Man in the Mirror: Self-Knowledge in Montaigne, Shakespeare & Rembrandt

Know Thyself: Rembrandt's Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait, 1659
Rembrandt van Rijn
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Hundreds of years before blogs and memoirs, confessional or otherwise, became ubiquitous, the 16th-century French writer and philosopher Michel de Montaigne focused his keen gaze upon himself and asked with remarkable honesty: Who am I and what can I know?

The creator of the essay influenced Shakespeare, whose sonnets and soliloquies in Hamlet created a new vision of the self, a vivid representation of thinking and feeling. What does it mean to know thyself?

We’ll read Montaigne’s and Shakespeare’s works through the lens of this eternal question. New conceptions of the psyche and its relationship to knowledge continued to be developed and examined throughout the 17th century, a period that included the Dutch Golden Age and the Scientific Revolution. It was an age of observation and self-discovery. This spirit finds expression in the greatest painter of self-portraits: Rembrandt. We’ll discuss Rembrandt’s amazing range of emotion and technique, and use his work as a springboard to explore a variety of self-portraits by other artists, ranging from Albrecht Dürer to Frida Kahlo.

See a slide show of some the artists to be discussed in Sean’s guest blog post, Even As Also I Am Known.

“What a piece of work is a man!”

– Hamlet in Hamlet, Act II, scene ii


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Sean Forester is an artist from the San Francisco Bay Area. He has led Classical Pursuits tours to Italy, France, Chicago, and Russia. Shakespeare and Rembrandt are two of his all-time favourites, and he promises to bring his own self-portrait.

Participants are required to obtain the specified editions in order to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion.

The Essays: A Selection by Michel de Montaigne, ed. M. A. Screech
(Penguin Classics, 1994)
ISBN-13: 978-0140446029

Hamlet by William Shakespeare, ed. Thompson and Taylor
(Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2016)
ISBN-13: 978-1472518385

500 Self-Portraits by Julian Bell
(Phaidon, 2004)
ISBN-13: 978-0714843841

Sean will also provide a PDF with a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

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