The Thin End of the Wedge: Self, Body and Soul in Rembrandt’s Kenwood Self-Portrait

  • Richard ReadEmail author
Part of the Studies in the History of Philosophy of Mind book series (SHPM, volume 15)


The chapter explores a transformation in the viewer’s understanding of the subjectivity represented by the image of the artist in Rembrandt Van Rijn’s Self-portrait with Two Circles (c. 1663–1669) at Kenwood House, Hampstead. Through an innovative intertemporal comparison with Max Beckmann’s superficially similar Self Portrait on Yellow Ground with Cigarette (circa 1923) it is shown how the transformation depends on the viewer’s deferred recognition of the sliver of reversed canvas cropped by the extreme right hand edge of Rembrandt’s painting. Once the edge of the canvas is noticed the artist no longer appears to commune with the viewer but is understood instead to be memorizing his own image in a mirror before turning to paint it. This transition from an enduring to an instrumental kind of self is then considered within the context of external and internal determinants of the painting: respectively, its intervention upon traditional representations of the artist and its analogy with the struggle between body and soul in Western philosophy and theology. In particular the imminent ‘swiveling’ of the artist’s body away from communion with the viewer to self-depiction on the canvas enjoins the spectator to an act of disengagement that re-enacts the transition from a Platonic to a Cartesian alignment of body and soul. Disengagement involves empathy, however, so that the essay concludes by attempting to establish the case for interpreting the painting as a mirror image of an invented memory of the artist that shows him as art lovers might wish to see him. In this way the dominant mimetic interpretation of the painting is qualified by one that admits memory and imagination. It entails a hypothesis that brings the external and internal determinants of the Kenwood portrait together within the capacity of seventeenth-century self-portraits to encapsulate dialogue between viewers and their social world. The painting internalizes this world through symbolic representations of culture that mentor viewers into sharing the artist’s values


Rembrandt Descartes Self-portrait Mirrors Reflexivity 


  1. Adams, A. J. (2009). Public faces and private identities in seventeenth-century Holland: Portraiture and the production of community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Alpers, S. (1988). Rembrandt’s enterprise: The studio and the market. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  3. Alpers, S. (2005). The vexations of art: Velázquez and his others. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Appadurai, A. (2006). The thing itself. Public Culture, 18(1), 15–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Beckmann, M. (Circa 1923). Self portrait on yellow ground with cigarette. Circa 1923. Oil on canvas. 60.2 × 40.3 cm. Gift of Dr. and Mrs F. H. Hirschland, Museum of modern art, New York, USA/Bridgeman Art Library.Google Scholar
  6. Beebe, M. (1964). Ivory towers and sacred founts: The artist as hero in fiction from Goethe to Joyce. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Brink Goldsmith, J. T. A. O. (1994). Leonaert Bramer 1596–1674: Ingenious painter and draughtsman in Rome and Delft (Trans. Nicoline Gatehouse). Delft: Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof.Google Scholar
  8. Brusati, C. (1990–1991). Stilled lives: Self-portraiture and self-reflection in seventeenth-century Netherlandish still-life painting. Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 20.2–3, 168–182.Google Scholar
  9. Chapman, H. P. (1990). Rembrandt’s self-portraits: A study in seventeenth-century identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Clark, T. J. (1999). Farewell to an idea: Episodes from a history of modernism. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Clarke, J.-M. (2006). 71 Full circle. Accessed 7 Dec 2010.
  12. Cohen, T., & Snyder, J. (1980). Reflexions on ‘Las Meninas’: Paradox lost. Critical Inquiry, 7(2), 429–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. von Eckhardt, B. (1998). Introspection, psychology of. In Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. London: Routledge. Accessed 10 Oct 2012.
  14. Garber, D. (1998/2003). The cogito argument. In Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy. London: Routledge. Accessed 16 Sept 2012.
  15. Georgel, P., & Lecoq, A.-M. (1987). La Peinture dans la Peinture. Dijon: Musee des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.Google Scholar
  16. Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday Anchor Books.Google Scholar
  17. Greenblatt, S. J. (1980). Renaissance self-fashioning: From more to Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  18. Harbison, C. (1995). The mirror of the artist: Northern renaissance art in its historical context. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  19. James, H. (1907–1917). Preface. 1908. The tragic muse. In The novels and stories of Henry James 7. New York: Scribner.Google Scholar
  20. Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  21. Knox, G. (2009). The late paintings of Velázquez: Theorizing painterly performance. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  22. Martin, J. J. (2002). The myth of renaissance individualism. In G. Ruggiero (Ed.), A companion to the worlds of the renaissance (pp. 208–224). London: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  23. de Montaigne, M. (1991). On the inconstancy of our actions. In M. A. Screech (Trans. and Ed.), The essays of Michel de Montaigne (pp. 373–377). London: Allen Lane/Penguin.Google Scholar
  24. de Montaigne, M. (2003). Of repentance. (1585–1588). In D. M. Frame (Trans.), The complete works of Montaigne: Essays, travel journal, letters (pp. 740–753). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.Google Scholar
  25. McCay, W. M. (n.d.). History of the self. Course outline: University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Accessed 20 Dec 2011.
  26. Middelkoop, N. (1997). The golden age of Dutch art: Seventeenth century paintings from the Rijksmuseum and Australian collections (Trans. Wendie Shaffer). Perth: Art Gallery of Western Australia.Google Scholar
  27. Nancy, J.-L. (2005). The image—the distinct. In J. Fort (Trans.), The ground of the image. New York: Fordham University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Nash, J. (2006). The representation of ‘soul’ by Rembrandt. In Presence: The inherence of the prototype within images and other objects (pp. 191–204). Aldershot: Ashgate.Google Scholar
  29. Osmond, S. F. (2000). Shadow and substance—Rembrandt self-portraits. The world and I 15.1. Accessed 10 Aug 2012.
  30. Pocock, J. G. A. (1975). The Machiavellian moment: Florentine political thought and the Atlantic republican tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Porter, R. (2003). Flesh in the age of reason. London: Allen Lane.Google Scholar
  32. Potts, A. (2008). Disencumbered objects. October, Spring(124), 169–189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Poussin, N. (1929). Lettres de Poussin. Introd. Pierre Du Colombier. Paris: la Cité des livres.Google Scholar
  34. Puttfarken, T. (2000). The discovery of pictorial composition: Theories of visual order in painting 1400–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  35. Reddy, W. M. (2001). The navigation of feeling: A framework for the history of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. (Circa 1665). Self portrait with two circles. Circa 1665. Oil on canvas. 114.3 × 94 cm. The Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House, London, UK/© English Heritage Photo Library/The Bridgeman Art Library.Google Scholar
  37. Rewald, S. (2006). Glitter and doom: German portraits from the 1920s. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.Google Scholar
  38. Rogers, M. (1999). Fashioning identities in renaissance art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  39. Rosenthal, P. (2005). Words and values: Some leading words and where they lead us. Lanham: Hamilton Books.Google Scholar
  40. Rubens, P. P. (1638–1640). Self portrait. Oil on canvas. 109.5 × 85 cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.Google Scholar
  41. Stoichita, V. I. (1997). The self-aware image: An insight into early modern meta-painting (Trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Thomas, K. (2009). The ends of life: Roads to fulfillment in early modern England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Verene, D. P. (1991). The new art of autobiography an essay on the life of Giambattista Vico Written by himself. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  45. Wahrman, D. (2004). The making of the modern self: Identity and culture in eighteenth-century England. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Westermann, M. (2002). After iconography and iconoclasm: Current research in Netherlandish art, 1566–1700. Art Bulletin, 84(2), 351–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Wetering, E. van de. (1976). Leidse schilders achter de ezels. In M. L. Wurfbain, et al. (Eds.), Geschildert tot Leyden 1626 (pp. 21–31). Leiden: Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal.Google Scholar
  48. Wetering, E. van de. (1990). The multiple functions of Rembrandt’s self portraits. In C. White & Q. Buvelot (Eds.), Rembrandt by himself (pp. 8–37). London: National Gallery Publications Limited, The Hague: Royal Cabinet of Paintings Maurithuis.Google Scholar
  49. Wetering, E. van de. (2000). Rembrandt the painter at work. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Wetering, E. van de (2005). A corpus of Rembrandt paintings, Stichting Foundation Rembrandt Research Project. (Trans. J. Kilian, K. Kist, & M. Pearson). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  51. Wheelock, A. (1997). Rembrandt’s self-portraits: The creation of a myth. In Roland E. F. & Scott S. C. (Eds.), Rembrandt, Rubens, and the art of their time: Recent perspectives (pp. 12–35). Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Woods-Marsden, J. (1998). Renaissance self-portraiture: The visual construction of identity and the social status of the artist. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Wright, J. L. (2007). Reading Rembrandt: The influence of Cartesian dualism on Dutch art. History of European Ideas, 33(3), 275–291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Zell, M. (2011). Rembrandt’s gifts: A case study of actor-network-theory. Journal of the History of Netherlandish Art, 3(2). Accessed 10 Oct 2012.
  55. Zsuzna, G. (2005). Pictures within pictures, exhibition catalogue. Budapest: Szépmúvészeti Múzeum.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

Personalised recommendations