Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669)

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REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (16061669), Dutch artist. Known for his portraits, history paintings, and graphic works that display an affecting empathy for his subjects, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in the university town of Leiden. The ninth child of a baker's daughter and the well-to-do owner of a malt mill, "De Rijn," the young Rembrandt must have attended the local Latin school because on 20 May 1620, at the age of 14, he enrolled at Leiden University, where he remained for only a short time. Rembrandt may have started his artistic studies with a Leiden painter unknown to us today. Between 1619 and 1622 he began a three-year apprenticeship with Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh (15711638) whose painted scenes of hell left no trace in the work of his famous pupil. In 1623 or 1624 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam to study with Pieter Lastman (15831633), the city's leading history painter. After about six months Rembrandt left Lastman's studio and, rather than travel and study in Italy (as had van Swanenburgh, Lastman, and many of his fellow artists), he returned to Leiden as a master and probably moved into the studio of another Lastman pupil, Jan Lievens (16071674). Here Rembrandt began examining his face and emotional expression in painted and etched self-portraits and produced a series of small-scale history paintings in whose choice of subject matter and composition one can see both the influence of Lastman and an artistic dialogue with Lievens.


Rembrandt's earliest known dated painting, The Stoning of St. Stephen (1625; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon), recalls the horizontal format and dramatic gestures of Lastman's work. It also shows evidence of his own emerging artistic qualities, including a greater focus on the central subject and a variety of emotional responses to an event. In his early twenties Rembrandt came to the attention of Constantijn Huygens, the influential secretary to Frederik Hendrik, prince of Orange. Huygens praised the dramatic emotional tenor of his Repentant Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (1629; private collection, England). Over the course of the following decade he received through Huygens a number of commissions from Prince Frederick Hendrick, including a portrait of the prince's wife and a series of Christ's Passion.


By about 1631 Rembrandt had begun receiving portrait commissions from prominent Amsterdam citizens, and in 1632 he moved to the thriving metropolis. As exemplified in the single-figured Nicholas Ruts (1631; Frick Collection, New York) and the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632; Mauritshuis, The Hague), these works transformed the portrait tradition by displaying figures caught in actions that imply an inner life of thought and feeling. Rembrandt's history paintings from this period similarly show motion and psychological drama, from his lyrical Danaë welcoming Jupiter as a shower of golden light (c. 1636 and early 1640s; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) to the high theatricality of The Blinding of Samson (1636; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) that depicts the gruesome moment a dagger is plunged into Samson's eye.

During his first years in Amsterdam, Rembrandt, lodged with the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh, who may have brokered some of the artist's early portrait commissions. In 1634 Rembrandt both joined the Amsterdam Guild of St. Luke and married Uylenburgh's niece Saskia, the daughter of a wealthy burgomaster of Leeuwarden. From early in his career, Rembrandt self-consciously fabricated an artistic persona. Throughout his life he produced an unprecedented number of drawn, etched, and painted self-portraits (of which about 80 survive), and even occasionally inserted his own face into his history paintings. Beginning in 1633, in contrast to most of his contemporaries, he signed his works with his given name, emulating such Italian predecessors as Raphael, Titian, and Leonardo. By 1639 Rembrandt could afford to purchase an expensive house, complete with studio.

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait of 1640 (London, National Gallery) depicts a self-confident artist at the height of his powers. Its pose and composition recall two Italian Renaissance portraits known to Rembrandt: Titian's so-called Portrait of a Man, at the time believed to represent the poet Ariosto (c. 1512; National Gallery, London), and Raphael's portrait of the courtier and author Baldassare Castiglione (c. 15141515; Musée du Louvre, Paris). In doing so, Rembrandt created a "paragone," a classic rivalry, between himself and his Renaissance forebears, two painters and two poets. In his most famous work, The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, better known today as The Night Watch (1642; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), Captain Banning Cocq strides beside his smartly dressed lieutenant and, gesturing with a sweep of his left hand, gives the order for his men to march out behind him. With its implied narrative, lively movement, and varied psychological response to the occasion, the conceit was unprecedented in Dutch group portraiture.


Also in 1642, Rembrandt's beloved wife Saskia died. He took into his bed his son's nurse, Geertge Dircks, and subsequently Hendrickje Stoffels, who, pregnant, in 1654 was called before the Reformed Church council for "having committed whoredom" with the artist. About this time Rembrandt began to suffer economic setbacks, in part due to his own poor financial decisions and to the general economic slowdown that accompanied the Anglo-Dutch war of 16521654. On 14 July 1656, facing bankruptcy, the artist applied for a cessio bonorum,surrendering the control of his large house, its contents, and his possessions to the Chamber of Insolvent Estates. These stresses may be responsible, in part, for the intensely meditative turn of his works. His Bathsheba with King David's Letter (1654; Musée du Louvre, Paris) depicts the young woman in deep reflection, while his great Portrait of Jan Six shows the regent lost in thought as he pulls on a glove (1654; Foudation Six, Amsterdam).

Throughout his life, Rembrandt experimented with print media, from early studies of his face dating from the late 1620s through charming etchings of family life, landscapes, genre images, and biblical scenesmany displaying a beguiling intimacy, freshness, and spontaneity. He tried various effects of ink, pulled impressions on different kinds of paper, and avidly reworked his conceptions: Rembrandt developed his masterful drypoint Ecce Homo (also called Christ Presented to the People, 1655) through eight different states. The title later given to an image depicting several episodes from chapter 19 of the Gospel of Matthew, The Hundred Guilder Print (c. 16421649), attests to the value collectors attached to the master's prints.

His magnificent Self-Portrait of 1658 (Frick Collection, New York) presents the master as confident of his artistic powers. Gold light bathes a garment set off by a red sash. A fur-trimmed cloak drapes his shoulders, and he holds his painter's mahlstick as if it were a king's scepter. However, not all of the commissions he received during the last decade of his life were trouble-free. His Oath of the Batavians to Claudius Civilis, commissioned for the Amsterdam Town Hall, was removed after only a few months (c. 16611662; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm). The taste of many Dutch patrons and art theorists had turned toward classicistic painting, while Rembrandt's work moved in another direction and featured freely worked surfaces, glowing colors, and profoundly contemplative subjects. Nonetheless, the fact that writers occasionally singled out the master for derision confirms the hold he and his work had on the century's imagination. Rembrandt continued to receive important commissions, including the Syndics of the Drapers' Guild of 1662 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), while his late history paintings, such as The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 16661668; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg) are among the most personal and moving images produced in his time.

See also Art: The Conception and Status of the Artist ; Netherlands, Art in the ; Painting ; Prints and Popular Imagery .


Bruyn, Josua, et al. A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings. 3 vols. The Hague, 19821989.

The Rembrandt Documents. Edited by Walter L. Strauss and Marjon van de Meulen. New York, 1979.

Schama, Simon. Rembrandt's Eyes. New York, 1999.

Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings. New York, 1985.

Westermann, Mariët. Rembrandt. London, 2000.

Wetering, Ernst van de. Rembrandt: The Painter at Work. Amsterdam, 1997.

Ann Jensen Adams