People acting out of character can have you wondering if the atypical behavior is their actual self and the other is just for public consumption.

Jackson Pollock, in the 2000 biopic "Pollock," is given to drunken binges and tantrums. But according to B.H. Friedman's Book "Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible," he loved to bake, took pride in his home, and adored baseball.

Some artists have corrected their own records. Thomas Gainsborough, famed for portraits like "The Blue Boy," wrote to his friend, conductor-composer William Jackson, "I'm sick of portraits...

and wish very much to walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landscapes."

And Peter Paul Rubens, who was known for painting fleshy females, advocated diet and exercise in letters to his William Trumbell:

"The chief cause of the difference between the ancients and our age is our laziness and life without exercise; always eating, drinking, and no care to exercise our bodies."

Who's who?

So, when a retrospective of abstract painter Mark Rothko opened at The Fondation Louis Vuitton Museum last week, the identity question raised its two-headedness again.

Rothko, famed for meditative abstractions showing a couple of large blurry-edged rectangles, one resting atop the other, also painted figuratively at the start of his career.

This included a self-portrait that couldn't be more un-Rothko.

Put this portrait together with the exhibit literature that says Rothko favored Rembrandt, and you're apt to ask, "Will the real Mark Rothko please raise your hand?"

As his story goes, after he quit Yale University and moved to Manhattan, he spent most of his time looking at Old Masters at the Met and Rembrandt's self-portraits at the National Gallery of Art in D.C.

His own likeness reflects his admiration for Rembrandt. (More about that in a moment).

But here comes that double-identify thing again. At the same time Rothko was admiring Rembrandt, he took classes at the Art Students League, studying with Cubist Max Weber and the abstractionist Milton Avery.

And given Rothko's interest in abstract art, as his later work reflects, the question is, what accounts for his affection for Rembrandt?

A quote in the Fondataon Museum's report on the retro indicates that he became a painter in the first place "because I wanted to raise painting to the level of the poignancy of music and poetry."

Rembrandt may have had a similar thought when he famously said, "Without atmosphere, a painting is nothing."

Face in the mirror

But it's Rothko's deeply introspective painting of himself with mysterious darks masking his eyes that is reminiscent of Rembrandt's self-portrait. In his 1628 painting "Self-Portrait as a Young Man," you can't see his eyes, either.

Certainly, it can't be said that Rothko's self-portrait lacks atmosphere. In fact, the heaviness of the air in and around him is downright oppressive.

Maybe his switch to moody rectangles wasn't all that different from his figurative self-portrait.

AOL, formerly America Online, cites several art critics who read Rothko's work as an 'expression of the artist's increasing struggles with depression." He took his own life in 1970."

If that's true, the depression must have been a long time coming because his self-portrait, made in 1936, looks pretty grim. But then again, Rembrandt's pictures of himself are not exactly smiley faces, either, are they?