Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) was the paramount artist 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.
In the attempt to grasp the full measure of the achievement of Rembrandt, the mistake has sometimes been made of interpreting his works as an autobiography. This they are not. His experiences are reflected in his works not directly, but transfigured into art. The events of art are different in nature from the events of life, and we understand very little about the relations between these two different realms of being. The few mundane facts we know about Rembrandt's life do not begin to explain his works or account for his extraordinary capacities.
Rembrandt was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, next to the last of the nine or more children of the miller Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn and the baker's daughter Neeltgen Willemsd van Zuytbroeck. For 7 years Rembrandt was a student at the Latin school, and then, in 1620, he enrolled at the university. After only a few months, however, he left to become a painter. He was an apprentice for 3 years of 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. In the 16th and 17th centuries art theory ranked "history painting" as superior to all other fields, and Lastman was one of the most respected specialists in this kind of subject matter in Holland at the time. Anecdotal painting like Lastman's came to be overshadowed in Rembrandt's time by other themes, such as landscape and still life. In fact, Rembrandt and his school were virtually the only painters of importance who continued to concern themselves with narrative subject matter, mainly based on biblical stories, through the second and third quarters of the century. Unlike Lastman, though, Rembrandt and his followers depicted a great variety of other subjects as well. Yet years later, even after Lastman's death in 1633, Rembrandt continued to borrow his teacher's subjects and motifs, for instance, in Susanna Surprised by the Elders. Rembrandt made a drawing in red chalk after Lastman's 1614 painting of the subject, and in 1647 he freely adapted this composition in a painting.
Works of the Leiden Years
It was Lastman's ability to tell a story visually that impressed his youthful pupil. The earliest works by Rembrandt that we know, 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, 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. Rembrandt's paintings were small in size and scale in these years, however, while Lievens preferred a larger format with life-size figures.
In addition to his narrative subjects, Rembrandt was practicing with pen, brush, and etcher's needle the depiction of emotions conveyed by facial expressions. Throughout his career he was his own most frequent model. Other sitters have been identified as members of his family, but this is conjectural, except in the case of a drawing inscribed with his father's name in a contemporary hand. Rembrandt liked to have his models wear such embellishments as gold chains and plumed hats, testing his skill at depicting varied textures.
By 1631 Rembrandt was ready to compete with the accomplished portrait painters of Amsterdam. His portrait of the Amsterdam merchant Nicolaes Ruts (1631) is a dynamic likeness executed with a degree of assurance that makes it clear why its author was in demand as a portraitist. A major commission soon came to him: Dr. Nicolaas Tulp Demonstrating the Anatomy of the Arm (1632). For this large canvas Rembrandt devised a new unified composition for the traditional "anatomy lesson."
Early Amsterdam Years
In 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. On a charming silverpoint drawing of a pensive young woman holding a flower, he wrote, "This was drawn after my wife when she was 21 years old, the third day after our engagement—June 8, 1633." After an engagement of more than a year, he married this 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 prosperous men of his time, Rembrandt soon began to collect works of art, armor, costumes, and curiosities from far places. He used some of these objects as props in his paintings and etchings. The vast collection of drawings and prints that he amassed in the course of time made him familiar with works by artists distant in time and place, as well as by contemporaries. It was, in a way, a substitute for travel; he was quoted as saying, at the age of 23, that he could learn about Italian art without leaving Holland. He had the opportunity to see some Italian paintings in the flourishing mercantile city of Amsterdam, but he would have had to rely mainly on prints to bring Italian art to him. His works reflect his responsiveness to art of the most diverse types, from monumental painting of the High Renaissance to Mogul miniatures.
Rembrandt's works of the middle 1630s were his most baroque; indeed he seemed to be deliberately challenging the enormous prestige of Peter Paul Rubens. This is most explicit in the scenes from the Passion of Christ (1633-1639) that Rembrandt painted for the stadholder Frederick Henry. The etching Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634) shows how the same drama and excitement, the combination of fine detail with a grandiose new sweep based largely on unification of the composition through light and shadow, and the choice of the crucial moment—all characteristic of Rembrandt's baroque style—permeated his graphic works as well as his paintings in this period. The mysterious landscape that adds so strikingly to the emotional communication of this great etching had its parallels in the landscape paintings that also occupied Rembrandt about this time, such as the Landscape with an Obelisk.
The Visitation (1640) serves well to sum up Rembrandt's style at this transitional point in his development. The rather fussy large-leaved plants and birds in the left foreground are still reminiscent of Lastman. The architecture is pure fantasy; Rembrandt usually represented, in both exterior and interior views, structures that were never seen in reality and, indeed, in many cases could not be built because they were not based on a rational ground plan. The landscape, too, has nothing to do with the innovative Dutch realistic landscape of the 17th century. Its function is to suggest the long distance that Mary has traveled to visit her cousin. Instead of a baroque thrust into depth, the figures are deployed parallel to the picture plane, and prominent horizontal and vertical elements stabilize the composition in the "classicizing" manner that was to predominate in the works of Rembrandt, as in Dutch painting in general, in the middle of the century. Most significant is the fact that the picture dwells on the meaning of the story in a human sense. It demonstrates Rembrandt's unique ability to communicate the inmost emotions of the participants in the scene. The arbitrary use of light is a major expressive resource; this was the hallmark of his genius throughout his career.
One of Rembrandt's largest and most famous paintings is the group portrait known since the mid-18th 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. For this important commission, completed in 1642 but probably begun in the late 1630s, the artist devised an original, dynamic composition in the baroque style which he had already begun to abandon by this time. The painting was unfortunately cut down in the 18th century. Attempts have been made to relate this scene to an actual historical event, to a contemporary drama, and to emblematic ideas. These different interpretations reflect the persistent impression that this is something more than a group portrait.
There is no foundation at all for the legend that Captain Cocq and his company were dissatisfied with their painting and that this failure initiated a decline in Rembrandt's fortunes that persisted until the end of his life. On the contrary, 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. Acrimony entered Rembrandt's household with the widow Geertge Dircx, who came 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 persisted through the next 2 decades. A series of drawings and etchings show keen observation of nature, great originality in composing, and marvelous economy. The etched View of Amsterdam (ca. 1640) was the forerunner of the splendid panoramic landscape paintings of Jacob van Ruisdael. 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 17th-century Dutch landscape, which customarily was painted in the studio from sketches.
In contrast with Rembrandt's dramatic religious compositions of the earlier period, those of the 1640s tend to be quiet, with exquisitely controlled light casting an almost palpable spiritual glow on scenes that might otherwise seem to depict humble everyday life. The painting Holy Family (1646) exemplifies this tender and compassionate quality, as does the Hundred Guilder Print, one of the most renowned of the master's etchings, on which he probably worked from about 1645 to 1648. Bustlength paintings of Christ, such as the one in Detroit, from the later 1640s, have a similar emotional tone. Richness of paint surface and warm, harmonious color add luster to the paintings of this period.
The ruinous effect on commerce of the first Anglo-Dutch War (1652-1654) may have played a part in Rembrandt's financial difficulties, of which there is evidence from 1653 on. In 1656 he filed a petition of insolvency. In connection with this, an inventory was made listing all his possessions. This list of 363 items is an invaluable source of information as to the objects, and particularly the works of art, that Rembrandt had collected. It included numerous portfolios of drawings and prints. All these prized possessions were sold at auction, beginning in December 1657. In 1660 Rembrandt, Titus, and Hendrickje moved to a smaller house.
The idea that the formerly renowned artist was now friendless and neglected is a fiction. In fact the record shows that several prominent men who were his friends stood by Rembrandt through these misfortunes. Though it is true that fashionable taste in art began to favor a more highly finished and elegant type of painting at this time, nevertheless Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and to work productively.
In 1652 a Sicilian nobleman who was a discerning 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. The lavish impasto, the scintillating white and gold contrasted with velvety blacks, and the quality of inwardness and self-communion are characteristic features of Rembrandt's style at this time.
Even commissioned portraits, such as the one Rembrandt painted of his old friend, the Amsterdam patrician Jan Six (1654), were built up of the bold patches of paint that invite the eye of the beholder to see the solid form beneath the surface. Another important commission for a group portrait came to Rembrandt in 1656: the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deyman, of which only a fragment has survived. A pen drawing, however, shows the symmetrical composition, with the surgeon standing in the center behind the cadaver, which is seen in sharp foreshortening, perpendicular to the picture plane. Other figures are grouped symmetrically on either side. The difference between this composition and the diagonal in depth that unified the Dr. Tulp (1632) is a measure of the change not only in Rembrandt but in the dominant style in Dutch painting between the 1630s and the 1650s.
Rembrandt's regal Self-portrait (1658; Frick Collection, New York) 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 epitomizes 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.
It is noteworthy that even in his full maturity Rembrandt adapted features from many sources. It may be that making the inventory and facing the loss of his collection caused him to give special attention to the prints and drawings in his portfolios. In 1658, for instance, he painted the small and sensitive Jupiter and Mercury Visiting Philemon and Baucis, which was based on a painting by Adam Elsheimer, whose work had greatly impressed Rembrandt's teacher, Lastman, when he was studying in Rome. Rembrandt could have known the Elsheimer painting through an engraving made after it by Goudt in 1612.
In 1660-1661 Rembrandt painted an enormous canvas commissioned 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 pen-and-wash drawing of the entire composition. The 17th-century Dutch, who in 1648, after 80 years of war, had succeeded in finalizing their freedom from Spanish rule, considered themselves the descendants of the Batavians, who had rebelled against the Romans. The scene of the oath was painted broadly, to be viewed from a distance, and in the most luminous colors. For reasons not entirely understood, the painting was removed after hanging in the town hall for a time. Perhaps it was unacceptable because the style was too far from the traditional treatment of patriotic subjects for public places.
In any case, Rembrandt was even at this time held in high regard. In 1662 he painted the Sampling Officials of the Drapers' Guild, a group portrait whose vitality and psychological penetration certainly justified these dignified officials in their choice of a portraitist. The boldness of his brushstroke, the effulgence of his color, glowing like embers in a dark room, and the command of emotional content increased as he grew older. The beautiful pair of late portraits, Man with a Magnifying Glass and Lady with a Pink, have few peers in all the realm of art.
Hendrickje died in 1663. In February 1668 Titus married Magdalena van Loo; he died in September. The lonely Rembrandt continued to paint. His last Self-portrait (Mauritshuis, The Hague) is dated 1669. When he died, on Oct. 4, 1669, a painting, Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple, was left unfinished on his easel.
Rembrandt the Teacher
Throughout his career Rembrandt was much sought after as a teacher, and the fees his pupils paid yielded considerable income. Even as early as the Leiden years students came to him; Gerard Dou was working in his studio by 1628, and it has been conjectured that it is Dou who is represented in Rembrandt's typical small painting of that year, the Painter at His Easel. Later pupils included Jacob Adriaansz Backer, Ferdinand Bol, Govaert Flinck, Phillips Koninck, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Carel Fabritius, Abraham Furnerius, Lambert Doomer, Willem Drost, Abraham van Dyck, Heyman Dullaert, and Aert de Gelder.
It was common studio practice for the master to retouch or overpaint the drawings and paintings of his pupils and to sign works done in his studio even if they were not from his own hand. Rembrandt's students worked from life, but they also copied his works. These customs have added to the difficulties in attribution. Deliberate falsification has of course also contributed to the problems in determining the authenticity of Rembrandt's works.
Further Reading on Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn
Concise introductions to Rembrandt and his work are Christopher White, Rembrandt and His World (1964); Joseph-Émile Muller, Rembrandt (1969); and Henry Bonnier, Rembrandt (1970). Bob Haak, Rembrandt: His Life His Work, His Time (trans. 1969), has an excellent text and many reproductions. Scholarly studies of the artist include Jakob Rosenberg, Rembrandt: Life and Work (rev. ed. 1964), and Otto Benesch, Rembrandt, edited by Eva Benesch (1970).
The standard catalog of the paintings is Abraham Bredius, Rembrandt: The Complete Edition of the Paintings, revised by Horst Gerson (1969), although its reproductions leave much to be desired. Far more satisfactory are the plates in Horst Gerson, Rembrandt Paintings (1968), which includes excellent essays on Rembrandt's life and his place in Dutch painting. The way in which our understanding of Rembrandt can best be increased, through the study in depth of individual works, is admirably demonstrated by Julius S. Held, Rembrandt's "Aristotle" and Other Rembrandt Studies (1969). Arthur M. Hind, A Catalogue of Rembrandt's Etchings (1923; 2d rev. ed. 1967), is the standard catalog of the prints; and Otto Benesch, The Drawings of Rembrandt (6 vols., 1954-1957), is the basic reference work on the drawings.
Recommended for general background are Paul Zumthor, Daily Life in Rembrandt's Holland (1959; trans. 1963); Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century (2 vols., 1961-1964); Jakob Rosenberg, Seymour Slive, and E. H. ter Kuile, Dutch Art and Architecture, 1600-1800 (1966); and Johan H. Huizinga, Dutch Civilization in the Seventeenth Century and Other Essays, selected by Pieter Geyl (1968).