Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was – and remains – one of the undisputed masters of the portrait, especially the self portrait, of which art historians believe he painted at least 85 (that are known, the rest are lost). He carefully, skilfully and wonderfully captured himself at many stages of his life, from the springtime of his youth to the more gnarly and depressing era of adult nappies and arthritic joints. We all know Rembrandt influenced thousands of artists, past and present, and will probably influence millions more in the future. But did you know he also had a tremendous influence on one certain Frenchman, Hilaire-Germain-Edgar De Gas, more commonly known as Edgar Degas?

The preposition that Rembrandt had a significant influence on Degas is seen in the latest exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rembrandt and Degas: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which is on until May 20 for those who can make it to the Big Apple. Degas, for example, produced a nearly photocopy like reproduction of one work, Young Man in a Velvet Cap, After Rembrandt (1857), which is so  alike to the Rembrandt artwork that one would think 220 years did not separate them, if indeed they were produced by two different artists.

Other revealing comparisons can be found in the Rembrandt painting Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window (1648) and Edgar Degas’s Engraver Joseph Tourny (1857). The Rembrandt self portrait is one of the most famous in his oeuvre and features a middle-aged Rembrandt skulking in luscious black shadows, his intense gaze haunting the viewer through his infamous beret hat and furrowed brow, questioning the very essences and emotions that make us human. Similar qualities can be found in the Degas portrait, which features Tourny as a professional engraver in a similar outfit and composition. The work was originally an engraving and Degas would make the most famous print with excess ink, a move which art historians have noted grants the Degas print a distinct Rembrandt-like chiaroscuro.

It’s interesting to note that at the time of Degas was seeking inspiration from the past, Rembrandt’s reputation was actually in disrepair as the haughty French art elite of the Salon derided his approach to realism; the mood of the elite masses, if you’ll indulge the contradiction, meant that Degas stood to gain nothing from replicating Rembrandt paintings. Nevertheless, the fiercely independent Frenchman did as he saw fit, copying many works. Another example of self-portrait imitating self-portrait can be found in the Degas paintings that are three-quarter in profile, with the artist wearing a hat that casts a shadow; each possesses a predecessor in the form of a Rembrandt oil painting, showing again the influence of the great Dutch artist on the Impressionist.

As noted previously, Rembrandt produced a recoverable total of 85 self-portraits, while Degas only produced 40, all of which he kept hidden until his estate uncovered them and opened them to public viewing after his death. In that sense, the artists could not be more different: Rembrandt didn’t mind that his self-portraits were viewed, in fact, as an artist who made a lot of his money from portraiture, it was important that he could at least paint himself! Degas, on the other hand, proved the opposite, revelling in the private and studied nature of art.