Rembrandt van Rhijn
Rembrandt van Rhijn
The Dutch Golden Age.
The career of the great Dutch master Rembrandt coincided with the rise of Holland as Europe's most formidable commercial power. The artist lived during a great era of achievement in painting, but of all the masters that Holland was to produce in the seventeenth century, Rembrandt was universally acclaimed, even in his own time, as the supreme commanding figure. He came to acquire a reputation even in his own lifetime as an artist comparable to the great High Renaissance masters Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. This achievement was all the more remarkable because of the artist's relatively humble origins. Unlike his great Flemish contemporary and patrician, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt was the son of a miller from Leiden. He was, however, precocious and received Latin schooling before entering university. He never completed his degree, but instead apprenticed himself to a painter before going off to obtain additional training in Amsterdam. Of the greatest Northern European artists, he was one of the first to be completely schooled in his craft in his native country, for he never visited Italy and seems not to have traveled far from his native Netherlands during his life.
Following the completion of his training at Amsterdam, the artist returned to Leiden and set up a studio there around 1626. In these early years, Rembrandt relied on engravings and his voluminous knowledge of the ways in which other painters had rendered subjects to create works that were already imaginative for their fusion of many different ideas and compositional techniques. At this time he also made contact with Hendrick van Uylenburgh, a successful art dealer in Amsterdam, who for many years was to sell the artist's works and to secure commissions for him. At Leiden, Rembrandt shared a studio with the artist Jan Lievens, and the two developed an unusual relationship. They hired and posed models, each undertaking to paint his own version of the same subject at the same time, though they never seem to have worked on a canvas together. In the commercially overheated art market that was developing in the Netherlands at the time, such an arrangement had the advantage of cutting costs in half. By 1631, Rembrandt's career was already well established and he decided to move from Leiden to Amsterdam, which was then, as now, the busiest commercial center in the region. He took up residence at first in Hendrick van Uylenburgh's house, having invested money in the art dealer's business shortly before coming to Amsterdam. His reputation continued to grow, and he soon married Uylenburgh's niece Saskia, a love match that was to prove happy until his wife's death in 1640. The artist's fortunes rose, and eventually Rembrandt and his growing family were able to purchase a townhouse, an expensive commodity in the competitive Dutch economy of the day. During these early years in Amsterdam, the typical Rembrandt style became ever more pronounced, with the artist developing swift and bold brushwork that made use of built-up passages of paint known as impasto.
By the early 1640s, Rembrandt's success as an artist on the Amsterdam scene was assured, and shortly afterwards he was to paint one of the monumental works for which he has long been known, the so-called Night Watch. This painting is a group portrait of Captain Banning Cocq and his local militia regiment who were charged with defending Amsterdam. Long believed to have been painted by the master using night lighting, the art world was shocked in 1975 when the painting was cleaned. After removing layers of varnish that had been applied to the enormous canvas, it was revealed that Rembrandt had painted the picture using stark daylight. The work was notable at the time and widely admired for Rembrandt's ability to render the large company in a way that appeared completely natural. The artist arranged the members of the militia as if they had just been called to arms, and the swift movement and cacophony that his work suggests was widely admired at the time, even though some of those who appear in the work are partially obscured by the outbreak of the work's melee.
Even as Rembrandt's reputation continued to increase, problems in the artist's personal life worsened. In the years following the death of his wife, Rembrandt became personally involved with his son's nurse-maid, a widow, and then dismissed her when another woman came into his life. In the furor that soon erupted, Rembrandt was forced to grant the widow an annuity. As the enmity between the two worsened, Rembrandt was to have the woman confined to a prison for defamation. Despite these personal problems, the artist's productivity remained prolific, and in these years he began to purchase extraordinary amounts of art. Commercial dealing in art, antiquities, and engravings was a popular pastime of the wealthy merchants of Amsterdam, and although Rembrandt seems to have wanted to indulge his own artistic interests as a collector and practicing artist, he also came to speculate on the art market as an investment. Another spur to his enormous collecting habits was his life-long search for acceptance and social respectability, since his enormous holdings conferred a status as a gentleman, something he had long craved. During the 1650s, his purchases grew to truly profligate levels, and he acquired a number of debts to sustain his collecting and speculation. By 1656, he was forced to declare bankruptcy, and was even imprisoned for a time before securing his release. Over the next few years, his possessions were auctioned off at a fraction of their cost, the market in art having become depressed. In the years that followed, the artist was allowed to enter into a commercial agreement with his family by which he became, in effect, their employee. This arrangement proved fruitful, allowing the artist to regain some of his former status. Besides completing a number of commissions in his final years, he also returned to engraving, a medium he had long enjoyed but had not had much time to practice during the 1640s and 1650s. In this late period, he came to realize the great commercial potential that his skills as an engraver provided. By the time of his death, the artist had apparently reinstated much of his fortune, since three locked storerooms filled high with art were found in his home after his funeral.
Marc Le Bot, Rembrandt. 2 vols. (New York: Crown Publishers, 1990).
Jakob Rosenberg, Rembrandt. 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1948).
Christopher White, Rembrandt (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984).