Rembrandt’s self-portraits, made throughout his long career, served many different purposes, and in these explorations of his own face and personality remain elusive in many ways. This is one of his first painted self-portraits, and unlike most of the earlier ones, it is not a study of expression or emotion. Indeed, the face, though beautifully lit with evocative shadows, is almost expressionless. The painting is all about costume: the plumed cap, silk scarf, and jacket suggest that this might be an elegant sitter, perhaps even an historic personage. The painting is large and carefully finished, almost as though it were a demonstration piece. In 1629, Rembrandt had not yet received any portrait commissions, so this work might have been done to show off his talents.
On the other hand, by 1629, the twenty-three-year-old artist had already begun to attract critical attention. Self-portraits were a desirable collectible for sophisticated connoisseurs, especially since Rembrandt here wears a golden chain, which indicates the status or nobility of the painter’s profession, although he had not received any such decoration.
Source: Alan Chong, "Self-Portrait, Aged 23," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 143.