Did Rembrandt trace his self-portraits?

The 17th-century artist and other Old Masters could have exploited mirrors and lenses to achieve their detailed, life-like paintings. Amy Middleton reports.

'Self Portrait at the Age of 34', painted in 1640 by Rembrandt. Research shows how he might have exploited mirrors and lenses to paint such pieces.
The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images

One of the most noted painters in history may have used tricks of light to execute his incredibly detailed artworks, new evidence suggests.

A pair of independent researchers in the UK set up mirrors and lenses which allow a painter to project their image on a canvas. They published their work in the Journal of Optics.

Rembrandt van Rijn, a 17th-century Dutch painter who contributed significantly to European art, is most well-known as a portrait-maker.

Dozens of renowned self-portraits depict the painter at 22 years old into his later years, each with striking detail and curious expressions, some capturing his face in animated laughter.

But 16 years ago, researchers floated the possibility that Rembrandt, along with other noted painters, may have traced these portraits using optical technology, allowing them to project an image onto a surface to etch or trace with paint.

David Hockney, a British printmaker, first raised the hypothesis some 16 years ago, suggesting the use of lenses and concave mirrors in the creation of 16th-century artworks in a thesis that inspired a BBC series and a book.

Another film, released in 2014, depicts inventor Tim Jenison’s exploration into the works of Johannes Vermeer and the use of mirrors to replicate colour.

These hypotheses are hotly debated. Now Francis O’Neill and Sofia Palazzo Corner’s study details why the use of technology in producing portraits is entirely possible – and in the case of Rembrandt, perhaps even probable.

This paper focuses on the use of technology for self-portraits, as well as other works. The researchers say that in order to replicate their own image, the artist would need to be less than 100 centimetres from the projected image.

They outline several scenarios in which this is entirely possible. One setup combines reflections from flat mirrors and concave mirrors, while another incorporates a lens with two flat mirrors.

In each, the image projected would have been reversed. “This abstraction may have been beneficial to the artist,” the paper suggests. “By following the areas of light and dark, they were free to record the reality of the subject’s face, without being misguided by any preconceptions.”

The paper assumes that Rembrandt and his contemporaries had access to the most cutting-edge technology of their time – items that may have been secret from the rest of society.

The authors also note that Rembrandt used copper – a highly reflective material – as a base for many of his portraits, “and his works are known for their use of Chiaroscuro, a contrast of light and dark which would be essential for projections”, O’Neill says.

Rembrandt’s use of projections is also probable, the paper argues, due to the content of his portraits.

"His self-portraits laughing and with wide-open eyes would require incredible physical discipline to alternate between looking at himself in the mirror and then creating the image,” explains O’Neill. “But he wouldn't have had to move his eyes from the drawing surface if he traced a projection."

Further evidence lies in the off-kilter eye focus evident in many portraits from this era.

"Both Rembrandt and other Old Masters made paintings in which their eyes look laterally out of the image,” O’Neill explains.

“It would have been very difficult for them to see and paint themselves this way without the use of projections."

How this hypothesis will be received by art historians remains to be seen.

Explore #optics
  1. http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/2040-8978/18/8/080401
Latest Stories
MoreMore Articles