PHO704: Finding One’s Voice

The exhibition Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean Museum (Ashmolean 2020) has proved a fascinating insight into the process by which an artist finds their voice.

It begins with Rembrandt as a teenager and ends with his first successes in his twenties. Rembrandt was preternaturally gifted as an artist but what becomes clear is that the interests and motifs that would later come to define the ‘Rembrandt look’ are still evident, if in embryo, in his earliest rough sketches and student works. He always had his voice. What he had to do was find it.

There is the interest in and sympathy for the elderly and infirm. There is the fascination with texture, whether that of aged skin or of a richly embroidered cloak. Exotic clothes, turbans and jewellery were always an interest, as often were dogs. There is an intense focus even in student works on the emotional dynamics of the scene, and there is the increasingly masterful use of light and shadow to define the points of interest and demarcate the frame, what would later become known as ‘Rembrandt lighting’. These all appear even if a work is a rather clumsy early attempt or is in a style (perhaps a student exercise) one would not normally associate with Rembrandt. See Figs. 1-3 for some examples.

This makes clear that finding one’s voice as an artist or photographer is a process, and that it might pay to analyse one’s work (or photographic archive) over the years to see where one’s interests really lie and what emotions, motifs and ideas emerge in one’s work more frequently than others. It is also a process that requires hard work. Even someone as gifted as Rembrandt took 10-15 years to master his craft and fully find his voice.

There is also a good point to be made here about art and commerce. Rembrandt was a ‘professional’ in modern terms. He was someone who depended on his art for a living and who understood not only painting but the business of painting. He wasted nothing. Ideas were kept as sketches or examples of tropes that could be deployed later as details in larger oil paintings. He collaborated with others, such as professional print-makers, art-dealers, wealthy patrons like Constantijn Huygens and fellow artists like Jan Lievens. He sought out props such as shields and swords, some of which recur in his works. He would take an idea and develop from it not only a painting but sketches and the basis for an etching, then alter his ideas again to pull out details for smaller, separate etchings. Blank areas of larger copper etching plates were cut out and reused for small-scale studies.

When one looks at Rembrandt’s working methods, and of course at the later, mature portraits of merchants and grandees, all of which were commissioned, then any distinction between art and commerce simply vanishes. It was all the same mindstream.


ASHMOLEAN MUSEUM. 2020. ‘Young Rembrandt’ [exhibition]. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum. Exhibition from 24 February – 1 November 2020: Young Rembrandt.


Figure 1. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1628. The Artist’s Mother, Head and Bust. Ashmolean Museum.

Figure 2. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1626. The Baptism of the Eunuch. Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht.

Figure 3. Rembrandt Harmenszoon VAN RIJN. 1632. Bearded Old Man. Fogg Museum, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA.