Born: July 15, 1606
Died: October 4, 1669
Rembrandt was one of the most important artists of the great age of Dutch painting. In range, originality, and expressive power, his large production of paintings, drawings, and etchings has never been surpassed.
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born in Leiden, Netherlands, on July 15, 1606, next to the last of the nine or more children of a miller, Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn, and a baker's daughter, Cornelia Neeltgen Willemsdr. van Zuytbroeck. For seven years Rembrandt was a student at the Latin school, and then, in 1620, he enrolled at Leiden University at the age of thirteen. After only a few months, however, he left to pursue his true passion—painting. He was an apprentice (a person working to learn a skill) for three years to the painter Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh, who had studied in Italy.
In 1624 Rembrandt went to Amsterdam to work with Pieter Lastman, a painter of biblical, mythological, and historical scenes. After Lastman's death in 1633, Rembrandt continued to use his teacher's subjects and motifs (dominant themes). It was Lastman's ability to tell a story visually that impressed his youthful pupil. The earliest known works by Rembrandt, beginning with the Stoning of St. Stephen (1625), show an only partially successful imitation of Lastman's style, applied to scenes in which a number of figures are involved in a dramatic action.
By 1625 Rembrandt was working independently in Leiden. He was closely associated at this time with Jan Lievens (1607–1674), also a student of Lastman's. The two young men worked so similarly that even in their own lifetime there was doubt as to which of them was responsible for a particular painting. They used the same models and even worked on each other's pictures.
By 1631 Rembrandt was ready to compete with the accomplished portrait painters of Amsterdam. His portrait of the Amsterdam merchant Nicolaes Ruts (1631) is an amazing likeness executed with a degree of assurance that makes it clear why its author was in demand as a portraitist (an artist who draws or paints a person, usually the head and shoulders).
Early Amsterdam years
Around 1631 or 1632 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, where he had already achieved some recognition as a portraitist. Both his career and his personal life prospered. After an engagement of more than a year, he married a well-to-do young woman, Saskia van Uijlenburgh. In 1639 the young couple set themselves up in a fine house in the Breestraat, now maintained as a museum, the Rembrandthuis. Like many wealthy men of his time, Rembrandt soon began to collect works of art, armor, costumes, and curiosities (unusual trinkets) from far places. He used some of these objects as props in his paintings and etchings (images that are the result of transferring an image off a metal plate onto paper with the use of chemicals).
Rembrandt's works of the mid-1630s were his most baroque, an elaborate style developed in the sixteenth century; indeed he seemed to be purposefully challenging the enormous reputation of painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). This is most expressed in the scenes from the Passion of Christ (1633–1639). The etching Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634) shows how the same drama and excitement, the combination of fine detail with a grand new sweep based largely on bringing together the composition through light and shadow, and the choice of the crucial moment—all characteristic of Rembrandt's baroque style—showed in his graphic works as well as his paintings in this period.
One of Rembrandt's largest and most famous paintings is the group portrait known since the mid-eighteenth century as the Night Watch. This is, in fact, not a night scene at all, and it is correctly titled the Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq. The painting was unfortunately cut down in the eighteenth century. There is no foundation at all for the legend that Captain Cocq and his company were unhappy with their painting and that this failure began a decline in Rembrandt's fortunes that lasted until the end of his life. In fact, there is considerable evidence that the picture was highly praised from the start. Such difficulties as Rembrandt had were not caused by any rejection of his work.
Having had three children who died in infancy, Saskia gave birth to a fourth child, Titus, in September 1641. In June 1642 Saskia died. Geertge Dircx then entered Rembrandt's household in order to take care of Titus. Hendrickje Stoffels, who is first mentioned in connection with Rembrandt in 1649, remained with him until her death in 1663. She left a daughter, Cornelia, who had been born to them in 1654.
About 1640 Rembrandt developed a new interest in landscape which lasted through the next two decades. A series of drawings and etchings show keen observation of nature, great originality in composing, and marvelous economy. The etched View of Amsterdam (c.1640) influenced the landscape paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael (c.1628–1682). The tiny painting Winter Landscape (1646) has all the earmarks of having been painted from life, on the spot. This would be a rare case in seventeenth-century Dutch landscape, which usually was painted in the studio from sketches.
The first Anglo-Dutch War (1652–54; when England battled the Dutch Republic) may have played a part in Rembrandt's financial difficulties, of which there is evidence from 1653 on. All of his prized possessions were sold at auction, beginning in December 1657, and three years later Rembrandt, Titus, and Hendrickje moved to a smaller house.
In 1652 a Sicilian nobleman who was a discerning (selective and shrewd) collector commissioned a painting from Rembrandt. If the painting was satisfactory, two more were to be ordered. Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer was completed in 1653 and shipped off to Sicily, and the two additional pictures were sent in 1661. The meaning of the Aristotle is not yet fully understood, but its quality is unquestionable.
Rembrandt's Self-Portrait (1658) shows the aging artist seated squarely before us, meeting our eyes with forthright gaze, and wearing a fantastic costume whose sharp horizontals and verticals stress the composition based on right angles that best represents this period. A number of admirable etched portraits also date from this time, as well as etchings of religious subjects, such as the impressive Ecce homo (1655), which reflects an engraving made in 1510 by the great Dutch graphic artist Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533).
In 1660 and 1661 Rembrandt painted an enormous canvas for the splendid new town hall in Amsterdam. It was the Conspiracy of the Batavians, or the Oath of Julius Civilis, known to us through the remaining fragment and a penand-wash drawing of the entire composition.
Hendrickje died in 1663. In September 1668 Titus died as well. The lonely Rembrandt continued to paint. His last Self-Portrait is dated 1669. When he died in Amsterdam, on October 4, 1669, a painting, Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple, was left unfinished on his easel.
For More Information
Bonafoux, Pascal. Rembrandt, Master of the Portrait. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1992.
Gerson, Horst. Rembrandt Paintings. New York: Reynal, 1968.
Schama, Simon. Rembrandt's Eyes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
White, Christopher. Rembrandt and His World. New York: Viking, 1964.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (rĕm´brănt, Du. rĕm´bränt här´mənsōn vän rīn), 1606–69, Dutch painter, etcher, and draftsman, b. Leiden. Rembrandt is acknowledged as the greatest master of the Dutch school.
A miller's son, Rembrandt attended a Latin school and spent part of one year at the Univ. of Leiden, leaving in 1621 to study painting with a local artist, Jacob van Swanenburgh. His most valuable training was received during the six months of 1624 that he spent in the studio of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. Lastman's work affected Rembrandt's in his sense of composition and his frequent choice of religious and historical themes. Receptive to many influences at this time, Rembrandt sometimes reflected the dramatic chiaroscuro of Caravaggio in paintings such as The Money Changer (Berlin) or the more delicate and detailed manner of Elsheimer as in The Tribute Money (London).
The Leiden Years
In 1625 Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he developed his own distinct style, using the many possibilities of the oil medium, heavily layering the paint, and experimenting with diverse techniques. He showed an unusual preference for the faces of the old and the poor from his earliest works to his latest (e.g., Two Philosophers, Melbourne). In the Leiden years he began the magnificent series of nearly 100 self-portraits that describe the continuing development of his profound self-understanding and self-awareness, as well as his stylistic growth. While in Leiden he collaborated with Jan Lievens and began to teach. He devoted much of his life to teaching, and one of his foremost pupils in Leiden was Gerard Dou.
Amsterdam: Success, Bankruptcy, and a Developing Style
Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1632, where he became established as a portrait painter with his group portrait Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632; The Hague), a traditional subject to which he gave radical treatment. His commissioned portraits include those of Minister Johannes Elison and his wife (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston) and Nicolas Ruts (Frick Coll., New York City). His position in Amsterdam was further solidified by the dowry and social connections gained by his joyous marriage to Saskia van Ulyenburgh, a burgomaster's daughter.
Affluent and successful, he began to collect numerous works of art, costumes, and curiosities, always learning from the art and often using the costumes in his portraits. During this period his style acquired a new richness of color and greater plasticity of form. He incorporated the vigor, opulence, and drama of the baroque movement, best seen in The Sacrifice of Abraham (St. Petersburg) and The Blinding of Samson (1636, Frankfurt). His studio was filled with pupils, including Jacob Backer, Govaert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol, and later the gifted Carel Fabritius and Nicholas Maes.
Serious financial difficulties began for Rembrandt with his purchase of an impressive house in 1639. Saskia died in 1642 after the birth of their only surviving child, Titus, who was later to become Rembrandt's favorite portrait subject. During the same year he completed his most famous group portrait, The Shooting Company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq (Rijksmus.) This work is traditionally called The Night Watch, although a cleaning in 1946–47 revealed a daylight setting. In this work and others instead of painting a conventional group portrait, Rembrandt made of it a crowd spectacle, sacrificing individual identities to dramatic, high-contrast lighting.
During the 1640s Rembrandt developed an enduring interest in landscape. He made numerous etchings, including Three Trees and Christ Healing the Sick, executed with exceptional spontaneity and vigor, and created many works solely for his own pleasure, an unusual practice for his time. This, together with his art collecting, eventually caused financial ruin.
Later Years, Late Masterworks
In 1660 his housekeeper and devoted love for many years, Hendrickje Stoffels, and Titus formed a business partnership to shield the bankrupt Rembrandt from his creditors. In the last two decades of his life Rembrandt, withdrawn from society and no longer fashionable, created many of his masterpieces. These works were more concerned with human character than with outward appearance and are the foundation of his unequaled reputation. Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653; Metropolitan Mus.) reveals his power to elicit a mood of profound mystery and meditation. Among the other remarkable paintings of this period is Bathsheba (Louvre); two of the notable etchings are Three Crosses (1653) and Christ Presented to the People (1655).
The powerful night scene The Conspiracy of the Batavians (1661; Stockholm) is the remaining fragment of his most monumental historical work. To the 1660s belong The Family Group (Brunswick), The Jewish Bride (Rijksmus.), and The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662; Rijksmus.), all of which are loosely structured, flamelike in color, and psychologically penetrating. Personal tragedy struck the master with the death of Hendrickje in 1663 and of Titus in 1668. Rembrandt lived for one more year, survived by Cornelia, his and Hendrickje's only child.
The universal appeal of Rembrandt's art rests upon its profound humanity. His surpassing handling of light was recognized even when his critics considered that his subject matter was vulgar and indecorous. The prodigious output of his lifetime is known to embrace more than 600 paintings, about 300 etchings, and nearly 2,000 drawings. To each medium he gave his best effort.
Rembrandt's work can be found in many European and American museums. The best collections are in Amsterdam, Berlin, The Hague, St. Petersburg, New York City, and Washington, D.C. The Louvre, the British Museum, and the Rijksmuseum have good collections of his etchings and drawings. In 1968 a group of eminent Dutch scholars under the sponsorship of the Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Scientific Research formed a committee to reassess the authenticity of works attributed to Rembrandt and compile a complete critical catalog of his paintings. Known as the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP), it has used a variety of sophisticated analytical techniques and has substantially reduced the number of paintings definitely considered to have been painted by the artist. By the end of the 20th cent. the RRP had produced three volumes of an anticipated five-volume work entitled A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings.
Comprehensive editions of his works have been compiled: his paintings by A. Bredius (rev. by H. Gerson, 3d ed. 1969), his etchings by A. M. Hind (2d ed. 1923, repr. 1967), and his drawings by O. Benesch (6 vol., 1954–58).
See studies of his life and works by O. Benesch, Essays on Rembrandt (Vol. I of Benesch's Collected Works, tr. 1970); biographies by L. Munz and B. Haak (1984) and G. Schwartz (1986); studies by O. Banks (1982) and S. Schama (1999).
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
http://www.rijksmuseum.nl; http://www.nga.gov; http://www.metmuseum.org; http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk