Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is regarded as the greatest painter ever to have lived in the Netherlands. Paintings by him are currently valued at tens or even hundreds of millions of euros. The most famous of them all, The Night Watch, is estimated to be worth more than €500 million.
Rembrandt’s name is known all over the world, and mentioned in the same breath as other great artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet. He was as famous in his own time – the 17th century – as he is today. Wealthy people in the Netherlands and abroad were only too happy to have their portraits painted by him.
The life of Rembrandt v an Rijn
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, to give him his full name, was born on 15 July 1606 in the Dutch city of Leiden. He was the ninth child in a family of millers, and destined to follow in his father’s footsteps. Milling was a multi-million guilder industry in this period, and a highly profitable occupation.
Young Rembrandt had other plans, however, and it was while studying at university that he gradually arrived at his decision to become an artist. He went to study painting under Jacob van Swanenburg (1571-1638), who worked in Leiden and was the only history painter in the city at the time. It was from him that Rembrandt learned all about the legendary Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610) and his country.
Rembrandt didn’t feel that working with Jacob van Swanenburg was challenging enough, however, and around 1624 he moved on to become the pupil of another history painter, Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), in Amsterdam. Lastman was renowned for his drama-filled history paintings composed in the classical manner and depicting classical buildings and materials.
Rembrandt lived in both Leiden and Amsterdam for periods of his life. It was thanks in part to the influential art connoisseur Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687) that wealthy collectors approached Rembrandt. It was not long after Huygens visited Rembrandt’s studio that the court of the ruling stadholder in The Hague opened its doors to the artist.
Now a highly successful artist, in 1634 Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh, daughter of Hendrick van Uylenburgh, an immensely wealthy Friesian art dealer. Saskia and Rembrandt had four children, but only one, their son Titus, survived into adulthood.
In 1642, just a month before he completed The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s wife Saskia died. After years of sorrow following her loss, he found love again with Hendrickje Stoffels. But she too was destined to die relatively young – a victim of the plague that broke out in Amsterdam in 1663. It was in this period that Rembrandt painted the most beautiful and powerful of all his works, The Jewish Bride.
Rembrandt died, at the age of 63, in 1669, a year after the death of his son Titus. Rembrandt is buried in Westerkerk in Amsterdam.
Rembrandt painted many masterpieces, ranging in tone from the poignant Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem to perhaps the most gruesome painting of the 17th-century, The Blinding of Samson .
Rebellious by nature, Rembrandt always took a unique and original approach in his art. Take for example his portraits of the wealthy couple Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit : he painted them in a full-length pose that was generally reserved for portraits of kings and queens. And The Sampling Officials makes the viewer a participant in the scene, apparently interrupting a meeting of the officials.
The artist was a master storyteller, using subtle hand gestures or attributes to carry a narrative. And as he aged, he increasingly omitted elements from his work. This approach enabled him to reveal meaning even to the inattentive viewer. In The Jewish Bride, for example, Rembrandt showed the couple caressing one another, rather than kissing, to convey their mutual love. And The Night Watch, the most famous of all his masterpieces, offers new surprises with each viewing. Rather than posing the militiamen, Rembrandt depicts them just as they are about to go into action. This makes for a highly dynamic and movement-filled group portrait, rather than a statically posed one.
Over the course of his career, Rembrandt painted around 80 self-portraits – that’s more than any other artist until the 20th century. He used these works to practice his renderings of facial expressions and a variety of lighting effects.
Rembrandt the etcher
As well as paintings, Rembrandt produced etchings and prints – he made around 300 in the period from 1626 to 1665. His surviving works on paper testify to a ceaseless drive for innovation. He used the copperplate like a sketchpad, printing multiple versions and repeatedly modifying his composition.
Rather than scratching a wax-coated plate, as many other etchers did, Rembrandt used a dry needle to etch directly into the copperplate. This technique is known as drypoint.
Rembrandt is renowned for his dramatic use of light – even in his earliest known work The Spectacles Pedlar , he painted in the contrast-rich style known as chiaroscuro (Italian for ‘light-dark’). Rembrandt learned to play with light in such a way that the illuminated and shadowed areas fell in exactly the right place. It is not for nothing that ‘Rembrandt lighting’ remains a common term in photography to this day. Rembrandt’s work is also notable for its depictions of materials: his metal objects appear to glow and glimmer in sunlight, and you feel you could reach out and touch the fabrics and rugs.
He was an artist with a keen eye for the world around him. Even his first works reveal a far-reaching interest in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Rembrandt showed the subjects of his portraits as they truly were, managing to capture their facial expressions and avoid any sense that they were too ‘posed’.
Rembrandt would frequently use the reverse end of his brush to scratch into the still-wet paint, revealing the background. In his 1628 Self-Portrait, you can see how he used this technique to render his own curly hair.
He is also renowned for his use of impasto, a technique involving the thick layering of paint on the canvas. In his later paintings, he used paint that was particularly thick and stiff – it looks like he all-but sculpted it for his masterpiece The Jewish Bride, with the result that one sleeve even seems to be projecting out from the canvas.
Another characteristic of his later painting style is his combination of fine detail with fluid and loose strokes – these rapidly applied strokes are particularly evident in Rembrandt’s later work.
Rembrandt’s role models
Rembrandt was undoubtedly influenced by his first teachers Jacob van Swanenburg and Pieter Lastman. But Rembrandt was not one to stand in the shadow of his masters, and we can detect the influences of other legendary painters in his work.
The Dutch master of light and shade was clearly deeply impressed by the Italian painter Caravaggio and his use of the chiaroscuro technique. And despite never visiting Italy himself, other Italian legends such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo had a great influence on his painting style. During his baroque period, from around 1635 to 1639, it seems Rembrandt was seeking to rival the Flemish master of this genre Peter Paul Rubens.
In 1633 the artist started signing his paintings with just his first name – as either ‘Rembrant’ or ‘Rembrandt’. It is surely no coincidence that his world-famous artistic role models, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, also signed their paintings with only their first name.
As a major artist in his own lifetime, Rembrandt also naturally had several apprentices who became important painters. Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) and Govert Flinck (1615-1660), who all worked with him, are famous in the art world to this day. Gerrit Dou, for example, is regarded as the founder of an art movement known as the Leiden Fijnschilders (literally: ‘fine-painters’). Members of this group had great success in the 17th and 18th centuries with their smooth painting technique and the virtuosic realism of the materials they depicted.
Unsurprisingly, given their value, Rembrandt’s paintings became very popular targets for criminals. As recently as 1990, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston – the two male thieves managed to get into the museum dressed as police officers. The painting has never been found.
No single painting has ever been stolen more often than Rembrandt’s portrait of the Dutch draughtsman Jacob de Gheyn III, which disappeared no fewer than four times in the period from 1966 to 1983. Now hanging in the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, the painting is still known as the ‘takeaway Rembrandt’.
Despite all his fame and wealth, Rembrandt was plagued with debts throughout his life – in 1656 he even declared bankruptcy. The underlying reason was Rembrandt’s fascination for art objects and curiosities : he collected everything from Chinese porcelain to shells from the Pacific Ocean.