The inventory taken when Rembrandt went bankrupt in 1656 lists two “Cristus tronie door Rembrant” (Christ’s head by Rembrandt). Here we can see one of two such paintings known, with the other in Berlin. Of course this does not mean that the artist studied Jesus himself, but instead that he was studying a live model. Already in his Leiden years, Rembrandt studied the human face intensely, in order to depict human emotions convincingly. Here he applied the same approach – study from life – to the depiction of Jesus. Observation from life was core to Rembrandt’s work.
Rembrandt, Head of Christ, c. 1648 (on loan from a private collection)
On a small oak panel Rembrandt studied the head of a man with long black hair and a flowing black beard. His model – whose identity remains unknown to us – was very likely one of the young Jewish men living in Rembrandt’s neighbourhood. Rembrandt chose him because of his striking appearance. He was looking to develop a new type of face for Jesus. It was still based on tradition, but now also on study from life. He would use this type in several major works of the late 1640s: the Hundred Guilder Print, and painting of Jesus and the Disciples at Emmaus of 1648 now in the Louvre.
This painting first resurfaced for the public in 2011 and has made its first appearance in The Netherlands at The Rembrandt House Museum, thanks to the generous loan of a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous. The painting is on view in Rembrandt’s salon, the place where the artist most likely kept it originally, nearly 360 years ago.