Rembrandt may have traced his celebrated self-portraits from optical projections created by assemblies of mirrors or lenses, a new analysis suggests.
Two U.K.-based researchers — Francis O'Neill, an artist and art teacher; and Sofia Palazzo Corner, an independent physicist — have identified several arrangements of a flat and curved mirror, or a flat mirror and a lens, which they say can recreate the perspectives, proportions and lighting seen in the self-portraits of the famed 17th-century Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.
"The evidence suggests he used lenses and projections," O'Neill and Palazzo Corner wrote in a paper published online July 13 in the Journal of Optics. "The similarity of his images to projections, in their lighting and soft focus, along with the use of lens technology by his peers and fellow artists, and the contemporary literature on the subject, all support this." [See Photos of How Rembrandt May Have Created His Self-Portraits]
O'Neill told Live Science that the new findings follow the work of British artist David Hockney and American physicist Charles Falco, who proposed in 2001 that Rembrandt and other artists had used optical instruments to capture details and proportions with almost photographic accuracy — such as the camera obscura, which projects an upside-down image into a darkened room.
"But I knew there was this hole in the theory, about self-portraits," O'Neill said, "because if they're using a camera obscura, where the subject is in the light and the artist is in the dark, how would they do self-portraits?"
In 2012, when O'Neill began painting his own self-portraits from his reflection in a flat mirror, he discovered how difficult it was to accurately paint his face while giving attention to both his reflection and his work on the canvas.
"By this stage, I'd been drawing for 20 years, and I'm teaching drawing ... but my skills did not transfer as well to the self-portrait as they did if I was drawing someone else," he said. "And I was thinking, 'How has Rembrandt done his best work in his self-portraits, if it is such a demanding physical discipline?' And so I thought, 'It has to be done this way [with optics].'"
Through the looking glass
After discussing his ideas with other artists, O'Neill began experimenting with a pair of cosmetic mirrors bought at a pharmacy — one flat and one concave. He arranged them to project his reflection onto a metal surface so that the projected image would be as bright as possible.
At first, O'Neill used aluminum foil as the projection surface. "It wasn't the best surface, but you could achieve projections," he said. "And then I got myself some copper etching plate, and from there, I was able to make bigger and better projections — and that convinced me that this was how it was done."
The research paper by O'Neill and Palazzo Corner details several combinations of subjects, mirrors and a projection surface that result in projected images that almost exactly match the physical measurements taken from a sample of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
The researchers also analyzed other features of Rembrandt's self-portraits that they think indicate he was using projections to guide his initial drawings and final paintings, including the off-center eye line — an effect that O'Neill said was impossible to achieve accurately without using a flat mirror with a concave mirror or a refracting lens. [Gallery: Hidden Gems in Renaissance Art]
Even Rembrandt's famed use of contrasting light and dark regions, which art historians call "chiaroscuro," appears to be an artifact of the "soft focus" at the edges of a projected image. This results in very little detail where there is very little light, and a lot of detail in areas that are strongly lit, O'Neill said.
Secrets of the Old Masters
O'Neill said some art historians criticized his research; no historical record exists of Rembrandt ever using mirrors or other types of optics to help him create his paintings, they argued. But O'Neill pointed out that leading artists of the time were often secretive about their techniques, and said the historical evidence for his theory can be found by examining the paintings.
Meanwhile, work by Hockney, Falco and other researchers has demonstrated that knowledge of optical techniques, such as the use of curved mirrors and camera obscuras, was known to artists in Europe from as early as the 1350s, O'Neill said.
The new research supports the ideas proposed by Hockney and Falco that the development of optical instruments and techniques in Europe after the 14th century had a profound impact on Western art, as they did on scientific thought, O'Neill said.
"This becomes really obvious having studied it, that the invention of the lens gives mankind the possibility of seeing their position in the world," he said. "So they see the stars, and astronomy begins in earnest; they start to look through microscopes, so they're seeing the minutiae of the world. They're seeing the enormity of space, and they're seeing their own position in the world, because they are using lenses to look at themselves."
Original article on Live Science.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is a 1659 oil on canvas painting by the Dutch artist Rembrandt, one of over 40 self-portraits by Rembrandt. It has been noted as a self-portrayal of subtle and somber qualities, a work in which may be seen "the stresses and strains of a life compounded of creative triumphs and personal and financial reverses". Once owned by Andrew W. Mellon, it has been in the National Gallery of Art since 1937.
In Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar Rembrandt is seated in a broadly painted fur cloak, his hands clasped in his lap. Light from the upper right fully illuminates the face, hollowing the form of the cheek, and allowing for the representation of blemishes on the right cheek and ear lobe. The picture is painted in a restrained range of browns and grays, enriched by a red shape that probably indicates the back of his chair, while another red area at the lower left corner of the canvas may be a tablecloth. The most luminous area, the artist's face, is framed by a large beret and the high collar that flatteringly hides his jowls. The skin of the face is modeled with thick, tactile pigment, painted with rich and varied colors suggesting both the artist's physical aging and the emotional effects of life experience.
At first Rembrandt painted himself wearing a light colored cap before opting for the black beret; since the original headdress was of a type that the artist included only in self-portraits where he is seen at the easel, it is possible that he initially intended for this painting to refer directly to his trade.
The pose is reminiscent of several earlier works by Rembrandt, including an etching from 1639, Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, and a painted self-portrait of 1640, now in the National Gallery in London. Both earlier pieces have been viewed as referential to the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Louvre) by Raphael, as well as A Man with a Quilted Sleeve by Titian (NG, London), then wrongly thought to be a portrait of Ludovico Ariosto, which Rembrandt had seen in Amsterdam. The folded hands and the left arm covered in dark fabric are similar to the Raphael portrait.
Also reminiscent of the Raphael painting are the positioning of the head and torso, unusual among Rembrandt's painted self-portraits. When painting himself, Rembrandt generally used the more convenient arrangement for a right-handed artist, placing the mirror to the left of the easel, so as not to have his view impeded by his working arm and hand, with the left side of the face most prominently featured. There are several frontal self-portraits, but Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is one of only two, along with Self-Portrait as Zeuxis, that Rembrandt painted in which he is turned to the left, thus revealing more of the right side of his face. It has been suggested that this difference in angle was an intentional variation from the series of self-portraits he was painting at the time.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar derives from the same period as the more finished and identically titled canvas in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. Both the clothing and physical condition of the face suggest a date close to 1659. The same clothing appears in a small, unfinished Self-Portrait with Beret in the Musée Granet.
Less finished than many other self-portraits by Rembrandt, the rich expressiveness of brushwork, especially in the face, has merited attention. In some passages the manipulation of pigment appears independent of the forms being described. For Rembrandt researcher Ernst van de Wetering "The paint seems to have been applied, as it were, with a shaving brush". Although the painting's attribution has been questioned due to its freedom of execution, it is likely that Rembrandt chose to leave the canvas at an intermediate stage of development, for x-radiographs have revealed that other portraits by his hand have thickly applied passages that were subsequently worked over with thinner, more refined touches of paint. The palpable sense of plastic form in the face of Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar is the result not of careful transitions of value and color, but rather, of the textural vibrancy of the brushwork.
For all the rough dynamism of the painting's surface, there is no compromise in the illusion of atmospheric quality, as some passages are painted to appear in sharper focus, while others are less so; often this is the result of the variation between areas of densely impasted paint and those composed of blurred brushstrokes The relief of the paint creates reflections of light that simulate the tactile nature of flesh. Strokes of thick paint, warm in tone, pool up to represent areas of reflected light on the forehead, nose, and cheek. Adjacent to these passages, at the temple, around the furrows of the right eye and the wing of the nostril, are interstices of green-gray underpainting. The right eyeball is painted with a series of transparent glazes, atop which is placed a drop of white lead pigment for the highlight. This eye is surrounded by a complex variety of brushwork: the brow is formed by an uneven series of strokes; a single stroke designates the fold above the upper lid; the skin above the cheek is molded with a rounded brush; the wrinkles at the corner of the eye are denoted by a stroke of wet paint dragged over a dry underpainting. A blunt object, likely a brush handle, was used to accent a wrinkle beneath the eye, and to score into the wet paint of the hair, creating sharp curls against which the broader passages of hair recede.
The practice of surface variation as a means of illusionism--"kenlijkheyt", or perceptibility--was understood by some of Rembrandt's contemporaries. Even so, the dramatic differences between the paint application in the face and passages of the drapery and background are unusual for a late self-portrait. The overall impression is that of a complete work, one that presents the subject as marked by experience yet ultimately resolute in dignity.
The original support is a canvas of fine thread, and has been lined, with white lead applied to the rear of the lining. The painting has two grounds, one a thick red-brown, the other a thin gray. The figure was initially drawn with brown underpaint left exposed in several places, now abraded. The face and hands are in good condition; extensively damaged areas in the figure and background have been covered with black overpainting, some of which was removed during a 1992 restoration.
The painting's whereabouts are known from 1767, when it was owned by George, 3rd Duke of Montagu and 4th Earl of Cardigan, and was then passed down to his daughter, Lady Elizabeth, wife of Henry, 3rd Duke of Buccleuch of Montagu House, London. It was then owned by John Charles, 7th Duke of Buccleuch, and was purchased in 1929 by Andrew W. Mellon, who left it to the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust in 1934. The painting was gifted to the National Gallery of Art in 1937.
Related self-portraits by Rembrandt
Self-Portrait, 1640. The pose of this and the previous etching preface that of Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar in Washington D.C.
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, c. 1659. Physical similarities suggest this dates from about the same time as the Washington portrait.
Self-Portrait as Zeuxis, c. 1662. The only other painted self-portrait in which Rembrandt is turned to the left.
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