“Rembrandt had little use for Italian art. He ignored Raphael, turned up his nose at Leonardo, and shook off the influence of Michelangelo. He even refused to make the traditional artist’s pilgrimage to Rome. Yet he did adopt one practice from the Italian greats: He signed his name, simply, Rembrandt. Like Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo before him (or Cher, Prince, and Madonna after him), he was known by one name alone.”
Rembrandt was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606 . His full name Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. He was the son of a miller. Despite the fact that he came from a family of relatively modest means, his parents took great care with his education. In contrast to his successful public career, however, Rembrandt’s family life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641, his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh gave birth to four children, but only the last, Titus, survived; her own death came in 1642- at the age of 30. Hendrickje Stoffels, engaged as his housekeeper in 1649, eventually became his common-law wife and was the model for many of his pictures.
Despite Rembrandt’s financial success as an artist, teacher, and art dealer, his penchant for ostentatious living forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. An inventory of his collection of art and antiquities were taken before an auction to pay his debts, showed the breadth of Rembrandt’s interests: ancient sculpture, Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings, Far Eastern art, contemporary Dutch works, weapons, and armor. Unfortunately, the results of the auction including the sale of his house were disappointing.
If one thinks that other artists had a thing for self-portraits, Rembrandt put them to shame by drawing, painting, and etching his own likeness more than eighty times. Through these detailed and often startling works, we watch the artist age, his hair growing longer, shorter, and longer again; his eyes changing from sharp to tired to rheumy; his nose bulging wider and wider until the skin is pitted and the veins are broken. Sometimes he experiments with different facial expressions, from surprise to anger to shock. Other times he presents himself as a character—a beggar or a withered St. Paul. But most often he is unmistakably himself, an artist, holding a palette or standing before a canvas. In 1669, with both Hendrickje and Titus dead, Rembrandt depicted himself as Democritus, the ancient Greek philosopher who laughed at the spectacle of human life. The poignancy of the aging artist producing a bitter chuckle at the vanity of ambition makes for a haunting work.
“OF COURSE YOU WILL SAY THAT I OUGHT TO
BE PRACTICAL AND OUGHT TO TRY AND PAINT
THE WAY THEY WANT ME TO PAINT. WELL,
I WILL TELL YOU A SECRET. I HAVE TRIED
AND I HAVE TRIED VERY HARD, BUT I CAN’T
DO IT. I JUST CAN’T DO IT! AND THAT IS WHY
I AM JUST A LITTLE CRAZY.”
Rembrandt is now thought to be the greatest Dutch painter and also one of the greatest painters of all time. In 1624 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, where he was apprenticed to the much more fashionable Pieter Lastman, but he only remained there for a year and then returned to Leiden. Several of Rembrandt’s earliest pictures owe a clear debt to Lastman, for example the Stoning of Saint Stephen which is dated 1624 in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Lyons. However, it is not Lastman who was the most important formative influence on the young artist but the fact that he shared a studio throughout the latter part of the 1620s in Leiden with Jan Lievens. It was not until 1631 that Rembrandt was to receive his first important commission, for The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp which is in the Mauritshuis, The Hague.
The 1630s was a period of conspicuous success for the artist and his pictures rarely contain that quality of insight into the human condition of misfortune and sadness which characterizes his later work. The Flight into Egypt
in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Tours has all the feeling of urgency necessary, but what a contrast this is to the enormous The Blinding of Samson
at Frankfurt. In spite of their brutality there is an optimistic and self-assured feeling in almost all the pictures in this period.
It was in the 1640s that Rembrandt took a great interest in landscape. Occasionally they are given a narrative subject, as in the Rest on the Flight in Dublin; at other times they are simply concerned with light and atmosphere as in the surprising little Winter Scene
The last 20 years of Rembrandt’s life see him becoming increasingly independent and detached from his artistic environment. His pictures become far more inwardly emotional. The Berlin Man in a Golden Helmet
is both a still life of an ageing man in an extravagant gold helmet and a statement about the contrast between the untarnishable gold and the fragile human underneath it. A surprising number of the paintings from these years are of uncertain date. Rembrandt’s last years must not be seen simply as those of a misanthropic and misunderstood genius struggling and ultimately failing.
Many people are surprised to learn that Rembrandt’s etchings, not his paintings, were responsible for the international reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime. Rembrandt’s fame while he lived was greater as an etcher than as a painter. The acknowledged master of the medium, he turned it into a wondrously flexible instrument of his art. Biblical themes, genre, landscapes, portraits, nudes, all these he found suitable for etching. As much in command of tools as of technique, Rembrandt sometimes employed even the V-shaped engraver’s burin in his etchings, combining it with the fine etching needle and thicker dry point needle, as in the work opposite, for richer pictorial effects.
Within two or three years after his first efforts Rembrandt had become a master of etching. The portrait of his mother, dated 1628, is an extraordinarily penetrating character study, executed by the 22-year-old artist in a network of very fine lines that capture the play of light, shadow and air with a skill far exceeding that of Callot or of any Dutch etcher. The refinement of his technique appears to even greater advantage in a later portrait of his mother, in 1631, in which countless scurrying, hair-thin strokes are used to build up his chiaroscuro and texture.
In the course of his career Rembrandt made scores, even hundreds of impressions from many of his approximately 290 plates. None of the etchings is larger than 21 by 18 inches; many are of postcard size or smaller, and one, The Little Polander,
measures only three-quarters of an inch wide and two and one-quarter inches high.
About 1,400 drawings by Rembrandt have been preserved and carefully catalogued. Like other artists he drew preparatory studies as far his paintings and prints, but he did not make many drawings of this type. Those executed as finished works, complete in themselves, are even rarer. Most of Rembrandt’s drawings were made to satisfy an insatiable urge to record what he saw with his inner, as well as his outer ere.
The selection reproduced in these volumes gives an excellent idea of Rembrandt’s unmatched range, depth, and human sympathy. It includes self-portraits and portraits; sketches of the humdrum activities on Amsterdam’s busy streets; beggars and quacks, children at play, women gossiping, or people merely watching the passing scene; studies of Jewish types and Orientals; drawings of nudes, birds, domestic animals and captive wild beasts; copies of famous works of art, rare medals and exotic Moghul miniatures; views of towns and architectural monuments; studies of the landscape around Amsterdam and of the spacious Dutch countryside; drawings of episodes from classical mythology, ancient history, and, above all, the Bible.
Although it was Rembrandt’s practice to sign and date his paintings and etchings, he hardly ever inscribed his name on his drawings. Only about two dozen bear his signature. Some of Rembrandt’s rare signed drawings were made expressly as contributions to the albums of friends, for example, the drawings of Homer Reciting Verses
and Minerva in Her Study
done for the Album Amicorum entitled “Pandora” which belonged to his friend and patron Jan Six. A few others may have been designed as presentation sheets. However, most of them needed no signature. They were made for Rembrandt’s private use, not for the public or posterity. He saved and stored them in a systematic way.
It wasn’t until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when scholars studied Rembrandt’s oeuvre as a whole, that it was discovered how very many times the artist had portrayed himself. The number is still a matter of contention, but it seems he depicted himself in approximately forty to fifty extant paintings, about thirty-two etchings, and seven drawings. It is an output unique in history; most artists produce only a handful of self-portraits, if that. And why Rembrandt did this is one of the great mysteries of art history. Most scholars up till about twenty years ago interpreted Rembrandt’s remarkable series of self-portraits as a sort of visual diary, a forty-year exercise in self-examination.
More recent scholarship has shed additional light on Rembrandt’s early self-portrayals. Rembrandt may have used his own face because the model was cheap, but perhaps he was killing two birds with one stone. The art-buying public which then included people from many walks of life, not only aristocratic or clerical patrons, as in the past went for etchings of famous people, including artists. By using himself as the model for these and other studies, Rembrandt was making himself into a recognizable celebrity at the same time that he gave the public strikingly original and expressive tronies. The wide dissemination of these and other prints was important in establishing Rembrandt’s reputation as an artist.
The Stoning of Saint Stephen, 1625
Location: The Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon.
Type: Oil on canvas.
A well-preserved work, stylistically in sufficient agreement with other early history paintings by Rembrandt; on the basis of the signature and dating, together with other evidence, it can be accepted as the earliest work known with certainty to be autograph. The Stoning of Saint Stephen is often assumed to be probably the first painting by Dutch artist, painted in 1625 at the age of 19. It is currently kept in the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
The stoning of Saint Stephen is taking place outside the walls of Jerusalem, the domes and towers of which can be seen in the background. Stephen is kneeling, with his arms spread wide, in the right foreground in the centre of a densely-packed throng of stone-throwers and onlookers. He keeps his gaze fixed towards the top left of the picture, whence a shaft of light is streaming down, from the opened heavens, gives a strong lighting, at two very distinct levels of intensity, of the group made up by Stephen and some of the figures surrounding him. In the dark, to the left of this shaft of light, and in front of a wall, are two mounted figures, a high dignitary and a standard bearer, and one of the stone-throwers. On a hillock in the middle ground, seen full-length and standing out above the group in the foreground, the young Saul sits with the outer garments of the stone-throwers over his knees. He points in Stephen’s direction, while looking towards one of tile bystanders alongside him on the hillock. On the extreme right in the background, close to the city walls, a group of three standing figures includes an old, bearded man who is making emphatic gestures.
At this early stage of his career, the filling of the picture area is seen to preoccupy the artist more than achieving a clear spatial arrangement, and in this respect to the Leiden History painting represents a marked change. With this picture there are, however, also striking similarities such as the differentiation in the way paint is used, always meeting the needs of depicting different substances and different facial types, and matching the distance at which they are seen. Other works from 1626 and in particular the Moscow Driving-out of the moneychangers show a similar filling of area by amassing figures one above the other, thus exhibiting a clear relationship to this painting This similarity also extends to the style of painting, with forms in the foreground given the strongest modelling and occasional small and subtle colour accents, and to the use of a variegated colour scheme.
Belshazzar’s Feast, 1635
Location: National Gallery, London.
Type: Oil on canvas.
Belshazzar’s Feast, housed in the National Gallery, London, is an attempt to establish Rembrandt as a painter of large, baroque history paintings. An authentic painting, reliably signed and probably datable in 1635.
The scene is based on Daniel, which tells how Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gave a feast for his nobles, wives and concubines, and had them drink from the gold and silver vessels his father Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Temple in Jerusalem. During the meal a hand appeared and wrote on the wall a text that Daniel alone could decipher: ‘Mene mene tekel ufarsin’ (thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting) and that same night Belshazzar was slain. The feast is taking place in a barely-indicated room, where on the left a curtain can be seen; light falls from the left, and the letters appearing on the wall on the right also give off light. The company, seen down to the knees, are grouped round a table covered with a green-grey, patterned cloth. On the table are a gold dish, a bowl of fruit and eating utensils. King Belshazzar has jumped to his feet and stares in fright towards the right where glowing Hebrew letters are being written by a hand on the wall. His left arm is raised, while his right knocks over a gold wine jug. He wears a turban with a tail of cloth at the back, topped by a crown. A jewel with a horse-tail tassel is fixed to the turban. He wears a richly-decorated gold brocade cloak trimmed with fur, held together at the front by a very large, jewelled clasp. Under this is a grey tunic with braiding, and a sash round his waist. A heavy chain loops across his body.
In front of him to the right a woman in a low-cut red gown starts back and wine spills from a goblet held in her right hand; her upper body is tilted back towards the viewer. At the extreme left a woman dressed in black, with ostrich-plumes on her head, sits in a chair; she is seen from the side, with her face in lost profile turned to the right. On the further side of the table, to Belshazzar’s right, sits a woman with loose hanging hair, her hands clasped in front of her; she looks towards the right, at Belshazzar and the writing on the wall. Next to her on the left is the head of a bearded man, wearing a black cap; his expression is one of alarm, and he too stares towards the right. Behind him, in the shadow, is the head of a young girl, playing a flute. The dark background is formed by a curtain.
The painting shows a singular lack of homogeneity, but aberrant though the execution may be the various elements almost invariably do show a clear relationship to other works by Rembrandt from the period around 1635. There need therefore be no doubt as to authenticity. The two conflicting light sources result in a complicated lighting scheme, which evidently brought Rembrandt to fmd solutions that in certain respects differ from his usual way of working. For example, he continually aims at a contrasting effect of figures, or parts of them, against the surrounding areas, and if this cannot be achieved he has used dark outlining of the forms. The outcome is a composition that has similarities with various works
from the years around 1635, but that stands out among these through its low level of homogeneity.
The Night Watch, 1642
Location: The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
Type: Oil on canvas.
Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, also known as The Shooting Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, but commonly referred to as The Night Watch is one of the most famous Dutch Golden Age paintings by Rembrandt. A reasonably well preserved work that is not only signed and dated but also exceptionally well documented as an authentic work by Rembrandt from 1642.
The men, belonging to a company of the citizens’ militia the Arquebusiers or Kloveniers, are gathered in front of a building, lost in semi-darkness, that runs parallel to the picture plane; it has a monumental gateway flanked by attached columns. Above these runs a cornice, enlivening the masonry that on the extreme right projects forward at right angles. To the left of this the wall at the top is broken by a window. The central group in the background stands at the top of a flight of steps leading down from the gateway; only parts of the bottom steps are visible. Adjoining the steps to the left, in front of and parallel to the wall, is a parapet originally surmounted a vaulting. An iron railing projects at right angle to this parapet.
The Night watch was one of six group portraits of militiamen that, together with a seventh showing the four governors of the Arquebusiers’ Headquarters; were to decorate the great hall on the upper floor of a new wing of the building which was apparently completed well before December 1630 (Haverkamp Begemann) . This served as a meeting place for the militiamen, as well as for receptions and other festivities. Haverkamp Begemann has been able still to identify the walls of the great hall in the presentday Doelen Hotel.
The Night watch dated 1642, i.e. the year in which it was completed, very soon became Rembrandt’s most famous work and it remains so today. The painting was intended for the great hall of the new building, of the Kloveniersdoelen (one of the three Amsterdam Citizens’ militia headquarters). The highest-ranking officers forming the pivot of the composition are, through the incorporation of the city arms of Amsterdam in the lieutenant’s costume, emphasized by the cast shadow from the hand of the captain whose clothing can perhaps be seen as displaying the heraldic colours of these same arms, drawn into the whole complex of symbolic allusions. The colour, its intensity in particular is subordinated to the chiaroscuro, as it usually is in Rembrandt’s paintings. At some points the handling of paint bolsters the effect of the colour; in the figures in the middle ground pregnant colour in small fields is coupled with an animated brushwork, while in those of the two officers the colour (black in the captain’s costume and yellow and white in that of the lieutenant) is applied in almost monochrome areas, and thus lent the most autonomy.
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669
Location: The Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
Type: Oil on Canvas.
Rembrandt’s final word is given in his monumental painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Here he interprets the Christian idea of mercy with an extraordinary solemnity, as though this were his spiritual testament to the world. It goes beyond the works of all other Baroque artists in the evocation of religious mood and human sympathy. The aged artist’s power of realism is not diminished, but increased by psychological insight and spiritual awareness. Expressive lighting and colouring and the magic suggestiveness of his technique, together with a selective simplicity of setting, help us to feel the full impact of the event.
The main group of the father and the Prodigal Son stands out in light against an enormous dark surface. Particularly vivid are the ragged garment of the son, and the old man’s sleeves, which are ochre tinged with golden olive; the ochre colour combined with an intense scarlet red in the father’s cloak forms an unforgettable colouristic harmony. The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event. The son, ruined and repellent, with his bald head and the appearance of an outcast, returns to his father’s house after long wanderings and many vicissitudes. He has wasted his heritage in foreign lands and has sunk to the condition of a swineherd. His old father, dressed in rich garments, as are the assistant figures, has hurried to meet him before the door and receives the long-lost son with the utmost fatherly love.
The occurrence is devoid of any momentary violent emotion, but is raised to a solemn calm that lends to the figures some of the qualities of statues and gives the emotions of a lasting character, no longer subject to the changes of time. Unforgettable is the image of the repentant sinner leaning against his father’s breast and the old father bending over his son. The father’s features tell of a goodness sublime and august; so do his outstretched hands, not free from the stiffness of old age. The whole represents a symbol of all homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.
Self Portrait 1640 ( Wearing a costume in the style of over a century earlier)
Location: National Gallery, London.
A moderately well preserved, authentic work bearing perhaps a basically reliable signature and date of 1640.
The sitter is seen half-length, with the body turned three quarters to the right and the head a little more towards the viewer, on whom the gaze is fixed. He has curling hair, a fuzzy blond moustache and a tuft of beard below the lower lip. He leans his right arm on a sill parallel to the picture plane, with his left forearm hidden behind it. He is dressed in a costume of 16th-century style, the head covered with a fur cap with the edge sledged and the underside decorated with ornaments linked by small chains of cords. Between the open front panels of a tabbard we see a doublet which has decorated borders running along the top edge across the chest and over the upstanding collar. A cross, half-visible, hangs on his chest on a band. Under the doublet he wears a finely pleated shirt with an embroidered edge at the neck. An edging of fur runs round the neck of the dark tabbard, and strips of a glossy material decorate the puffed upper sleeves. A hanging tail of the tabberd is draped over his right arm. The figure is placed before a neutral rear wall, and catches light falling from the left; the lighting of the surroundings is diffused.
The painting represents a high point in Rembrandt’s work from around 1640. A tendency already apparent in portraits from the 1630S towards an atmospheric unity of figure and surroundings is here even more marked. The influence of Titian’s supposed Portrait 0f Ariosto to a considerable extent dictated the pose and composition using a sill, while that of Raphael’s Portrait 0f Castiglione is felt in the colouring and the clear rendering of form. In choosing this unusually fully worked-up pose and the antique dress Rembrandt was, more than in the earlier self-portraits regarded as tronies, seeking to demonstrate the status that was due to him and his art.
(1) Ormiston, Rosalind. “Rembrandt: His Life & Works in 500 Images.” (2012) : 1 – 256. Print.
(2) Hurll, Estelle. “Rembrandt of Collection Rembrandt Fifteen Collection and Fifteen
Pictures, and a Portrait of the Painter, With Introduction and Interpretation.” (2012) : 1 –
(3) Lunday, Elizabeth. “Rembrandt Van Rijn.”Secret Lives of Great Artists 55. (2008) : 55 – 61.
(4) Wettering, Ernst van. “Rembrandt: The Painter at Work.” (1997) : 1 – 340. Print.
(5) Wright, Christopher. “The Art of Rembrandt.” Rembrandtpainting. Web. July 1978.
(6) Brown, Charlotte. “Rembrandt van Rijn: Chronology.” Rembrandthuis. Web. February