When Rembrandt Laughing, the Getty’s impending purchase, was auctioned in 2007 it was given the unwieldy title, “The young Rembrandt as Democrates [sic] the laughing philosopher.” In fact Rembrandt shows himself in military costume and can’t possibly have intended that sage of ancient Greece. Yet the Democritus connection may help explain the most striking aspect of this self-portrait: Rembrandt, otherwise haughty or world-weary, loosens up for once. “I am completely captivated by it,” wrote Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz in 2007. “The painting is marked by an amiability that I am touched to find in Rembrandt.” (Above is a detail of the small, bust-length painting.)
Democritus is best-known today for inventing the concept of atoms. In Rembrandt’s time, atoms were a forgotten doctrine, swept aside by the science of Galileo. Democritus was instead known as “the laughing philosopher.” He laughed at human folly, it’s said.
Democritus became a popular subject for painters. He numbers among the philosophers of Velézquez and de Ribera. Rubens paired Democritus with Heraclitus—”the Crying Philosopher.”
Dutch examples are particularly boisterous. Above is Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Democritus at the Rijksmuseum, dated 1628 and just about contemporary with Rembrandt Laughing.
Johannes Moreelse’s Democritus, in the Utrecht Central Museum, could be called the Maniacally Laughing Philosopher.
As you can see the Dutch had a fairly consistent idea of what Democritus looked like, and Rembrandt Laughing isn’t it. Delightful as they are, the ter Brugghen and Moreelse are cartoons. Rembrandt Laughing exists on a whole different plane of visual reality.
It’s known that Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s friend and rival, painted both a Democritus and a Heraclitus. Anything Lievens did, Rembrandt thought he could do better. So it wouldn’t be surprising that Rembrandt responded in some way. He was apparently more taken with the challenge of capturing facial expressions than with depicting philosophers. About 1630 he did a group of self-portrait etchings in which he mugged for the mirror.
Rembrandt Laughing is the only comparable self-portrait painting. Like the etchings it was created on a sheet of copper. At 8.75 by 6.62 inches Rembrandt Laughing is smaller than many of his drawings, but larger than the four other known paintings on copper. Below is Rembrandt Laughing and the Laughing Soldier in the Mauritshuis, also on copper and shown to scale. It has the same gorget (neck armor).
We think of Rembrandt as progressing from a meticulous, market-pleasing early style to a broader, more painterly late style that drove clients away. Rembrandt Laughing suggests it’s not that simple. It’s far freer than most early paintings, and not just because of its small size. Rembrandt Laughing was once engraved as a Frans Hals, and indeed it is more freely executed than Hals’ spirited 6-inch high copper of Samuel Ampzing. Evidently the 22-year-0ld Rembrandt was already testing the limits of brushy calligraphy in some of his smaller, more personal works.
There has been some hair-splitting over whether Rembrandt Laughing should be called a self-portrait. Scholar Ernst van de Wetering, the key figure in reattributing the painting, prefers not to use that term. Though he identifies the laughing figure as Rembrandt, he calls the painting a tronie (Dutch for “face”), a headshot study of expression or character. A 2008 Art Newspaper piece spun that into a headline: “It is a Rembrandt but not a self-portrait.” Martin Bailey predicted, “Inevitably, at some point the painting will come onto the market again, and no doubt the trade will then be tempted to sell it as a Rembrandt ’self-portrait’, to give it that extra cachet.”
Unquestionably the painting is more valuable to the market because of the self-portrait brand. But ”tronie” and “self-portrait” aren’t mutually exclusive concepts. Cindy Sherman creates tronies (you might say). They are also self-portraits (a term everyone uses).
How important is a very small, very early Rembrandt self-portrait? ”It is destined to become one of the Getty’s signature paintings,” Getty director Timothy Potts said. We read the self-portraits as a rake’s progress from cocky youth to old, broke, bereaved has-been. Mortality has the last laugh. Rembrandt Laughing is the perfect frontispiece to that narrative. It’s almost certain to become a widely reproduced star painting—and there aren’t many of those still out there to buy.
It’s not a slam-dunk that the Getty will get the painting, though. A British institution could preempt the deal by matching the so-far-unpublished Getty price. The process of securing an export license often drags on a year or so even when successful.
The big unknown for now is how much the Getty is paying. Obviously it’s a lot. “That picture’s clearly worth between 15 and 20 million pounds [$30 to $40 million],” said dealer William Noortman in 2008.
Britain has long had at least seven Rembrandt self-portraits. There are examples are in the museums of London, Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and the Self Portrait with Two Circles at Kenwood House is the very best of all the world-weary portraits, anywhere. The Queen has her own Rembrandt self-portrait.
One stroke of good timing: Just this March it was announced that a painting at Buckland Abbey, given to Britain’s National Trust in 2010, has been reattributed to Rembrandt—and it’s a self-portrait too (left). With that kind of crazy luck, Britain may feel less need to do a full-court press for yet another Rembrandt self-portrait.