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

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

Abstract

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

Keywords

Rembrandt Descartes Self-portrait Mirrors Reflexivity 

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Western AustraliaPerthAustralia

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