Rembrandt and Degas were both in their early twenties when they began to produce self-portraits, and the Dutch artist continued the practice throughout his life. Indeed, before the mid-nineteenth century, no other artist had depicted himself as often, making Rembrandt a logical role model when Degas began to explore his own self-image. Rembrandt tended to use dramatic lighting and innovative painting and etching techniques, and often presented himself with varied expressions in a wide range of roles. Degas’s portrayals use the same sorts of techniques to suggest a more focused exploration of his own introspective personality.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “Self-Portrait with Curly Hair and White Collar,” 1628–32. Etching second state. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (RP-P-OB-2)


This is probably one of Rembrandt’s earlier self-representations. Dark shadows fall over half of his stern-looking face, while the other half is brightly lit. Rembrandt used similar strong contrasts to heighten the drama in many of his etchings, as well as in his paintings.

Edgar Degas, “Self-Portrait,” c. 1855–56. Oil on paper laid down on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, 1960 (61.101.6) [© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY]


The relatively precise handling of this early self-portrait suggests Degas’s interest in the work of the academic artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, although the strongly shaded face is somewhat unconventional. Inspired by Rembrandt’s very different style, Degas pursued his exploration of unusual lighting and loosely handled paint, as in the Clark's self-portrait.

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