'He's Not A Leading Man': A Casting Director On Rembrandt's Self-Portraits
Margery Simkin is a casting director. Her job is to look at thousands of faces, and her gut reaction — how she feels about what she sees — can lead to movie and TV roles.
But for this story, she isn't looking at a headshot — she's looking at a painting. "This wouldn't be somebody that could be a bad guy," she says. "There's a softness. There's a kindness in his eyes."
The painting in question is a self-portrait Rembrandt made in the late 1630s, when the Dutch master was a young man on the move. It's one of a pair of Rembrandt self-portraits on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif.
In the first, the painter is 32ish (it's hard to pin down a specific date) and his artistic star is rising. He's earned a solid reputation in Amsterdam as a portraitist, at a time when portraits were the rage. In this first picture, Rembrandt looks right at us, his forehead furrowed a bit in concentration. He has a pale reddish moustache, a smudge of goatee, a dark brown jacket and a soft cap.
Curator Gloria Williams Sander says that style of cap was popular in the 16th century, but by Rembrandt's time a century later it was passé. She says, "because he's becoming such a well-known artist, he quickly set a fashion that exists today where the beret is associated with the painter. ... And all his peers followed him within years."
Less interested in costume than character, casting director Simkin is still studying Rembrandt's eyes. "There's a tremendous intelligence in his eyes," she says.
And if she were to cast him, what kind of role would he play?
"It would be a white-collar job," she says. "The manager of the baseball team and not the baseball player."
He was too fleshy for an athlete, and he didn't buff up for his portrait.
"It's not particularly flattering. He hasn't gone out of his way to make himself look hunkier."
A character actor, she thinks. "He's not a leading man."
And he doesn't improve much with age. That's clear in the second self-portrait, which is on loan from the National Gallery in London and being shown in the U.S. for the first time. Rembrandt made Self Portrait at the Age of 34 two years after the other one, and it's quite different.
"There is an arrogance in this one," Simkin says. "He looks much snobbier."
Curator Sander says there's a reason for that: "He is a success, and that's exactly how he wants to portray himself."
He's working at his peak. He has money, nice clothes and a better coat — brown, velvety with fur lining along the collar. His cap is flatter and broader, trimmed with a gold chain. His vest and shirt are prettily embroidered. But again, Sander says, "This is not the way a 17th-century Amsterdam Dutchman would have portrayed himself on the street."
Rembrandt's painted clothes would have been worn in much earlier times, by earlier masters — Italian artists like Titian and Raphael. He's painted himself into the pantheon of Renaissance gods, as their equal, or maybe even their rival.
"In rivalling them while acknowledging them, he demonstrated his own inventiveness, his imagination, his ability to go beyond to the next step," Sander says.
That's self-confidence — chutzpah, really. But it's going to change. These two self-portraits were made when 30-something Rembrandt was in the middle of his life. He's literally middle-aged: He'll die some 30 years later in debt, broken, destitute and buried in an unmarked pauper's grave.
The artist will trace all that on canvas through 80 painted self-portraits, and at least 20 more drawings and prints. Why so many? It wasn't vanity, Sander says; the self-portraits were like a diary. She says he was "keeping track of himself at stages in his life."
They were never flattering. He was never less than a relentless observer — and one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.