Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 - October 4, 1669) is generally considered one of the greatest painters in European art history, and the most important United Provinces (Netherlands) painter of the seventeenth century.
Self-portrait by Rembrandt (1661)
Rembrandt was also a proficient engraver and made many drawings. His contributions to art came in a period that historians call the Dutch Golden Age (roughly equivalent to the 17th century), in which Dutch culture, science, commerce, world power and political influence reached their pinnacles.
In all, Rembrandt produced around 600 paintings, 300 etchings, and 2,000 drawings. He was a prolific painter of self-portraits, producing almost a hundred of them (including some 20 etchings) throughout his long career. Together they give us a remarkably clear picture of the man, his looks, and — more importantly — his emotions, as misfortune and sorrow etched wrinkles in his face.
Among the prominent characteristics of his work are his command of light and dark, often using stark contrasts, thus drawing the viewer into the painting; his dramatic and lively scenes, devoid of any rigid formality that contemporary artists often displayed; and his ostensibly deeply felt compassion for mankind, irrespective of wealth and age.
His immediate family — his first wife Saskia, his son Titus, and his second wife Hendrickje — often figured prominently in his paintings, many of which had mythical, biblical, or historical themes.
Rembrandt was born on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, the Netherlands; conflicting sources state that his family either had 7, 9, or 10 children. His father was a miller, his mother was a baker's daughter. He spent his youth and most of his early years as a painter there. He attended Latin school and studied less than a year at the University of Leiden.
In 1621, he decided to dedicate himself fully to painting and took lessons from Leiden artist Jacob van Swanenburgh. After a brief but important apprenticeship in Amsterdam, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students.
By 1631, Rembrandt had established such a sound reputation that he received several assignments for portraits from Amsterdam. As a result, he moved to that city and into the house of his art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh. This move eventually led, in 1634, to the marriage of Rembrandt and Hendrick's wealthy niece, Saskia van Uylenburg. A daughter of a patrician, she introduced him to higher social circles, which increased his fame.
In 1639, Rembrandt and Saskia moved to a prominent house in the Jodenbreestraat in the Jewish quarter, which later became the Rembrandt House Museum. Three of their children died shortly after birth. Their fourth child, a son, Titus, was born in 1641 and survived into adulthood. Saskia died in 1642 soon after Titus' birth, from tuberculosis.
In 1645, Hendrickje Stoffels, who had initially been Rembrandt's maidservant, moved in with him. In 1654 they had a daughter, Cornelia, bringing them an official reproach from the church for "living in sin".
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying many art pieces, costumes (often used in his paintings), and rarities, which caused his bankruptcy in 1656. He had to sell his house and move to a more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht. Here, Hendrickje and Titus started an art shop to make ends meet. Rembrandt's fame waned in these years, only to be restored later.
Rembrandt outlived Hendrickje and Titus. In the end, only his daughter Cornelia was at his side. He died October 4, 1669, in Amsterdam in poverty and was buried in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk.
Rembrandt's first teacher, Jacob van Swanenburgh, taught him much of the art of etching.
Rembrandt studied with Pieter Lastman for half a year in Amsterdam. Lastman, a painter of biblical, mythological and historical scenes, is considered a major influence. He gave Rembrandt a good sense of composition and made him perceptive of religion and history as sources of inspiration for this work. Lastman had studied in Italy, in the early years of the century, and naturally passed his Italian discoveries to Rembrandt. This is quite possibly where he learned the Italian technique of adding beeswax to his oil paint, which helped to give his paintings the well known relief and luminosity that they have.
Many students of Rembrandt became famous in their own right. Among them were:
Rembrandt experts disagree about the authenticity of many paintings that were long attributed to him: Were they made by Rembrandt himself, by one of his students, or both?
Periods, themes, and styles
- It was during Rembrandt's Leiden period (1625-1631) that Lastman's influence was most prominent. Paintings were rather small, but rich in details (for example, in costumes and jewelry). Themes were mostly religious and allegoric.
- During his early years in Amsterdam (1632-1636), Rembrandt used large canvases and strong tones and depicted dramatic scenes. Rembrandt painted many portraits in this period. Other paintings had biblical and mythological scenes.
- In the late 1630s, Rembrandt painted many landscapes and produced etchings about nature. In this period, his landscapes were tormented by nature, showing trees taken down by a storm or ominous skies with dark clouds.
- Starting in about 1640, his work became more sober, reflecting the family tragedies that he had suffered. Exuberance was replaced by deeply felt inner emotions. Biblical scenes were now derived more often from the New Testament instead of the Old Testament, as had been the case before. Paintings became smaller again. An exception is the huge painting The Night Watch, his largest, which was as worldly and spirited as any previous painting. Landscapes were more often etched than painted. The dark forces of nature made way for quiet Dutch rural scenes.
- In the 1650s, Rembrandt's style changed again. Paintings increased in size. Colours became richer, brush strokes stronger. With these changes, Rembrandt distanced himself from earlier work and current fashion, which increasingly inclined towards fine, detailed works. Over the years, biblical themes were still depicted often, but emphasis shifted from dramatic group scenes to intimate portrait-like figures.
- In his last years, Rembrandt painted some of his finest self-portraits, showing a face on which grief and sorrow had left their marks.
- In the Netherlands, the most notable collection of Rembrandt's work is at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, including De Nachtwacht (The Night Watch) and De Joodse bruid (The Jewish Bride).
- Many of his self-portraits are held in The Hague's Mauritshuis. His home, preserved as the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, houses many examples of his engravings.
- 1629 An Artist in His Studio (The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
- 1630 The Raising of Lazarus (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles)
- 1630-1635 A Turk (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1631 Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (Frick Collection, New York)
- 1632 Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (Mauritshuis, The Hague)
- 1632 Portrait of a Noble (Oriental) Man (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- 1633 Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston)
- 1635 Belshazzar's Feast (National Gallery, London)
- 1636 The Blinding of Samson (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main, Germany)
- 1636 Danaë (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
- 1642 The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq better known as the Night Watch (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- ±1643 Christ Healing the Sick also known as The Hundred Guilders Print (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) etching, nicknamed for the huge sum (at that time) paid for it
- 1647 An Old Lady with a Book (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1650 The Philosopher (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1650 The Mill (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1653 Sacrifice of Isaac (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
- 1653 Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- 1654 Bathsheba at Her Bath (Louvre, Paris) (Hendrickje is thought to have modeled for this painting)
- 1655 Joseph Accused by Potiphar's Wife (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)
- 1656 A Woman Holding a Pink (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1657 The Apostle Paul (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1658 Selfportrait (Frick Collection, New York)
- 1658 Philemon and Baucis (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1659 Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
- 1659 Selfportrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- 1660 Selfportrait (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
- 1660 Portrait of a Gentleman with a Tall Hat and Gloves (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1660 Portrait of a Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1661 Conspiracy of Julius Civilis (National Museum, Stockholm) (Julius Civilis led a Dutch revolt against the Romans) (most of the cut up painting is lost, only the central part still exists)
- 1662 Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (Dutch De Staalmeesters) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- 1662 Portrait of a Man in a Tall Hat (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1662-1663 A Young Man Seated at a Table (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1664 Lucretia (The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC)
- 1664 The Jewish Bride (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
- 1666 Lucretia (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis)
- 1669 Return of the Prodigal Son (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg)
- This is just a small selection. Many of Rembrandt's paintings are famous around the world.
The Night Watch
Main article: Night Watch (painting)
'The Night Watch' or 'The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq', 1642, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Rembrandt painted The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq between 1640 and 1642. This picture was called the Patrouille de Nuit by the French and the Night Watch by Sir Joshua Reynolds because, upon its discovery, the picture was so dimmed and defaced by time that it was almost indistinguishable and it looked quite like a night scene. After it was cleaned, it was discovered to represent broad day — a party of musketeers stepping from a gloomy courtyard into the blinding sunlight.
The piece was commissioned for the new hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, the musketeer branch of the civic militia. Rembrandt departed from convention, which ordered that such genre pieces should be stately and formal, rather a line-up than an action scene. Instead he showed the militia readying themselves to embark on a mission (what kind of mission, an ordinary patrol or some special event, is a matter of debate). His new approach caused a row, especially among the militia members who ended up at the back of the scene and were hardly visible. Payment was delayed. Even parts of the canvas were cut off to make the painting fit on the designated wall.
This painting now hangs in the largest hall of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is a large painting that takes up the entire back wall — despite having had bits cut off — and is arguably one of the most impressive paintings displayed there.
In 1968, the Rembrandt Research Project (RRP) was started under the sponsorship of the Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Scientific Research (NWO). Art historians teamed up with experts from other fields to reassess the authenticity of works attributed to Rembrandt, using all methods available, including state-of-the-art technical diagnostics, and to compile a complete critical catalog of his paintings. As a result of their findings, many paintings that were previously attributed to Rembrandt have been taken from the list. Many of those are now thought to be the work of his students. This included The Polish Rider, one of the treasures of New York's Frick Collection. Years ago, its authenticity was questioned by several scholars, led by Julius Held. Many, including Dr. Josua Bruyn of the Foundation Rembrandt Research Project, now attribute the painting to one of Rembrandt's closest and most talented pupils, Willem Drost.
As of 2003, the investigation is still in progress.
Today, a Rembrandt painting can sell for more than €23 / US$28 / £15 million.
A medical analysis of Rembrandt's art talent
In an article published on September 16, 2004 in The New England Journal of Medicine, Margaret S. Livingstone, professor of neurobiology of Harvard Medical School, suggests that Rembrandt, whose eyes failed to align correctly, suffered from stereo blindness. She made this conclusion after studying 36 of Rembrandt's self-portraits.
Because he could not form a normal binocular vision, his brain automatically switched to one eye for many visual tasks. This disability could have helped him to flatten images as he saw, and then put it onto the two-dimensional canvas. In the author's words, this could have been a gift to a great painter like him:
- Art teachers often instruct students to close one eye in order to flatten what they see. Therefore, stereo blindness might not be a handicap — and might even be an asset — for some artists.
- Rembrandt's house in Amsterdam (http://www.rembrandthuis.nl/)
- Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/asp/start.asp?language=uk)
- Artcyclopedia (http://artcyclopedia.com/artists/rembrandt_van_rijn.html) has an extensive list of museums that show Rembrandt's work.
- Rembrandt Research Project (http://amsterdam.park.org/Netherlands/pavilions/culture/rembrandt/)
- Webmuseum Paris (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/rembrandt/): Lots of high-resolution scans of his paintings
- Artchive, 'Rembrandt one man show' (http://www.artchive.com/rembrandt/rembrandt.html) seven paintings, viewable at high resolution
- UC Berkeley site (http://socrates.berkeley.edu/%7Eah172/rembrandt/index.html) Another collection of paintings
- Self-portraits (http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/rembrandt/self/)
- Deconstructing the Gaze of Rembrandt (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/16/arts/design/16remb.html)
- The New England Journal of Medicine (2004/09/16) (http://content.nejm.org/content/vol351/issue12/index.shtml)
- Was Rembrandt Stereoblind? (http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/short/351/12/1264)
- Provenance Helpline (http://www.nakedtheatre.co.uk/) A play by Jim Grover on a Rembrandt double portrait.