The Lost Motifs of Rembrandt’s Late Pictures

by David Molesky

Rembrandt’s self portrait as it hangs in its temporary home at the Breuer building on Madison Avenue in New York City.

As outlined in my previous essay “Pliny and the Dutch Guilds, “ there is much evidence that Rembrandt and his artistic community had a strong interest in emulating antiquity. However, there is some confusion around the intentions behind many of Rembrandt’s last paintings which were made during the Dutch financial crash. Rembrandt was bankrupt and lost his home and collection. Many of the paintings from this period were set adrift into foreign collections where they fell into some obscurity. Due to this turbulence, our understanding of the inspirations behind Rembrandt’s late paintings is rather slim.

Many of the titles we use for these late works did not come from Rembrandt himself, but were invented by merchants or historians. Often the paintings were named after obvious features and presume that Rembrandt was painting simple representations of his subjects. Just as an artist might give a ‘nickname’ to a work but intend a different official title containing clues to ideas behind the work. (For example, we simply refer to Damien Hirst’s piece titled “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” as Hirst’s “Shark.”) Regardless, institutions have remained loyal to these historic titles for good reason — it would be quite confusing to research a painting that had changed names. On the other hand, it is a shame for museum going art lovers to miss-out on the multi-layered meanings and narratives unearthed by scholars.

Rembrandt is a great storyteller who uses his abilities to go far beyond basic representations. Take, for example, his group portrait of the militia guild. Rembrandt has captured the fervor of the boisterous crew as they march through the street beating drums, while other artists have painted the group portrait commission like a prison line-up that, as Hoogstraten commented, “you could behead the whole lot with one blow.” Rembrandt is in all senses a narrative painter and integrates great stories from history even into his portraits. For example, it is widely accepted that the so-called Man In Armor is not a ‘tronie’ or character type like Girl with a Pearl Earring of someone wearing a suit of armor, but is a portrait of a specific person: Alexander the Great. Other examples of ‘Portrait Historie’ misidentified as character types include: The Jewish Bride which is actually a depiction of two figures from the Old Testament: Isaac and Rebecca; Titus As a Monk is a portrait of Rembrandt’s son as Saint Francis, and up until the 20th century The Apostle Bartholomew was believed to be a portrait of a baker.  It similarly appears that two of the greatest Rembrandt masterpieces housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Frick Collection are also obscured by their official titles and wall text.


The painting by Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the so-called ‘Aristotle’ Contemplating the Bust of Homer, may have been misnamed for posterity. Simon Schama in his book Rembrandt’s Eyes presents a strong argument with a long list of evidence that the figure is actually Apelles. The sculpture in the painting has the clear likeness of the famous bust of Homer, of which Rembrandt likely owned a plaster copy. With plaster copies of Aristotle equally available, it is curious why a likeness can’t be observed in the standing figure.

The third figural presence in the composition comes from the medallion hanging from the gold chain. It has been widely accepted to portray the profile of Alexander the Great. In consideration of this medallion, one can deduce that the standing figure was a respected member of Alexander’s court. One only needs to look at several of Rembrandt’s early self-portraits to gain a sense of Rembrandt’s infatuation with the significance of the medallion, as the emblem of the successful artist. Rembrandt aspired for the level of recognition received by Titian who Charles V honored as his official court painter with the gift of a medal. For Rembrandt, the medallion/medal is the symbol of the powerful relationship between the painter and a great patron.

It was Apelles of Cos who was the court painter of Alexander the Great. Apelles was in fact the only person permitted to paint Alexander’s image. Simon Schama points out that Apelles was much more often associated with Homer in the 17th Century than was Aristotle. Probably even more significant is the fanaticism for Apelles rampant in Amsterdam at the time Rembrandt made the painting. The same year it was painted, 1653, a banquet was held for the Society of Apelles and Apollo, instituted to celebrate the mutual admiration of poetry and painting.

Furthermore, the qualities that Pliny describes in the paintings of Apelles read like a checklist for the attributes found in the ‘Aristotle’. The four-color palette, the dark glazes, the beautiful roughness of the painted sleeves, the fingers that seem to jut out of the canvas can all be found in Natural History. Rembrandt might have been even more motivated to make this painting as an example as he was also caught up in a debate about Apelles’ working methods with his rival Flinck, whose interpretation was a tighter, brighter version.

Despite the Dutch financial collapse, Rembrandt’s etchings had brought him fame overseas and he had found patronage in distant Sicily. The painting at the Met was the first of three paintings he was making for a harbor official named Ruffo who lived in the town of Messina. Ruffo had aspired to create a gallery of scholar portraits like those Rubens made for the home and print factory of Jan Moretus (which is now the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium).

When Ruffo received the work and saw the stack of books in the background, he assumed that the painting was of a poet or philosopher. Later realizing that the bust was of Homer, he entered the painting into his inventory as a “half-length figure of a philosopher by Rembrandt.” By the time he referred to the painting again in 1661, Ruffo had decided that it was indeed of Aristotle. Considering Rembrandt’s money problems, you could understand why the painter did not make the effort to communicate a correction of the work’s true subject, especially when he was trying to secure two more painting sales from the collector. It is from these circumstances that the masterpiece at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is labeled as a portrait of Aristotle.


Considering the clear interest for antiquity held by Rembrandt and other painters of the Dutch Golden Age, several scholars have offered new interpretations for some of Rembrandt’s late paintings. Pointing out similarities in composition, Simon Schama theorizes that the Frick Self Portrait is Rembrandt as Jove and is meant to accompany Rembrandt’s portrait of his wife as Juno. Perhaps Schama is on the right track to sense that the figure is from mythology, but Rembrandt is not illustrated to the same level of godliness as the Juno, who wears a crown and other regal signifiers.

In her essay “the Late Self Portraits” in the catalog accompanying the Late Rembrandt exhibition ( 2014-15), Marjorie E. Wieseman suggested that the self-portrait in the Frick Collection is of Rembrandt as Apelles. She points out that Rembrandt is dressed to the nines compared to other self-portraits of the period. She discusses how in the self-portrait in Vienna and in many others from the period Rembrandt is dressed in the dark brown smock of a working painter. In the Frick Self Portrait Rembrandt is dressed in the fashionable clothes of the period, especially ones representing Eastern exoticism: a Polish jerkin, a paltrock, and a red sash with a metal pomegranate at the end. In addition to the fancy dress, Rembrandt depicts himself seated in a throne-like chair, pressed up against the picture plane in a manner that is similar to Van Dyck’s etching of the one armed landscape painter, Martin Rijchaert. Both Schama and the Frick believe that Rembrandt based the pose off of this etching.

I do appreciate Wiseman’s acknowledgement of Rembrandt’s interest in Apelles, and I tend to agree that this is Rembrandt painting himself as Apelles. However, I think there may be another layer to the narrative. There are several peculiarities in the composition that Rembrandt draws our attention towards. Take for example the way in which he paints the folds in the clothing. It cannot be accidental that the shapes in the fabrics suggest femininity. The seated figure seems to have breasts and if you follow the folds of his jerkin down to below his knees there is a suggestion of a vulva which in contemporary slang is referred to as a ‘camel-toe.’ These aspects are not present due to any carelessness of Rembrandt or failure of his vision due to old age. In his late phase, Rembrandt had become so good at directing our eye and attention, often glazing back what is unimportant into imperceptibility.

It is important to remember that Rembrandt is a great story-teller who has tendencies towards complex narratives, multiple meanings, and stories within stories. Rather than a simple historical portrait, where someone dresses in costume as one might for Halloween, Rembrandt offers us a puzzle to contemplate if we can ask the right question: Who would Apelles paint himself as? If Apelles is the great hero figure for Rembrandt, who would that be for Apelles? What figure from mythology, who is not a god (as that would be blasphemy), might Apelles want to emulate? What kind of qualities would you expect them to have? As the greatest painter of the human figure who ever existed, who would Apelles look up to? A good candidate for this person appears repeatedly in the ancient texts distributed during the Dutch Golden Age — Tiresias, the blind Theban Soothsayer.

I must admit, I did not think of this seemingly wild theory on my own. Odd Nerdrum mentioned it to me during my apprenticeship with him (2006-2008) and again while we were visiting the Frick Collection in 2016. Walking towards Rembrandt’s Self Portrait in the main gallery hall, I asked if he still thought that the painting was of Rembrandt as the ‘blind hermaphrodite.’ Either following the inspiration of the moment or being under the influence of his Tourette’s Syndrome (or both) Odd blurted out quite audibly “Look at his pussy,” while pointing at the lower area of the canvas.

Recently, I wrote Odd to see if he agreed with the Cleveland curator that the Frick self-portrait was Rembrandt as Apelles. I heard back via email from his son Bork who reported that yes, Odd agrees it’s a portrait of Apelles. Initially, I wondered why he abandoned this exciting idea. I found nothing in Weiseman’s essay that moved me to abandon the Tiresias theory. Ernst van de Wetering (author of The Painter at Work) points out that the Frick Self Portrait is the only self-portrait depicting both hands. In most self portraits as a painter, usually only one hand is visible, the one holding the palette, while the other hand is outside of the composition making the painting. It is also curious that this is the only portrait from the period where Rembrandt does not paint himself with the look of a painter.

Considering the Apelles theory, I wondered why if he was depicting himself as a painter there would be no signifiers other than fancy dress or regal pose to suggest this is Apelles.  Unless, of course, this is a painting of who Apelles would paint himself as – someone who is presumably not a painter. In Natural History, Pliny describes Tiresias as a blind prophet of Apollo in Thebes, who is attributed with the invention of augury – the interpretation of omens. Most importantly, Tiresias was a seer whose insights regarding humanity were relied upon by Zeus. Who could be better to emulate as a figure painter?!

Ovid offers a full account of the fable of Tiresias’s transformation from shepherd to the famed seer in book three of the Metamorphoses. Tiresias gained the attention of the gods when he killed two mating serpents with a stick. At that moment, Zeus and Hera were debating whether men or women experience more pleasure from sex. Hera took jealous offense to Zeus’ confidence that women have more pleasure. In order to gain insight into the matter, Zeus turned the shepherd into a woman. For seven autumns, he experienced life and sex as a woman. Before the eighth autumn, he saw once again huge snakes mating, and after attacking them with a stick was turned back into a man. At that moment, he was called upon to report his discovery. He replied for every one pleasure a man experiences from sex a woman experiences nine. (A strange synchronicity, as it has been proven that men have one nerve between their genitals and spinal cord while women have three, which means they have nine different neural combinations of stimulation.) Hera was so angry that she blinded Tiresias. Feeling bad about this irreversible curse delivered by his wife, Zeus tried to make up for the loss by giving him the power to see the future. After this transformation, the fame of the seer continues into other Greek myths. In the next segment of Metamorphoses, Tiresias tells the water nymph Liriope that her infant son Narcissus will live a long life as long as he never comes to know himself.

In the drama Oedipus the King by Sophocles, Oedipus calls upon Tiresias, concerned that his city is ravaged by plague. Through his powers of prophecy, Tiresias knows that the cause of the gods’ outrage is Oedipus’ murder of his own father and his incestuous marriage to his mother. In his reluctance to reveal this knowledge, he says “it is but sorrow to be wise when wisdom profits not.”  This famous quote of Tiresias may have resonated with Rembrandt who at the height of his powers, faced bankruptcy.

Tiresias continues to exist as a famous seer even after he was killed by one of Apollo’s arrows. “Even in death – Persephone has given him wisdom, everlasting vision to him and him alone… the rest of the dead are empty, fitting shades” (Odyssey 10.543). In book 11 of the Odyssey, Circe tells Odysseus to journey to the underworld in order to consult Tiresias. He makes an offering of a slaughtered black ram to gain the seer’s audience so that he may ask how to get back to Ithaca. Johann Heinrich Füssli captured the scene in 1780-85 with his watercolor and tempera painting titled Tiresias Appears to Ulysses during the Sacrifice. The interaction also allows Odysseus to communicate with his mother who has passed away.

Tiresias is a well established figure of Greek mythology whose name is often introduced by poets to supply personality to a generic seer. In addition to the the four mentioned classical books: Ovid, Odyssey, Oedipus the King, and Natural History, he also appears in two additional plays by Sophocles: Oedipus at Colonos and Antigone, three plays by Euripides: Baccantus, Iphigineia at Aulis, Phoenician Women, Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, and Callimachus’ Fifth Hymn (The Bath of Phallas). Symbolically, the combined stories structure Tiresias as a blind seer who did not judge people by appearance and who was not sexist but understood men and women equally. Tiresias is the quintessential judge of humanity relied upon by the gods and royals alike.

Regarding these stories prevalent in popular classics with which Rembrandt was familiar, we can see how the quirky aspects of the Frick Self Portrait support an image of Tiresias. The shadow of darkness over the dull eyes signifies his blindness. The suggested bosom and vagina found in the folds of cloth portray the anatomy of a man that had been turned into a woman. The double-banded sash crossing his belly resembles the two copulating serpents. He rests his hand upon a walking stick, which could simultaneously represent the stick with which he killed the serpents, a white cane used by the blind, and the scepter he is said to have with him in Hades. The pomegranate medal, the symbol of passage to the underworld, hangs from the sash nearly falling off the composition into darkness below. Perhaps when we stand before this self-portrait of Rembrandt and consider the possibility that it depicts Tiresias, we are able to connect with the spirit of Rembrandt as he looks back at us from the underworld. This seems like an appropriately complex narrative for a painting made by Rembrandt as he approaches the end of his life.

Rembrandt joins the ranks of seers, poets, painters, and other meta-magical thinkers who share insights about the world through their work, while sometimes evoking the spirit of Tiresias. When creatives deeply engage history in this way, it allows them to step out of the linear system of time. In dialogue with the past, Rembrandt made powerful works that are alarmingly present and continuously culturally relevant. Stubbornly, our concepts of time place him as a Dutch 17th century painter, when he actually evolved into an eternal craftsman working in the tradition of Apelles and Tiresias.

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