Rembrandt van Rijn

One of the best known artists of all time, Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is particularly significant for his self-portraits and biblical scenes, executed in rich, dark tones with generous brushwork, dramatic lighting and psychological penetration. His prolific output includes more than 600 paintings, almost 2,000 drawings and some 300 etchings.

Biography

Rembrandt van Rijn
Dutch, 1606–1669

Rembrandt was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden into a fairly prosperous family; his father was a mill owner and his mother’s relatives were bakers. He was sent to the city’s Latin school and then enrolled at Leiden University, but he stayed for only six months before taking up a three-year apprenticeship with the history painter Jacob van Swanenburgh around the beginning of the 1620s. The final and most important part of his training was some six months in Amsterdam around 1623 with Pieter Lastman, who had spent several years in Italy and brought back the ideas and techniques of such masters as Caravaggio.

Returning to Leiden, Rembrandt set up his own studio, and by 1628 he was attracting his own pupils, the first of whom was Gerrit Dou. Rembrandt’s earliest paintings are historic figure groups that treat religious and Classical themes – Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625), Palamedes Before Agamemnon (1626) – and use gesture and facial expression, light and shadow to convey the emotion and drama of key moments. Such lofty subjects were not typical of seventeenth-century Dutch art, which focused more on landscapes, scenes depicting daily activities and still lifes. While in Leiden, Rembrandt embarked on portraiture, principally producing self-portraits but also tronies (an old Dutch word for ‘faces’ or ‘expressions’). These studies of heads, often in exotic hats, served as practice pieces, allowing the artist to concentrate on features, poses, fabrics and lighting. He also began making etchings, such as the Self-Portrait of 1629 and Presentation in the Temple (1631). By the end of the 1620s he had established his reputation, as testified by a glowing description of Judas Returning the Silver Pieces (1629) in the autobiography of Constantijn Huygens, secretary to the Prince of Orange.

In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then the financial centre of northern Europe, where he lodged with his art dealer, Hendrick Uylenburgh. Rembrandt soon became the city’s most successful portraitist, creating some 50 works in his first four years there, principally for prosperous merchants and preachers. An important commission just after his arrival came from the guild of surgeons for a group portrait recording the chief surgeon’s annual scientific demonstration. In Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632), Rembrandt broke with the tradition of a static, formal painting of the dignitaries, arranging them instead in a triangle with several faces silhouetted, looking on as the arm of a corpse is dissected.

Rembrandt was ambitious for recognition as one of the best painters in Europe, also aiming to evoke ‘the greatest and most natural emotion’ with his religious art, as he wrote to Huygens. Two paintings of Christ’s Passion, made for the Prince of Orange in 1632 to 1633 as part of a series for his private chapel, echo the style and subject matter of Peter Paul Rubens,  one of the supreme artists of the period. Yet while Rubens’s works are heroic and vivid, Rembrandt’s show humble, ordinary soldiers and mourners witnessing the crucifixion in scenes that are dark apart from the almost luminous figure of Jesus. This contrast of light and shadow was particularly appropriate for printmaking, and during the 1630s Rembrandt produced a series of large biblical etchings. Describing Annunciation to the Shepherds (1634), art historian Larry Silver writes, ‘The character of experimentation that would typify Rembrandt's etchings emerges from this print in the conscious reversal of lights and darks. Here the forms and highlights come forward out of the dense, dark lines... This technique, which creates the effect of light emerging out of darkness, became a hallmark of some of Rembrandt's most moving late religious prints.’

In 1634 Rembrandt married Saskia Uylenburgh, Hendrick’s cousin and daughter of the chief magistrate. Her high social status and substantial dowry indicate something of his success at the time. Between 1636 and 1641 Saskia gave birth to four children but only the last, Titus, survived. Alongside his commissions, Rembrandt began to make numerous portraits and drawings of his wife – Saskia as Flora or Minerva, Saskia laughing or sleeping, Saskia in formal dress, even Saskia on his lap in the guise of a loose woman in a painting of the prodigal son. He continued to produce history paintings; such drama-laden works as The Rape of Ganymede (1635) and Belshazzar’s Feast (c. 1636–1638) show him working on a monumental scale and excelling in conveying human emotion. In 1639 he was able to move to an expensive new house, and students flocked to his studio.

Rembrandt began the 1640s with his largest painting, a commission for the group portrait known as the Night Watch (1640–1642) – another dynamic marriage of history and action with strong chiaroscuro, sumptuous detail and expressive gesture. However, a decline in his fortunes during the decade began with the death of Saskia in 1642 and a falling off of commissions from wealthy patrons. His style became more intimate and he experimented with landscapes, often etching or drawing rather than painting. Etching was also the medium for a series of portraits of artists, scholars and friends, including painter Jan Asselijn, doctor Ephraim Bonus and chief magistrate Jan Six. In Rembrandt’s biblical works of the 1640s, the focus is on Christ’s ministry of healing and preaching, as in the Hundred Guilder Print (c. 1643–1649), so-called because of the high price it fetched in around 1700.

After Saskia’s death Rembrandt was involved first with Titus’s nurse, Geertghe Dircx, who sued him when the relationship did not result in marriage, and from about 1650 with Hendrickje Stoffels. Their daughter, Cornelia, was born in 1654. Hendrickje features in even more paintings and studies than did Saskia, but Rembrandt was unable to marry her due to punitive provisions in his wife’s will. During the 1650s he struggled financially, ultimately declaring bankruptcy in 1656. The inventory of his possessions at the time indicates that he had been a collector of fine art, natural history specimens and oriental treasures.

Moving in 1658 to more modest quarters, Rembrandt painted portraits and powerful religious images characterised by their introspection and soulfulness, such as Peter Denying Christ (1660). His late self-portraits, with their heavily worked paint, show the culmination of an examination of himself that began around 1628 and extended into his final months. Noble and ageing, with a lined brow and somewhat questioning expression, he looks up from a book in Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661); Self-Portrait as Zeuxis (c. 1662) shows him smiling out of a dimly-lit canvas, his face and scarf suffused with a warm glow; and in the stern Self-Portrait with Two Circles (c. 1665–1669), palette and brushes in hand, he asserts himself as a masterly painter.

Hendrickje died in 1663 and Titus in 1668. Eleven months later, on 4 October 1669, Rembrandt died and was buried alongside them in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk.

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September 2013

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