Over the centuries, artists have been obsessed with human facial expressions and how to portray them. The success or failure of a work of art that includes human beings can often depend on that one aspect of a painting, drawing, or sculpture.
As everyone who has ever tried it knows, accurately portraying any of the countless human emotions by means of facial expression is incredibly, frustratingly difficult. With the slightest slip of the brush or pen or etching tool, a pleasant smile becomes a sarcastic grin. Anger becomes disgust. Tender regard becomes sadness or despair. And starting over is sometimes the only remedy. The Italian Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his 1450 instructions for artists, On Painting, “Who would ever believe who has not tried it how difficult it is to attempt to paint a laughing face, only to have it elude you so you make it more weeping than happy?”
Today, artists have photography and freeze-frame images to help them re-create subtle, fleeting human expressions in works of art, but even now, the portrayal difficulties are still there. During the centuries before photography, artists had to rely solely on serious study, close observation, and technical skill. One of the artists best known for success in this endeavour was Rembrandt van Rijn.
REMBRANDT AND SELF-PORTRAITURE
From his earliest years as an artist, Rembrandt was interested in self-portraiture, and he was among the first artists to concentrate on facial expression by using his own face to study the subject. In his mid-20s, Rembrandt embarked on a small series of self-portrait etchings that depicted his own face expressing widely different emotions.
One can imagine the artist trying out expressions in a mirror, contorting his face to show surprise or shock, laughter, anger, puzzlement, or fear. The etchings that resulted were clearly exercises in portraying a variety of expressions and formed the start of Rembrandt’s lifelong passion for self- portraiture and the portrayal of human emotions.
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