Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a Dutch draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. An innovative and prolific master in three media, he is generally considered one of the greatest visual artists in the history of art and the most important in Dutch art history. Unlike most Dutch masters of the 17th century, Rembrandt’s works depict a wide range of style and subject matter, from portraits and self-portraits to landscapes, genre scenes, allegorical and historical scenes, biblical and mythological themes as well as animal studies. His contributions to art came in a period of great wealth and cultural achievement that historians call the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch art (especially Dutch painting), although in many ways antithetical to the Baroque style that dominated Europe, was extremely prolific and innovative, and gave rise to important new genres. Like many artists of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Jan Vermeer of Delft, Rembrandt was also known as an avid art collector and dealer.
Rembrandt never went abroad, but he was considerably influenced by the work of the Italian masters and Netherlandish artists who had studied in Italy, like Pieter Lastman, the Utrecht Caravaggists, and Flemish Baroque Peter Paul Rubens. Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for twenty years he taught many important Dutch painters.
Rembrandt’s portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits and illustrations of scenes from the Bible are regarded as his greatest creative triumphs. His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity. Rembrandt’s foremost contribution in the history of printmaking was his transformation of the etching process from a relatively new reproductive technique into a true art form, along with Jacques Callot. His reputation as the greatest etcher in the history of the medium was established in his lifetime and never questioned since. Few of his paintings left the Dutch Republic whilst he lived, but his prints were circulated throughout Europe, and his wider reputation was initially based on them alone.
In his works he exhibited knowledge of classical iconography, which he molded to fit the requirements of his own experience; thus, the depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Because of his empathy for the human condition, he has been called “one of the great prophets of civilization”. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin said, “Compare me with Rembrandt! What sacrilege! With Rembrandt, the colossus of Art! We should prostrate ourselves before Rembrandt and never compare anyone with him!” Francisco Goya, often considered to be among the last of the Old Masters, said “I have had three masters: Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.” Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt—magician—that’s no easy occupation.” The impressionist Max Liebermann said: “Whenever I see a Frans Hals, I feel like painting; whenever I see a Rembrandt, I feel like giving up”
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden, in the Dutch Republic, now the Netherlands. He was the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. Religion is a central theme in Rembrandt’s paintings and the religiously fraught period in which he lived makes his faith a matter of interest. His mother was Roman Catholic, and his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church. While his work reveals deep Christian faith, there is no evidence that Rembrandt formally belonged to any church, although he had five of his children christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam: four in the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and one, Titus, in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church).
As a boy he attended Latin school. At the age of 14, he was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop, though Simon van Leeuwen claimed that Joris van Schooten taught Rembrandt in Leiden. Unlike many of his contemporaries who traveled to Italy as part of their artistic training, Rembrandt never left the Dutch Republic during his lifetime.
He opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students, among them Gerrit Dou in 1628.
In 1629, Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens (father of the Dutch mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646.
At the end of 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been a lawyer and the burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. When Saskia, as the youngest daughter, became an orphan, she lived with an older sister in Het Bildt. Rembrandt and Saskia were married in the local church of St. Annaparochie without the presence of Rembrandt’s relatives. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters. He also acquired a number of students, among them Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.
In 1635, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into their own house, renting in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat. In 1639 they moved to a prominent newly built house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) in the upscale ‘Breestraat’ (eng.: ‘Broadway’), today known as Jodenbreestraat (Jodenbreestraat 4,1011 NK Amsterdam-now) in what was becoming the Jewish quarter; then a young upcoming neighborhood. The mortgage to finance the 13,000 guilder purchase would be a primary cause for later financial difficulties. Rembrandt should easily have been able to pay the house off with his large income, but it appears his spending always kept pace with his income, and he may have made some unsuccessful investments. It was there that Rembrandt frequently sought his Jewish neighbors to model for his Old Testament scenes. Although they were by now affluent, the couple suffered several personal setbacks; their son Rumbartus died two months after his birth in 1635 and their daughter Cornelia died at just three weeks of age in 1638. In 1640, they had a second daughter, also named Cornelia, who died after living barely over a month. Only their fourth child, Titus, who was born in 1641, survived into adulthood. Saskia died in 1642 soon after Titus’s birth, probably from tuberculosis. Rembrandt’s drawings of her on her sick and death bed are among his most moving works.
During Saskia’s illness, Geertje Dircx was hired as Titus’ caretaker and nurse and also became Rembrandt’s lover. She would later charge Rembrandt with breach of promise (a euphemism for seduction under promise to marry) and was awarded alimony of 200 guilders a year. Rembrandt worked to have her committed for twelve years to an asylum or poorhouse (called a “bridewell”) at Gouda, after learning she had pawned jewelry he had given her that once belonged to Saskia.
In the late 1640s Rembrandt began a relationship with the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels, who had initially been his maid. In 1654 they had a daughter, Cornelia, bringing Hendrickje a summons from the Reformed Church to answer the charge “that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter”. She admitted this and was banned from receiving communion. Rembrandt was not summoned to appear for the Church council because he was not a member of the Reformed Church. The two were considered legally wed under common law, but Rembrandt had not married Hendrickje. Had he remarried he would have lost access to a trust set up for Titus in Saskia’s will.
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings) and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into Rembrandt’s collections, which, apart from Old Master paintings and drawings, included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armor among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals. But the prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing. Rembrandt was forced to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, which introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get around this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.
In 1661 Rembrandt (or rather the new business) was contracted to complete work for the newly built city hall, but only after Govert Flinck, the artist previously commissioned, died without beginning to paint. The resulting work, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, was rejected and returned to the painter; the surviving fragment is only a fraction of the whole work. It was around this time that Rembrandt took on his last apprentice, Aert de Gelder. In 1662 he was still fulfilling major commissions for portraits and other works. When Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany came to Amsterdam in 1667, he visited Rembrandt at his house.
Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje, who died in 1663, and Titus, who died in 1668, leaving a baby daughter. He died within a year of his son, on 4 October 1669 in Amsterdam, and was buried as a poor man in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk. It was in a numbered ‘kerkgraf’ (grave owned by the church) somewhere under a tombstone in the church. After twenty years, his remains were taken away and destroyed, as was customary with the remains of poor people at the time.
In a letter to Huygens, Rembrandt offered the only surviving explanation of what he sought to achieve through his art: the greatest and most natural movement, translated from de meeste en de natuurlijkste beweegelijkheid. The word “beweegelijkheid” is also argued to mean “emotion” or “motive”. Whether this refers to objectives, material or otherwise, is open to interpretation; either way, critics have drawn particular attention to the way Rembrandt seamlessly melded the earthly and spiritual.
Earlier 20th century connoisseurs claimed Rembrandt had produced well over 600 paintings, nearly 400 etchings and 2,000 drawings. More recent scholarship, from the 1960s to the present day (led by the Rembrandt Research Project), often controversially, has winnowed his oeuvre to nearer 300 paintings. His prints, traditionally all called etchings, although many are produced in whole or part by engraving and sometimes drypoint, have a much more stable total of slightly under 300. It is likely Rembrandt made many more drawings in his lifetime than 2,000, but those extant are more rare than presumed. Two experts claim that the number of drawings whose autograph status can be regarded as effectively “certain” is no higher than about 75, although this is disputed. The list was to be unveiled at a scholarly meeting in February 2010.
At one time about ninety paintings were counted as Rembrandt self-portraits, but it is now known that he had his students copy his own self-portraits as part of their training. Modern scholarship has reduced the autograph count to over forty paintings, as well as a few drawings and thirty-one etchings, which include many of the most remarkable images of the group. Some show him posing in quasi-historical fancy dress, or pulling faces at himself. His oil paintings trace the progress from an uncertain young man, through the dapper and very successful portrait-painter of the 1630s, to the troubled but massively powerful portraits of his old age. Together they give a remarkably clear picture of the man, his appearance and his psychological make-up, as revealed by his richly weathered face.
In his portraits and self-portraits, he angles the sitter’s face in such a way that the ridge of the nose nearly always forms the line of demarcation between brightly illuminated and shadowy areas. A Rembrandt face is a face partially eclipsed; and the nose, bright and obvious, thrusting into the riddle of halftones, serves to focus the viewer’s attention upon, and to dramatize, the division between a flood of light—an overwhelming clarity—and a brooding duskiness.
In a number of biblical works, including The Raising of the Cross, Joseph Telling His Dreams and The Stoning of Saint Stephen, Rembrandt painted himself as a character in the crowd. Durham suggests that this was because the Bible was for Rembrandt “a kind of diary, an account of moments in his own life”.
Among the more prominent characteristics of Rembrandt’s work are his use of chiaroscuro, the theatrical employment of light and shadow derived from Caravaggio, or, more likely, from the Dutch Caravaggisti, but adapted for very personal means. Also notable are his dramatic and lively presentation of subjects, devoid of the rigid formality that his contemporaries often displayed, and a deeply felt compassion for mankind, irrespective of wealth and age. His immediate family—his wife Saskia, his son Titus and his common-law wife Hendrickje—often figured prominently in his paintings, many of which had mythical, biblical or historical themes.
Drawings by Rembrandt and his pupils have been extensively studied by many artists and scholars through the centuries. His original draughtsmanship has been described as an individualistic art style that was very similar to East Asian old masters, most notably Chinese masters: a “combination of formal clarity and calligraphic vitality in the movement of pen or brush that is closer to Chinese painting in technique and feeling than to anything in European art before the twentieth century”.
Throughout his career Rembrandt took as his primary subjects the themes of portraiture, landscape and narrative painting. For the last, he was especially praised by his contemporaries, who extolled him as a masterly interpreter of biblical stories for his skill in representing emotions and attention to detail. Stylistically, his paintings progressed from the early “smooth” manner, characterized by fine technique in the portrayal of illusionistic form, to the late “rough” treatment of richly variegated paint surfaces, which allowed for an illusionism of form suggested by the tactile quality of the paint itself.
A parallel development may be seen in Rembrandt’s skill as a printmaker. In the etchings of his maturity, particularly from the late 1640s onward, the freedom and breadth of his drawings and paintings found expression in the print medium as well. The works encompass a wide range of subject matter and technique, sometimes leaving large areas of white paper to suggest space, at other times employing complex webs of line to produce rich dark tones.
It was during Rembrandt’s Leiden period (1625–1631) that Lastman’s influence was most prominent. It is also likely that at this time Lievens had a strong impact on his work as well. Paintings were rather small, but rich in details (for example, in costumes and jewelry). Religious and allegorical themes were favored, as were tronies. In 1626 Rembrandt produced his first etchings, the wide dissemination of which would largely account for his international fame. In 1629 he completed Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver and The Artist in His Studio, works that evidence his interest in the handling of light and variety of paint application, and constitute the first major progress in his development as a painter.
During his early years in Amsterdam (1632–1636), Rembrandt began to paint dramatic biblical and mythological scenes in high contrast and of large format (The Blinding of Samson, 1636, Belshazzar’s Feast, c. 1635 Danaë, 1636), seeking to emulate the baroque style of Rubens. With the occasional help of assistants in Uylenburgh’s workshop, he painted numerous portrait commissions both small (Jacob de Gheyn III) and large (Portrait of the Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, 1633, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632).
By the late 1630s Rembrandt had produced a few paintings and many etchings of landscapes. Often these landscapes highlighted natural drama, featuring uprooted trees and ominous skies (Cottages before a Stormy Sky, c. 1641; The Three Trees, 1643). From 1640 his work became less exuberant and more sober in tone, possibly reflecting personal tragedy. Biblical scenes were now derived more often from the New Testament than the Old Testament, as had been the case before. In 1642 he painted The Night Watch, the most substantial of the important group portrait commissions which he received in this period, and through which he sought to find solutions to compositional and narrative problems that had been attempted in previous works.
In the decade following the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s paintings varied greatly in size, subject, and style. The previous tendency to create dramatic effects primarily by strong contrasts of light and shadow gave way to the use of frontal lighting and larger and more saturated areas of color. Simultaneously, figures came to be placed parallel to the picture plane. These changes can be seen as a move toward a classical mode of composition and, considering the more expressive use of brushwork as well, may indicate a familiarity with Venetian art (Susanna and the Elders, 1637–47). At the same time, there was a marked decrease in painted works in favor of etchings and drawings of landscapes. In these graphic works natural drama eventually made way for quiet Dutch rural scenes.
In the 1650s, Rembrandt’s style changed again. Colors became richer and brush strokes more pronounced. With these changes, Rembrandt distanced himself from earlier work and current fashion, which increasingly inclined toward fine, detailed works. His use of light becomes more jagged and harsh, and shine becomes almost nonexistent. His singular approach to paint application may have been suggested in part by familiarity with the work of Titian, and could be seen in the context of the then current discussion of ‘finish’ and surface quality of paintings. Contemporary accounts sometimes remark disapprovingly of the coarseness of Rembrandt’s brushwork, and the artist himself was said to have dissuaded visitors from looking too closely at his paintings. The tactile manipulation of paint may hearken to medieval procedures, when mimetic effects of rendering informed a painting’s surface. The end result is a richly varied handling of paint, deeply layered and often apparently haphazard, which suggests form and space in both an illusory and highly individual manner.
In later years biblical themes were still depicted often, but emphasis shifted from dramatic group scenes to intimate portrait-like figures (James the Apostle, 1661). In his last years, Rembrandt painted his most deeply reflective self-portraits (from 1652 to 1669 he painted fifteen), and several moving images of both men and women (The Jewish Bride, c. 1666)—in love, in life, and before God.