Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn usually simply known as Rembrandt, was a Dutch Golden Age painter, printmaker and draughtsman.
He was one of the greatest storytellers in the history of art, possessing an exceptional ability to render people in their various moods and dramatic guises. Rembrandt is also known as a painter of light and shade and as an artist who favoured an uncompromising realism that would lead some critics to claim that he preferred ugliness to beauty.
Rembrandt was renowned for his outstanding ability to not only depict very natural, realistic human figures but even more importantly, to portray deep human feelings, imperfections and morality. He believed that human emotions were more important than any other aspects of life and his subjects’ feelings and experiences are what he wanted to convey even when painting them within the context of history, religion, or society.
His contributions to art came in a period of great wealth and cultural achievement that historians call the Dutch Golden Age, when Dutch art (especially Dutch painting), whilst antithetical to the Baroque style that dominated Europe, was prolific and innovative. This era gave rise to important new genres. Like many artists of the Dutch Golden Age, such as Jan Vermeer, Rembrandt was an avid art collector and dealer.
Rembrandt never went abroad, but was considerably influenced by the work of the Italian masters and Netherlandish artists who had studied in Italy, like Pieter Lastman, the Utrecht Caravaggists, Flemish Baroque, and Peter Paul Rubens. After he achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for twenty years he
taught many important Dutch painters.
Rembrandt was born on 15 July, 1606 in Leiden, in the Dutch Republic, now the Netherlands. He was the fourth of 6 surviving children out of 10. Unlike many painters of his time, he did not come from a family of artists or craftsmen – his father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller. His mother, Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck (1568–1640), came from a family of bakers.
As a boy, he attended Latin school. At the age of 13, he was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting – he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburg, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt stayed a few months with Jacob Pynas and then started his own workshop, though Simon van Leeuwen claimed that Joris van Schooten taught Rembrandt in Leiden. Unlike many of his contemporaries who traveled to Italy as part of their artistic training, Rembrandt never left the Dutch Republic during his lifetime.
In around 1631, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, the most prosperous port in northern Europe, and ‘crowded with merchants from every nation’. It offered a young and successful artist far more opportunities than sleepy Leiden.
Rembrandt lodged in the house of an art dealer called Hendrick van Uylenburgh, and while there, he met his landlord’s young cousin Saskia. They were married in 1634. The numerous paintings and drawings of her suggest the two were very happily married. In 1636, Saskia gave birth to their first son, Rumbartus. He died after only two weeks. Over the next four years two more children were born, but died within a couple of months.
His work, The Night Watch (1642), a multi-figure military scene, numbers among his most important commissions of this time as well as one of the top paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. Enormous in size, measuring approximately 12 x 14 feet, the painting features dramatic contrasts of light and shadow.
In the 10 years following the unveiling of The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s overall artistic output diminished drastically and he produced no painted portraits; either he received no portrait commissions or he stopped accepting such commissions. Speculation about what happened after The Night Watch has contributed to the “Rembrandt myth,” according to which the artist became largely misunderstood and was ignored. Often blamed for Rembrandt’s supposed downfall are the death of his wife and the supposed rejection of The Night Watch by those who commissioned it. But modern research has found no evidence that the painting was rejected or that Rembrandt experienced deep devastation upon his wife’s death.
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings) and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into his collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armour among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals – the prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing. He also had to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters’ guild, who introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt’s circumstances could trade as a painter. To get round this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art-dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.
In 1661 Rembrandt (or rather the new business) was contracted to complete work for the newly built city hall, but only after Govert Flinck, the artist previously commissioned, died without beginning to paint. The resulting work, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, was rejected and returned to the painter; the surviving fragment is only a fraction of the whole work. It was around this time that Rembrandt took on his last apprentice, Aert de Gelder. In 1662 he was still fulfilling major commissions for portraits and other works. In 1662 one of Rembrandt’s creditors went to the High Court (Hof van Holland) to contest that Titus had to be paid first. Isaac van Hertsbeeck lost twice and had to pay the money he had already received to Titus, which he did in 1668. When Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany came to Amsterdam in 1667, he visited Rembrandt at his house.