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Rembrandt's Unsparing Eye

Saturday is the 400th birthday of one of the greatest painters of the Western world, Rembrandt van Rijn. The Dutch master's canvases told stories from history and the Bible, and he was the leading portrait painter of his day.

Today's artists and historians say what has carried through the centuries is Rembrandt's honesty and passion for truth. He painted what he saw: wrinkles, crags, warts. He spared no one... including himself. His 75 self-portraits are remarkable for their unflattering detail.

Walter Liedtke, curator at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that Rembrandt's hardships -- losing a wife, a companion, three children and suffering a bankruptcy -- are evident in his 1660 self-portrait.

The painting overall has a murky tone, but the face is extremely detailed, says Liedtke, showing the furrows in the brows, skin that appears to glisten with moisture, an off-centered dent above the nose, and hair bunched over an ear.

"It's extraordinary given that he's doing a self-portrait," says Liedtke, "how much attention he's paid simply to the behavior of light for its own sake. His brush is pitiless."

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.