Through the Light, Darkly: Exploring Society and Culture of the Dutch Golden Age through the Eyes of Rembrandt

Name: Shirsho Dasgupta
Class: UG III  Roll No: 11


Besides, De Stijl, perhaps the greatest cultural expression of the Dutch in the latter-half of the 20th century is their style of playing football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced more prolific goal-scorers, strong defenders, dazzling ball-artists or more efficient tournament-winning teams but few nations structure their play as abstractly or architecturally as the Dutch. With variable positions of the players, overlapping wingers, fluid movement and fast passing, Ajax Amsterdam, under manager Rinus Michels and captained by Johan Cruyff (both of whom would take-over these same roles in the national team) and later the Dutch national team in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups dazzled the world with their technical brilliance, and would go on to change how the game is played. Their theory of Total Football, as they called it, was based on the flexibility of space.

A good footballer has always been one who was in the right place at the right time. But what was different about the Dutch team in the 1970s was that they were the first to consciously realize it and talk about it. The size of the football pitch was fixed, but how could one use it effectively to suit their needs? What they did on the football pitch was to increase the effective playing area according to their need. In possession, they would push up collectively, with the their defensive line high up the pitch, increasing the area that they can use; in turn, when they lost the ball, the high defensive line and effective use of the offside trap, meant that the opposing side had less space to play in – while the Dutch had the majority of the pitch to themselves while attacking, the opponents got only a portion of it, that too within their own half when they managed to get hold of the ball. Each player in the Dutch team made quick and precise calculations so that every manoeuvre made the most effective use of space and their energy. When he first watched Johan Cruyff play, David Miller of The Times described him as “Pythagoras in boots”. [i]

In football, Cruyff and Michels were actually drawing from a centuries-old culture of spatial awareness and thinking. Most of the land of the Netherlands is below sea-level making space a tremendously precious commodity for the Dutch. For centuries its effective use has always been carefully debated and deliberated over. Through a network of canals, dams, dikes and embankments the people of the Netherlands have (and still do) squeezed out and reclaimed land from the sea. It is not for nothing that an old adage in the Netherlands goes: “God created the world. The Dutch created Holland.”

Since the 12th century, the Dutch have been developing doctrines for land-use planning. Photographer Ger Dekkers describes Dutch society as one “whose constant struggle against the encroaching water is somehow intertwined with its Protestant ethic of order and control.”[ii] The Dutch are spatial neurotics because their very survival depends upon it. Today, the Dutch make meticulous plans for effective land-use under the Annual Spacial Planning Acts which are similar to the Five-Year Plans one finds in India or did in the erstwhile USSR. Unlike in other countries, if one flies over Holland, one sees the absolutely flat land stretching out into the horizon, uniformly divided into regular shapes which join together neatly, much like a painting by Mondrian.

A painting is not just the pictorial representation of an idea on a surface. It is also the conquest of the space on which it is being painted. The different stages of this conquest is reflected in the different methods of composition of the work. Keeping in mind the Dutch consciousness of space, it is perhaps not surprising that in all of Dutch painting too, from Van Eyck to Mondrian, one finds a meticulous disposition of objects in space, a clear logic of their organization.

Take the great Pieter Bruegel the Elder for example. In works like The Peasant Wedding (1567) or The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1568), Bruegel arranges his composition in such a way that there is a tremendous sense of movement and activity. About the latter (shown below), Charles Bouleau[iii] writes:  In Bruegel’s pictures the rhythm is always extremely tense. There is a set of parallel oblique lines which join some of the points dividing the sides of the picture into nine equal parts; other oblique lines, each at a constant angle to the first ones, form another network; it is these angles that give to each of his pictures its peculiar rhythm.”

Parable of the Blind for the Blind
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind (1568)

Bruegel, by placing his figures along two oblique parallel lines, induces in the viewer an illusion of movement – the figures seem to be travelling from left to right. But the Renaissance dream of the geometer-artist in its almost perfect form is fulfilled by Johannes Vermeer. In his works, we find tables, chairs, hangings and other objects arranged meticulously around a complex network of lines and angles[iv].  In his painting, Young Lady Standing at a Virginal , we see Vermeer’s mastery of the art of arrangement. In the orthogonal strictness of the composition, based on the ratio 4/6/9, one also finds the precursor of another great Dutch artist who would come into prominence almost three centuries later – Mondrian.

Rembrandt - Lady Standing at the Virginals
Johannes Vermeer, Young Lady Standing at a Virginal (1671)

Vermeer’s representation of the distance of the objects depicted is not just a matter of aerial perspective. He is perfectly conscious of the external conditions of vision and the activity of the viewer’s eye. His quest was to represent on a flat surface an accurate perception of things not just through his arrangement but also by means of the interplay of light and colour. His now legendary painting Girl with a Pearl Earring, bears testament to his incredible mastery over light – he establishes a hierarchy of light and shade and leads the eye where it should go.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665)

Through the play of luminosity, Vermeer directs the viewer’s eyes to the pearl. One can easily say that its twinkling is the whole point of the painting. Vermeer composes in such a way that everything builds up to that singular moment; the moment the pearl twinkles. This same mastery over light and colour enables Vermeer to show in Young Lady Standing at a Virginal the fair face of a lady stand out against the equally fair complexion of the painting Cupid right behind her.  The depth in the painting is rendered not just by perspective but also by the intensity of light. This same rendering of light was already to be found in the works of Michelangelo di Caravaggio who would go on to inspire through the works of the Dutch neo-realist painters of the age, the master manipulator of light that was Rembrandt van Rijn.

Having started off his artistic career with etching, Rembrandt transposed the stunning contrasts on the copperplate onto canvas. His work is replete with continuous revisions, emendments and retouching, and entailed sacrifices on work already done so much so that his final picture is more often than not far removed from his initial sketches or etchings. As Bouleau notes, “formal composition in Rembrandt is simple yet concealed”. He sacrifices secondary elements to enhance and heighten the centre of interest. Unlike Vermeer who plays around with both aerial and geometrical perspective and light, Rembrandt does it solely with the latter. Much like the lighting expert of theatre companies, he lets shadow fall on everything but the primary subject of his scene which he illuminates with a soft and seemingly divine light and thus manoeuvres the viewer’s eyes to an exact point that he has chosen. For Rembrandt, nothing is as important as the primary subject. Rembrandt’s compositions are by no means as complex as that of Bruegel. Yet one finds similarities between their works.

The Anatomy Lesson
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

In The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, for example, Rembrandt uses the same scheme of parallel lines running across from one end of the image to the other that one finds in Bruegel’s works. With the help of the parallel lines, he obtains a parallelogram which he sometimes divides into two triangles.[v] In Anatomy Lesson, Rembrandt groups the portraits in the upper triangle and the doctor’s hands and the cadaver in the lower triangle. The eye at first focuses on the corpse. From there, the eye is guided to the doctor’s hands (both by the play of light and the heads of the six onlookers which form an arrow pointing to the hands) and then to the faces of the onlookers each revealing different levels of concentration. They eye finally comes to rest on the stern face of Dr. Tulp. An interesting aspect of this painting is that Rembrandt creates the illusion of depth and space through the gaze of the onlookers surrounding the doctor. Their gaze tells us that there is more space beyond the frames of the painting, thus effectively creating the illusion of space.

Rembrandt, however was not rigid with his compositional structures. In The Blinding of Samson, to the basic scheme of the parallelogram divided into two triangles, Rembrandt adds further oblique lines which cut through the sides of the parallelogram. These oblique lines and the relatively loosened structure effectively regulate the violent movement of the figures depicted.[vi]

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Blinding of Samson (1636)

Plato in his Republic[vii] narrates the now-famous Allegory of the Cave where the philosopher ventures out from the cave of illusions; sees the light, the “truth” as it were; returns to free the other prisoners but is forced by them to remain inside. He cannot take the light with him. In The Blinding of Samson, we see Samson being blinded in a cave; he struggles to break away while two men hold him down. Perhaps Rembrandt reimagines Samson as the philosopher. He had seen the light but he is now being forced back into the cave – he is being blinded and must now remain in darkness.

Today, the view that the universe is incomprehensible often causes despair. For the Renaissance humanist, from Machiavelli to Descartes, however, this was a view which inspired soaring hope and a sense of adventure – the hope that the coelom fantasticum, Aristotle’s fifth essence, might be replaced by a universe of man’s making. In the age of the individual, it is perhaps not surprising that philosophers turned to the self in their attempts to explain the universe. Descartes’ Discourse on the Method can be rightly considered to be a semi-autobiographical work. In Discourse, Descartes describes himself as a man “walking alone in the darkness”. His praise of Holland, where he spent a significant part of his life, is a country that permitted privacy and solitude – a country where he could live as in a desert.[viii] The Netherlands, lying for the most part below sea-level, with its perilously elastic envelope separating the land from the sea has managed to impress into the Dutch mind an unconscious paranoiac anxiety to defend an inhabited interior (the self) from the threatening exterior (the other). Moreover, Dutch society of the 17th century was largely Protestant, and stressed on self-reflexivity and the presence of God in the individual. It is widely conjectured that it for these reasons that interior paintings developed in Holland to a degree which is unmatched by any other European country.[ix] Rembrandt, although not overtly concerned with precise interior depictions nonetheless was influenced in his own way. Most of his works seem like they are located inside a cavern or a dark chamber.

Rembrandt is a painter of the mysterious and the enigmatic – in an overwhelming atmosphere of darkness he lets a glimmer of light fall onto his subject(s). Yet, most of the time, the light does not come from natural sources; it is a supernal, almost divine light shining through the mysterious, dark cavernous structure of the chamber or room. It is a light associated generally with philosophers, perhaps signifying true knowledge belongs not to the material realms but that of the divine. In both A Scholar and Scholar at the Lectern, we find there is no natural or realistic source of light. The book itself seems to emanate light, illuminating the head and by extension the mind of the scholar. He seems to affirm the importance of solitude for the philosopher.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar (1631)

The focus of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is the corpse with its intense brightness. Dutch religio-medical belief of those times regarded the hand as the supreme mobile instrument that God bestowed on the human body. This notion was allied to the belief that since the human body was God’s creation, the science of anatomy was the pathway to knowledge of God.[x] The separation of the figures into the upper and lower triangles (as discussed previously) thus in a way stands for the divine and the material realms and how divine knowledge, symbolized by the light emanating from the cadaver and the surgeon’s hands, is dissipated among the onlookers.

Several scholars today hold the view that Rembrandt’s Philosopher in Meditation, actually depicts the Biblical story of Tobit and Anna waiting for their son Tobias. Their argument is based on the fact that the painting has no depictions of books or mathematical instruments or manuscripts – common pictorial representations of the scholar or philosopher.

Philosopher in Meditation
Rembrandt van Rijn, Philosopher in Meditation (1632)

However, it is possible that Rembrandt through the lack of traditional pictorial representations of philosophy was depicting a philosopher undertaking Descartes’ method of skepticism – of rejecting all prior knowledge and starting afresh. Whether Rembrandt read Discourses can never be known but the chances of them meeting is very high. Both lived in Amsterdam at the same time and had Constantin Huygens as their mutual friend who was close to both. Moreover, Rembrandt is rumoured to have a work called “Cartesius” (which is now lost) which depicts a philosopher with the globe at his feet. It is conjectured that Descartes himself modeled for this work. If that is the case, the two great masters might very well have exchanged ideas. The seemingly spiraling structure of the room then represents the chambers of the mind; the light shining in through the window is knowledge or Truth.

Throughout his life Rembrandt painted a series of self-portraits (some of which are shown chronologically below). Following the portraits one sees the evolution of Rembrandt the man. In the first few portraits we see Rembrandt the young man, face half-covered in shadows but his eyes piercing the darkness with his gaze. With age, his eyes soften; he seems to remain an acute observer but a compassionate one, touched with empathy for the human condition. As we progress from one portrait to the other, we find that the shadows slowly leave the face and its surroundings. He seems to show that with age, he has progressively managed to have a better grasp of the world – he is “enlightened” in the final couple of portraits. The last portrait was painted a few months before his death. Interestingly we find in this that his head still emanates the divine light but the shadows are slowly returning to engulf him. It is almost as if he knows that his death is near at hand.

Rembrandt Self
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portraits (c. 1628 – 1669)


With the emergence of the idea and rhetoric of the “republic”, the Renaissance bore witness to the decline of the feudal system and the birth of capitalism. Throughout Europe, in the cities there rose a new class of people who we now refer to today as “the middle class”. One finds in Rembrandt’s works a tribute to the work ethic of this new social class – an ethic that is so intrinsically linked with the Protestant culture of the Dutch. For example, in Portrait of the Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Rembrandt gives us the image of an excited wife rushing into her husband’s study to hand him a business dispatch. The wife’s excitement clearly indicates that the dispatch brings news of success of their labours.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of the Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife (1633)

However, perhaps his greatest painting depicting this new economic system is The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild, showing a group of officials of the guild of cloth-makers examining samples of cloth to regulate the quality of textile sold in the city.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (1662)

The heavy scarlet table rug, the wood paneling on the wall and the golden hue of the surroundings evoke the feeling of material success and prosperity while at the same time adding a sense of warmth to the image. The figures depict an amazing cross-section of human characteristics on display from irony and shrewd skepticism to straight-forwardness, tenacity and good nature. Their various temperaments are however focused on the single purpose of looking after the interests of a trade. Out of a regular “guild portrait” commissioned by the Cloth-Makers’ Guild, Rembrandt has presented to us an allegory of prudence and rectitude. It is the sense of the togetherness and mutual understanding of the figures and their sense of duty to perform what is essentially a public service contributing to the strength of the economic foundations of the new Dutch republic that lies at the emotional heart of the painting.

In Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, one of Rembrandt’s most enigmatic paintings, we find the figure of Aristotle, gazing out of shadows, deep in contemplation. His right hand rests gently on the bust of Homer while the fingers of his left lightly feel the jewelled belt, gifted to him by Alexander. It is as if Aristotle is choosing between sumptuous wealth and material power symbolized by the belt and the humility, gravitas and intellect of the blind bard. In his melancholic face, we see his weariness of the world. Alongwith him, we are invited to feel the weight of history upon us.

Aristotle - Homer
Rembrandt van Rijn, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer (1653)

One notices in the stupendous pictures of domestic interiors by Johannes Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch the rich décor of Dutch homes or the opulent clothing worn by the human figures. The seventeenth century marked a flowering of trade and industry in the Netherlands leading to a tremendous accumulation of wealth. Lacking a collective economic sink like a royal court or a princely church, the Dutch middle-class poured their new gold into their homes.[xi] In Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, Aristotle gazes at Homer and his right hand (resting on the bust), traditionally the favoured one, is higher and is painted lighter than the left hand on the gold chain symbolising perhaps that he favours intellect over wealth.[xii]Rembrandt, a Protestant and devout Christian, seems to warn his viewer that too much opulence and regard for material wealth can easily give way to greed and sin.


Following the success of the Protestant movement in the Netherlands, against the wealth of the Catholic Church, Calvinism became extremely popular and by the end of the 16th century, was the most popular religious denomination in the country. The deeply religious Rembrandt draws heavily from Biblical sources and his entire corpus has around 300 depictions of Biblical scenes. Yet most of these works lack the drama one finds when other artists depict Biblical scenes. Rembrandt, instead, lends an air of compassion and empathy. In The Woman taken in Adultery, we see the unfaithful wife kneeling in front of the scribes and Pharisees. She is truly repentant. In Jesus’ face we find a deep sense of compassion and forgiveness. He towers over the Jews symbolizing his moral superiority. The woman wears white, the symbol of piety. The woman broke the covenant of marriage, true, but the fact that no one dared to stone her proves that everyone in the room is guilty of sin. While the rest of the gigantic chamber is dark and enshrouded by shadows, Rembrandt lets a divine light shine on the woman – God forgives her.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Woman taken in Adultery (1644)

The Return of the Prodigal Son
, retelling the Biblical parable of the wayward son returning home to his father is perhaps the most emotional of Rembrandt’s works. It shows the prodigal kneeling in front of his father, his hands around his knees while the father bends down to comfort him, a look of happiness, relief and compassion on his face.

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1661-1669)

While the father and the elder brother (standing to the right), wears luxurious clothing, the prodigal is dressed in rags. His shaved head, sore feet and torn slippers speak of the long and humiliating journey he had to undertake for straying. Rembrandt, however the viewer’s eye on the father’s face which is lit up in compassion. The painting stands for the return of straying humankind to God. Here, like a true Christian, Rembrandt represents God, through the figure of the father, as one full of mercy and forgiveness. Rembrandt’s God seems to empathise with the human condition, he does not punish the son but embraces him. It is perhaps Rembrandt’s most quiet painting; a moment stretching into eternity. The darkness of material life is illuminated by love and tenderness.

One of Rembrandt’s baroque masterpieces is Belshazzar’s Feast retelling the Biblical story of the “writing on the wall”. Belshazzar is a study in shock. His positioning evokes in the viewer the feeling that he has risen up suddenly. His neck is tense, eyes are wide with awe and his arm rises to protect himself as if a physical attack threatens him. The others in the painting are as shocked as the king and cower into the shadows. Belshazzar’s costume is among Rembrandt’s most luxurious concoctions of dress. He wants the viewer to imagine the grandeur of the palace, only to remind us that it is transient and God will soon strike down Belshazzar.

Belshazzar's Feast
Rembrandt van Rijn, Belshazzar’s Feast (c. 1635 – 1638)

Besides being a religious painting, Belshazzar’s Feast can also be taken as political art. The writing on the wall, as the Bible says, reads: MENE (God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it); TEKEL (Thou art weighed in the balances, and found wanting); PERES (Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians). Rembrandt, through this painting, perhaps speaks of the end of the political and religious hegemony that the Kingdom of Spain enjoyed over the Netherlands and the materiality of the Catholic Church.


The Dutch struggle for independence, known as the Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), from Catholic Spain can be traced back to the iconoclast Calvinist protests (the “Beeldenstorm”) in the country against the opulence of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 16th century. With the growing popularity of Calvinism, the Spanish fearing an insurrection, sent an army to the Netherlands and a ruthless suppression of Protestants followed sparking off the war for independence and paving the way for the birth of the Dutch republic. By 1609, the northern Netherlands had achieved de facto independence but was yet to be recognized officially as a state. Rembrandt lived in the time of the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648) – a period when the newly formed Dutch republic was strengthening and asserting itself politically and economically. Although not an overt political artist, a close reading of some of Rembrandt’s works do reveal nationalistic tendencies.

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-62) draws from Tacitus’ Histories in depicting an episode from the Batavian Rebellion (69 – 70 AD) led by the chieftain Claudius Civilis who managed to unite the chiefs of the nation against the Roman Empire. In the latter half of the 17th century, the Batavian Rebellion was often romanticized as a precursor of the recently concluded war against the Habsburgs.

The Conspiracy
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661-1662)

The painting depicts Claudius and the other chiefs swearing an oath-of-swords – an invention of Rembrandt perhaps symbolising the unity of the seventeen Dutch provinces which had revolted against Spain. Rembrandt shows a pale yellow light emanating from the centre of the table, lighting up the whole room while at the same time evoking a sense of heat. It is as if the chiefs are being hardened by fire for the oncoming war. An important aspect of this baroque masterpiece, is that there is one sword more than the number of figures shown holding them. The divine hand (though here it is invisible to the mortal eye) that appeared in Belshazzar’s Feast seems to hold it so the blade touches the centre of the blade of Claudius’ sword – God Himself blesses the alliance.

Rembrandt’s The Suicide of Lucretia depicts Lucretia, holding the dagger after ripping it back out from her body while blood oozes out from her wound soaking her white gown. On either side of the wound, Rembrandt makes the folds of Lucretia’s gown hang forward making a depression between them. The blood-soaked fabric, as if simulating her rape at the hands of the tyrant Tarquinius, clings on to her body.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Suicide of Lucretia (1666)

Lucretia’s stain long had difficulties with Christian thought. The orthodox authorities saw her rape as a taint she could never be cleansed from, despite her virtue, and her suicide as compounding her foulness. Calvinists, with their emphasis on utter surrender to God’s will, particularly saw her suicide as a defiance of divine dispensation. Rembrandt, however religious, was not an orthodox Calvinist. Rembrandt’s Lucretia opens herself up bodily to the possibility of mercy. Faultless, she has nonetheless committed sin; spotless she is stained. Yet she hangs on to the cord, awaiting the embrace of Christian compassion.

While on one hand, The Suicide of Lucretia, is undeniably a study in compassion, its history also has tremendous significance for the Dutch. The discontent with Habsburg rule began a few decades before the actual war broke out. The religious clash of cultures was compounded by the heavy taxes levied on the Dutch by King Philip II and the increasing military presence to quell any form of dissent against the Spanish crown or the Catholic Church. Rembrandt perhaps symbolizes the condition of Dutch life under Spanish rule through the figure of Lucretia in The Suicide of Lucretia. According to Livy, Lucretia’s rape and act of committing suicide was what sparked off the rebellion against Sextus Tarquinius and established the Roman Republic – Lucretia’s body became the altar of republican freedom.

The most striking and overtly political among Rembrandt’s works is perhaps The Night Watch. It is largely taken to be a group portrait of a militia company, a common element of Dutch life in the 17th century, being led out by a Captain Francis Banning Cocq. However, if one looks closely at the painting, one doesn’t find a disciplined and trained brigade of uniformed militiamen. Instead one finds an almost comical rag-tag bunch of Dutchmen — the captain, proud and confident, leads the way while speaking to his lieutenant; just behind them, an old man hunches over his gun; and in the background one finds figures who can barely handle their lances or who are completely taken in by the sight of the company’s banner. But most striking of all is the illuminated figure of a little girl in their midst, highlighted in the dark surroundings.

The Night Watch
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Night Watch (1642)

In the comicality of the figures, Rembrandt perhaps seeks to depict a picture of a community coming together at a time of crisis. They are not soldiers, yet they know they must now fight for what they believe in. Recent restorations reveal that the painting actually has a daytime setting making it all the more poignant. The men truly keep watch in the night – it is a darkness not caused by the setting of the sun, but a darkness of the times they are living in, a darkness that pervades all around them and will swallow them up if given the chance. The illuminated girl in their midst possibly stands for a bright future that they envision for themselves and their children, the future they must now fight for.

Where Donatello portrays the glory of the Republic as Judith smiting down the tyrant Holofernes, Rembrandt, with his great empathy for the human condition, decides to portray the community not in the glory of the victorious warrior but in the vulnerability of being human. The painting represents the courage of flawed human beings to come together despite their differences and take a stand against the encroaching shadows around them.

Finally we come to one of Rembrandt’s quietest works, The Mill. The Mill depicts a windmill, a traditional Dutch symbol, on a slightly elevated bank of a river. Ominous dark clouds are slowly disappearing and the sun is shining through again. The mill stands like a sentry on its bulwark, watching over reassuring motions of daily life – a mother is walking with her child down to the river perhaps to give him a bath, a woman washes her clothes, and an oarsman takes his boat to the opposite shore.[xiii]

The Mill
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Mill (1648)

The Mill  depicts the calm and quiet life of the new Dutch republic. The clouds of war are dissipating and the night has been seen through. It is time to resume life as it used to be but not as subjects of a foreign power but as free, independent individuals. It is fitting that Rembrandt completed this work in 1648, the year the Netherlands was officially recognized as an independent state.


Looking back at the Renaissance, we often think of the age as a glorious transition from the “dark” Middle Ages to one that brought back the light of knowledge to Western civilisation. The Renaissance did pave the way for the Age of Enlightenment and the birth of modern European rationalism, but like most transitions, it was a time of tremendous upheaval. While man was literally re-evaluating his place in society, the world and even the universe, disease, war and destruction ravaged through Europe. Through Rembrandt’s eyes we find a picture of Dutch culture, history and religion of those times. We see a picture of Dutch society not through the cold eyes of a historian or sociologist sifting through data but those of an artist who had experienced it all and is full of compassion and empathy for the human condition. Rembrandt’s works are of such depth and perceptiveness that when you stand in front of one, you feel challenged by the living essence of a person looking straight back at you. It is perhaps this captivating subjectivity that makes Rembrandt profound, arresting and timeless.



[i] David Winner, “dutch space is different”, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2000).
[ii] Ger Dekkers, Planned Landscapes: 25 Horizons, (Amsterdam: Muelenhoff/Landshoff, 1981).
[iii] Charles Bouleau, The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, (Mineola: Dover Publications, 2014).
[iv] Also refer to the composition and arrangement of Painter in his Studio, also known as, The Allegory of Painting and The Art of Painting (c. 1666).
[v] One finds this same scheme in his etchings Portrait of the Artist with Saskia (1636) and Tobias and the Angel (c. 1651), and the painting Sacrifice of Isaac (1635).
[vi] Examples of the broader scheme are Danaë (1636) and Bathsheba at her Bath (1654).
[vii] Plato, “Book VII”, Republic.
[viii] Howard B. White, “Rembrandt and the Human Condition”, Antiquity Forgot: Essays on Shakespeare, Bacon, and Rembrandt, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff,1978), p. 137-160.
[ix] Philip Tabor, “Striking Home: The Telepathic Assault on Identity”, Occupying Architecture:Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 127.
[x] William Schupbach, “The Paradox of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy of Dr. Tulp’”, Medical History, Supplement 11 (London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1982).
[xi] Philip Tabor, “Striking Home: The Telepathic Assault on Identity”, Occupying Architecture:Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 127.
[xii] Some critics also view this as Science and the material world deferring to Art.
[xiii] Carla Brenner, Jennifer Riddell and Barbara Moore, “Profile of the Dutch Republic”, Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century, (Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2007), p. 12


  • Bouleau, Charles. The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, Mineola: Dover Publications, 2014.
  • Brenner, Carla, Jennifer Riddell and Barbara Moore. “Profile of the Dutch Republic”. In Painting in the Dutch Golden Age: A Profile of the Seventeenth Century. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2007.
  • Dekkers, Ger. Planned Landscapes: 25 Horizons. Amsterdam: Muelenhoff/Landshoff, 1981.
  • Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character.  New York: Perseus Books Group, 1972.
  • Plato. Book VII”. In Republic.
  • Schupbach, William. “The Paradox of Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy of Dr. Tulp’”. In Medical History, Supplement 11. London: Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1982.
  • Tabor, Philip. “Striking Home: The Telepathic Assault on Identity”. In Occupying Architecture:Between the Architect and the User, ed. Jonathan Hill. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • White, Howard B. “Rembrandt and the Human Condition”. Antiquity Forgot: Essays on Shakespeare, Bacon, and Rembrandt. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978.
  • Winner, David. “dutch space is different”. In Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2000.


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