye would ever see in a moment through the rough yet detailed brushwork. Rembrandt was known for rebelling against the hyper-realism of the other painters of his time but was through these portraits, I don’t think he was rejecting the goal, but the method. Other painters strove to create an all-encompassing natural scene through extreme detail, creating verisimilitude where there is a dichotomy between reality and nature. Rembrandt attempted to create a natural view through rough, yet meticulous strokes that create a feeling of a fleeting moment in time rather than a stagnant reality. 

KENWOOD HOUSE, THE IVEAGH BEQUEST, London. ” Self-Portrait ” c1665 by REMBRANDT Van Rijn (1606-1669).

The eyes, or window to the soul of a person, are essential in dissecting and interpreting a portrait. Rembrandt maintains direct eye contact with the viewer, yet there is a feeling of him looking beyond the viewer into himself, creating the relationship of awareness and introspection. While portraits like those of de Borch’s are technically more realistic to the reality of the boredom that comes with posing for a portrait, Rembrandt’s self-portraits are more realistic to his nature rather than the stark reality and boredom inspired by other paintings. His self-assured gaze invites the viewer into who he is but maintains an air of mystery essential to the role of a painter. The two circles are looming behind Rembrandt mirror the gaze, mysterious in their intention, yet direct with their impact. He dares the viewer with half-smirk to tell the viewer that through in this monumental size and expensive costume, he can create his reality, however fictitious it might be. The varying points of perspective create uncertainty about where our focus should be and where his attention is looking out. Is he looking down on the viewer, directly at us, or even past us? The fickle nature of the gaze forces introspection on the viewer and the role we play, engaging with this invisible wall that becomes a mirror exposing our attitudes. 

Grootenboer’s hypothesis relies on the interaction between painter, sitter, and viewer. Combining these interactions into one can change the impact and meaning of these self-portraits. There is an unspoken expectation that any painting means having a viewer engage with it, but what if a self-portrait solely intends for the painter to be subject and viewer as a self-analysis? Sweet’s portraits staging takes into consideration the painter, sitter, audience, but in Rembrandt’s works, the staging doesn’t exist, forcing us to reconsider the notion of a theatrical portrait. The awareness of the need to have a fake reality to create a natural moment resonates with Grootenboer’s idea of theatricality, creating the sitter’s nature and identity. In these portraits, however, Rembrandt’s recognition as the sitter and the painter has added complexity. Awareness in the artificial has a two-fold intention and success of the Dutch Style. For Grootenboer, self-awareness is the key to creating a compelling portrait by engaging the falseness of the moment to reveal the reality of the sitter’s nature. This awareness of both the painting and subjectivity enables this artificial moment to create a plausible reality. Both interpretations of the idea of consciousness in painting interplay within Rembrandt’s portraits. If Rembrandt’s self-portraits do not seek an audience, is there any act of theatricality, or is the dualism nullified? These portraits may not have the duality of a typical portrait that deals with the viewer trying to understand the subject. At the same time, the painter attempts to create a moment of identity. Still, they could be a personal duality of trying to understand oneself by creating the self in a theatrical nature. 

There is a duality of the portrait with introspection and confrontation, regardless of the audience, due to Rembrandt’s pose and costume. Grootenboer’s argument regarding the audience is essential to the nature of a portrait, but the audience’s identity as a third party no longer becomes necessary with these self-portraits. With no clues or distractions in the background, his face and attire reveal his character. While different, these two portraits share the duality of reality and realism, that was the question every Dutch artist wanted to answer. The open-ended and disorienting quality of Rembrandt’s portraits might be a challenge for us as viewers or an answer for themselves as the painter, subject, and audience. Whether intended to be seen or not, Rembrandt plays with the theatrical nature of the self through costume and self-expression, highlighting the dichotomy between reality and artificiality. The nature of painting as a conversation is not necessary to create these moments of truth and reality. Rembrandt’s self-portraits further Grootenboer’s hypothesis of theatricality as a critical aspect of portraiture and pose additional questions as to the nature of painting and its intentions. There is no disclosure of Rembrandt’s real purpose or nature in his self-portraits, leaving only speculation by the viewer and our judgments, creating another duality of Dutch painting.


Grootenboer, H. (2010), How to Become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth‐Century Dutch Portraits. Art History, 33: 320-333. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8365.2010.00746.x

Wikipedia contributors. “Rembrandt.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Aug. 2020. Web. 11 Aug. 2020.

Westermann, Mariët. A Worldly Art : the Dutch Republic, 1585-1718. New York :Harry Abrams, 1996.


One thought on “Theatricality of Self-Identity

  1. I’m especially intrigued by your questioning of the notion of theatricality if we imagine no audience outside Rembrandt himself! not only does the subject become the artist, but the audience also becomes the artist. I’d also like to know more about how his “unfinished” brushwork plays into or against the notion of theatricality and/or realism.


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