“Rembrandt Laughing,” Rembrandt’s engaging early self-portrait, purchased by the Getty last May is now on view in the Getty Center’s East Pavilion, Gallery 205.
In 1628, or thereabouts, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, then 21 or 22, full of the confidence and vigor of youth threw back his head and laughed. He looks at the viewer over his right shoulder, his hair falling fashionably in a long lock over his left shoulder. He is wearing a dark purple and brown outfit and a gleaming steel gorget, against a feature-less gray background. He then captured the moment in an oil painting on a tiny copper plate, about the size of an iPad.
The painting was acquired by the Getty for an estimated $25.1 million. Long classified as missing by experts, it had stunned the art world when it surfaced in a 2007 country auction in Gloucestershire in England.
The cheerful artist joins a range of other Rembrandt characters also on view—a pensive saint; a proud old man similarly dressed as a soldier with a metal gorget; King Cyrus and his skeptical confidant Daniel; the Princess Europa as she is whisked away by Jupiter in bull form; a contemplative bearded man, possibly a rabbi, seen in profile; and a precocious young girl in a gold-trimmed cloak.
This new addition, the fifth Rembrandt painting in the Getty Museum’s permanent collection along joins a remarkable group of 10 drawings by Rembrandt. Two of the paintings on view, “Portrait of a Rabbi” and “Portrait of a Girl Wearing a Gold-Trimmed Cloak,” are on loan from private collections.
Painted with lively brushwork on copper, the self-portrait is wonderfully luminous. As paintings curator Anne Woollett notes, the painting is even more striking for its immediacy and virtuosity.
“Rembrandt Laughing is remarkable in that it’s a physical evocation of a laugh. You really feel the whole body laughing, and that is reflected in the face with his creased eyes and big smile,” said Anne. “Mirth is a very difficult emotion to portray, particularly if you’re trying to accomplish it by looking in a mirror to make a self-portrait. It’s fascinating to think about how Rembrandt painted this fleeting moment—the tipped-back body, the tilted head, and the belly laugh.”
Rembrandt painted perhaps as many as 80 self-portraits in his career. This work, created in Leiden and one of his first painted self-portraits, stands out for its levity—it’s one of only two in which Rembrandt portrayed himself smiling.
Most of his self-portraits were more grand and serious, with a fashionable sense of decorum. For example, the only other Rembrandt self-portrait in Los Angeles is one at the Norton Simon Museum made about 1638 or 1639, which is formal with a certain gravity. His expression is serious, his body composed. His clothes are elegant, reflecting the luxurious presentation of a Renaissance portrait.
Intently interested in capturing different expressions, Rembrandt etched, drew, and painted different emotions and characters throughout his career, often using himself as a model. His character studies, or tronies, were useful preparation for his history paintings, and also delightful small-scale compositions in their own right. Rembrandt Laughing is both a tronie, in which the artist appears in costume and embodying a particular emotion, and a self-portrait.
While we might attribute this rare jovial picture to his youthful attitude and burgeoning success at the time, it could also be considered a calling card for his skills. In the gallery, you can see how this self-portrait compares with “Portrait of a Young Girl” and “Old Man in a Military Costume.” The three were painted within a few years of each other, and together display the artist’s range and talent. All three are also extraordinary technical feats and compelling character studies, and yet each stands out, distinct in tone and emotion.
But only one makes you grin. “Rembrandt Laughing is infectious,” Anne said. “His smile draws you in and makes you respond in kind.”