Rare £12m Rembrandt self-portrait, made to impress his muse, up for grabs at Sotheby’s London

A self-portrait by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1609-1669) is estimated to fetch some £12m to £16m (around US$15m to US$20m) at Sotheby’s London on July 28.

The painting is one of just three Rembrandt self-portraits in private hands, as almost all others have found their way into major museums around the world. 

Named “Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat”, the canvas is a rarity also because it is far more than just a portrait. Experts are convinced that it is a self-portrait made to impress the family of his muse.

Dubbed the “Magician of Light and Shadow”, Rembrandt was lauded as one of the greatest painters of the Dutch Golden Age. He is known for his atmospheric paintings with extraordinary nuances of detail sprang from a dramatic lighting scheme. 

Some of his most celebrated works include “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632) and “The Night Watch” (1642), in which the effective use of light and shadow and intricate layers of colour turn what would have been a static portrait into a dramatic narrative.

His life, too, was full of drama. The artist enjoyed early success with his paintings and lived the affluent life at a prominent mansion in Amsterdam, before falling into bankruptcy during his last years. He died in poverty, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk.

Yet, over the course of a career marked by ups and downs, the artist composed some of the finest paintings during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, when the Netherlands enjoyed its heyday as a Mecca for trade, science, technology and arts. 

Enlightened by science and technology, commissioners and artists turned away from biblical subjects in favour for domestic scenes inspired by everyday life, such as family gatherings, still life of food or flowers, cityscapes and portraits. 

Every artist at the time was able to create lifelike portraits. What made Rembrandt so unrivalled was that he was able to cut through the surface and probe into the souls and personalities of his models.

But his favourite model was himself. 

As one of the most prolific artists of self-portraits, Rembrandt chronicled his own physiognomy in more than 80 self-portraits in the forms of sketch, drawing, etching and painting over the span of four decades. His self-portraits were among the most revered in his oeuvre that give us an intimate window into his life.

The “Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat” is a case in point. 

The painting, in which Rembrandt depicts himself in the finery of the wealthy – ruffled lace collar and black hat with gold decorations – was composed when he was 26, the same year he created the renowned “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”.  

The work is widely believed to have been created as a kind of a “business card” to signify the painter’s social standing.

But given the completion date and also the scale of the painting, which is small enough to send around the world, other experts suggest it may have been made to impress the family of his future wife Saskia van Uylenburgh.

The other two privately owned self-portraits by Rembrandt are unlikely to come to the market, as one of them is now owned by art collector Thomas Kaplan, while the other has been given to the National Gallery of Scotland on long-term loan. 

The painting has changed hands several times. It was first sold in Paris in 1891 to Henry Brand, the 2nd Viscount Hampden, who then passed the painting to Sotheby’s for sale in 1970. The work was later sold to art dealer J.O. Leegenhoek for £650 due to its doubtful authenticity back then.

The painting was later sold to a private collector before landing Noortman Master Paintings. The work was acquired by the current owner in 2015. 

The self-portrait will be the highlight of Sotheby’s pioneering evening sale, in which Old Master works will, for the first time, be offered alongside impressionist, contemporary, modern and modern British works.

Rembrandt (1606-1669), Self-portrait, wearing a ruff and black hat

Size: approximately 21.5 x 16.5cm
Estimate: £12,000,000 – 16,000,000

Auction house: Sotheby's London
Sale: Evening Sale
Auction: 28 July 2020