Rembrandt

(1606-1669)

Rembrandt was a Dutch baroque artist who ranks as one of the greatest
painters in the history of Western art. His full name was Rembrandt
Harmenszoon van Rijn, and he possessed a profound understanding of human
nature that was matched by a brilliant technique- not only in painting
but in drawing and etching- and his work made an enormous impact on his
contemporaries and influenced the style of many later artists. Perhaps
no painter has ever equaled Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro effects or his bold
impasto.

Life

Born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt 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. Rembrandt began his
studies at the Latin School, and at the age of 14 he was enrolled at the
University of Leiden. The program did not interest him, and he soon left
to study art-first with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch, and then,
in Amsterdam, with Pieter Lastman, known for his historical paintings.
After six months, having mastered everything he had been taught,
Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he was soon so highly regarded that
although barely 22 years old, he took his first pupils, among them
Gerrit Dou.

Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1631; his marriage in 1634 to Saskia van
Uylenburgh, the cousin of a successful art dealer, enhanced his career,
bringing him in contact with wealthy patrons who eagerly commissioned
portraits. An exceptionally fine example from this period is the
Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts (1631, Frick Collection, New York City). In
addition, Rembrandt’s mythological and religious works were much in
demand, and he painted numerous dramatic masterpieces such as The
Blinding of Samson (1636, Stдdelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Because
of his renown as a teacher, his studio was filled with pupils, some of
whom (such as Carel Fabritius) were already trained artists. In the 20th
century, scholars have reattributed a number of his paintings to his
associates; attributing and identifying Rembrandt’s works is an active
area of art scholarship.

In contrast to his successful public career, however, Rembrandt’s family
life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641 Saskia gave birth
to four children, but only the last, Titus, survived; her own death came
in 1642. Hendrickje Stoffels, engaged as his housekeeper about 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, 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.

These problems in no way affected Rembrandt’s work; if anything, his
artistry increased. Some of the great paintings from this period are The
Jewish Bride (1632), The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1661, Rijksmuseum,
Amsterdam), Bathsheba (1654, Musйe du Louvre, Paris), Jacob Blessing the
Sons of Joseph (1656, Staatliche Gemдldegalerie, Kassel, Germany), and a
self-portrait (1658, Frick Collection). His personal life, however,
continued to be marred by sorrow, for his beloved Hendrickje died in
1663, and his son, Titus, in 1668. Eleven months later, on October 4,
1669, Rembrandt died in Amsterdam.

Early Painting

Rembrandt may have created more than 600 paintings as well as an
enormous number of drawings and etchings. The style of his earliest
paintings, executed in the 1620s, shows the influence of his teacher,
Pieter Lastman, in the choice of dramatic subjects, crowded
compositional arrangements, and emphatic contrasts of light and shadow.
The Noble Slav (1632, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) shows
Rembrandt’s love of exotic costumes, a feature characteristic of many of
his early works.

A magnificent canvas, Portrait of a Man and His Wife (1633, Isabella
Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), shows his early portrait style-his
preoccupation with the sitters’ features and with details of clothing
and room furnishings; this careful rendering of interiors was to be
eliminated in his later works. Members of Rembrandt’s family who served
as his models are sometimes portrayed in other guises, as in Rembrandt’s
Mother as the Prophetess Anna (1631, Rijksmuseum), or the wistful Saskia
as Flora, (1634, the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg).

Perhaps no artist ever painted as many self-portraits (about 60), or
subjected himself to such penetrating self-analysis. Not every early
portrayal, however, can be interpreted as objective representation, for
these pictures frequently served as studies of various emotions, later
to be incorporated into his biblical and historical paintings. The
self-portraits also may have served to demonstrate his command of
chiaroscuro; thus, it is difficult to tell what Rembrandt looked like
from such a self-portrait as the one painted about 1628 (Rijksmuseum, on
loan from the Daan Cevat Collection, England), in which deep shadows
cover most of his face, barely revealing his features. On the other
hand, in none of these youthful self-portraits did he attempt to
disguise his homely features.

Biblical subjects account for about one-third of Rembrandt’s entire
production. This was somewhat unusual in Protestant Holland of the 17th
century, for church patronage was nonexistent and religious art was not
regarded as important. In Rembrandt’s early biblical works, drama was
emphasized, in keeping with baroque taste.

Among Rembrandt’s first major public commissions in Amsterdam was the
Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague). This work
depicts the regents of the Guild of Surgeons gathered for a dissection
and lecture. Such group portraits were a genre unique to Holland and
meant substantial income for an artist in a country where neither church
nor royalty acted as patrons of art. Rembrandt’s painting surpasses
commemorative portraits made by other Dutch artists with its interesting
pyramidal arrangement of the figures, lending naturalism to the scene.

Middle Period

Many of Rembrandt’s paintings of the 1640s show the influence of
classicism in style and spirit. A 1640 self-portrait (National Gallery,
London), based on works by the Italian Renaissance artists Raphael and
Titian, reflects his assimilation of classicism both in formal
organization and in his expression of inner calm. In the Portrait of the
Mennonite Preacher Anslo and His Wife (1641, Staatliche Museen,
Berlin-Dahlem), quieter in feeling than his earlier work, the interplay
between the figures is masterfully rendered; the preacher speaks,
perhaps explaining a biblical passage to his wife, who quietly listens.
A number of Rembrandt’s other works depict dialogues and, like this one,
represent one specific moment. In the moving Supper at Emmaus (1648,
Musйe du Louvre), Rembrandt’s use of light immediately conveys the
meaning of the scene.

His group portraiture continued to develop in richness and complexity.
The so-called Night Watch-more accurately titled The Shooting Company of
Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1642, Rijksmuseum)-portrays the bustling
activity of a military company, gathered behind its leaders, preparing
for a parade or shooting contest. In departing from the customary static
mode of painting rows of figures for the corporate portrait, Rembrandt
achieved a powerful dramatic effect. Despite the popular myth that the
painting was rejected by those who commissioned it, and led to a decline
in Rembrandt’s reputation and fortune, it was actually well received.
Many of Rembrandt’s landscapes in this middle period are romantic and
based on his imagination rather than recording specific places. The
inclusion of ancient ruins and rolling hills, not a part of the flat
Dutch countryside, as in River Valley with Ruins (Staatliche
Gemдldegalerie, Kassel), suggests a classical influence derived from
Italy.

Late Period

Rembrandt’s greatest paintings were created during the last two
decades of his life. Baroque drama, outward splendor, and superficial
details no longer mattered to him. His self-portraits, portrayals of
single figures and groups, and historical and religious works reveal a
concern with mood and with spiritual qualities. His palette grew richly
coloristic and his brushwork became increasingly bold; he built thick
impastos that seem miraculously to float over the canvas. In Portrait of
the Painter in Old Age (1669?, National Gallery, London), Rembrandt’s
features betray a slightly sarcastic mood. One of his finest single
portraits (1654, Stichting Jan Six, Amsterdam) is that of Jan Six. Six,
wearing a deeply colored red, gold, and gray costume, is shown putting
on a glove. The portrait is painted in a semiabstract style that
demonstrates Rembrandt’s daring technical bravura. Six’s quiet,
meditative mood is expressed by the subtle play of light on his face. In
such late biblical works as Potiphar’s Wife Accusing Joseph (1655,
Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem), and the very moving Return of the
Prodigal Son (1669?, the Hermitage) Rembrandt concentrated on the
inherent psychological drama rather than on the excitement of the
narrative as he had in works of his early period. In general, after his
early period, Rembrandt was not particularly interested in allegorical
and mythological subjects.

Graphic Work

For Rembrandt, drawing and etching were as much major vehicles of
expression as painting. Some 1400 drawings, recording a wide range of
outward and inner visions, are attributed to him, works mostly done for
their own sake rather than as preparatory studies for paintings or
prints. The majority of them are not signed, because they were made for
his private use. Rembrandt’s early drawings (of the 1630s) were
frequently executed in black or red chalk; later his favorite medium
became pen and ink on white paper, often in combination with brushwork,
lending a tonal accent. In some drawings, such as The Finding of Moses
(1635?, Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam), a few charged lines indicating
three figures carry maximum expression. Other drawings were, in
contrast, highly finished, such as The Eastern Gate at Rhenen
(Oostpoort) (1648?, Musйe, Bayonne, France), which displays details of
architecture and perspective. He made masterful drawings throughout the
early as well as mature phases of his career. An example of an early
work is Portrait of a Man in an Armchair, Seen Through a Frame (1634,
private collection, New York City), done in chalk, considered
Rembrandt’s most finished portrait drawing. Superb later works are
Nathan Admonishing David (1655-1656?, Metropolitan Museum), done with a
reed pen, and a genre piece, A Woman Sleeping (Hendrickje?) (1655?,
British Museum, London), a powerful brush drawing universally praised as
one of his finest.

Rembrandt’s etchings were internationally renowned even during his
lifetime. He exploited the etching process for its unique potential,
using scribbling strokes to produce extraordinarily expressive lines. In
combination with etching he employed the drypoint needle, achieving
special effects with the burr in his mature graphic work. Indeed,
Rembrandt’s most impressive etchings date from his mature period. They
include the magnificent full-length portrait of Jan Six (1647,
Bibliothиque Nationale, Paris), the famous Christ Healing the Sick, also
known as the 100 Guilder Print (1642-1645?), the poetic landscape Three
Trees (1643), and Christ Preaching, or La Petite Tombe (1652?), all in
the British Museum.

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