Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn

A LIFE SHROUDED IN MYSTERY

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born in 1606 and died in 1669. One of the supreme geniuses in the history of art, he is almost a separate dimension in Dutch art. His influence was felt in nearly every branch of it, and has recurred inexhaustibly in the history of art ever since.

Though the broad outlines of his life are known, there are few informative details: Rembrandt himself, however, charted the moods of his career with extraordinary frankness in an unprecedented series of more than 100 self-portraits.

Rembrandt's early work in Leyden, where he was born, reflects his first master, the Amsterdam painter, Pieter Laastman. Through him he acquired a taste for religious and allegorical subjects, and learned the general stylistic principles of Italian Baroque painting, especially Caravaggio, and also of Elsheimer, which had been filtered back to Holland by the Utrecht painters.

It was perhaps also Laastman who inspired the young artist to aim for the highest values in painting, attainable, according to the opinion of that time, only in "history" painting (that is in epic, mythological or religious works). His brilliant, sharp technique and ability to convey a sense of physical presence enabled him to rapidly become the city's leading portraitist.

A PASSION FOR DRAMA

By the 1630s, having moved to Amsterdam, the principal city of Holland, in 1631-32, Rembrandt had refined the con-struction of his compositions, and especially his handling of the half-tones between the extremes of light and dark, and was now fully competent to organize paintings of a monumental scale.

The first of his great group portraits, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, 1632, no doubt established his reputation in Amsterdam, investing what might have been a formal group with high drama. The drama is higher still in his Blinding of Samson.

The scope of his patronage was expanding, through the leading connoisseur Constantin Huyghens, Rembrandt obtained a commission from the Stadtholder, the ruler of federal Holland, for five large Passion scenes.

The Passion scenes are more characteristic of the mature Rembrandt: the mood is both dramatic and yet somebody reflective -- his Descent from the Cross shows an awareness of Rubens' composition in Antwerp but is entirely Rembrandt's own in feeling. Christ is no elegant, ideal figure, but a broken wreck of human flesh.

The fact that more than forty of his portraits are dated 1632 or 1633 shows the extent of the demand for his work.

A MORAL OBSESSION

Although Rembrandt in particular was to demonstrate that high values could be revealed in any branch of art, his obsession with moral themes endured throughout his career.

Rembrandt's early work is dramatic, with stressed diagonals, sharp recessions, contrasts of light and shade (these are sometimes very fierce) and also hard, clear contours. His heroic characters, however, dressed in contemporary costume, sometimes as peasants, are even less idealized than Caravaggio's -- even today some of his early pictures seem provocatively vulgar.

For Rembrandt the Bible was a story of then, now and forever, he was profoundly religious (in later life he became an adherent of a radical Protestant sect, the Mennonites) and his religion profoundly rooted in real life.

Rembrandt's insistence on truth -- in nudes, genre, biblical scenes (often indistinguishable from genre scenes) and portraits -- persisted throughout his life; his power to marry naturalism into majestic compositions of subtle design and sometimes transcendental power developed continuously.

His naturalism was offset -- maybe even deliberately counterpointed -- by a delight in clothing groups or single figures in picturesque or romantic costume, or portraying them in dual roles, so that an epic subject, a saint or an historical figure, is also clearly a literal portrait.

HAUNTING INTENSITY

Rembrandt's marriage to the wealthy Saskia van Uylenburgh, in 1634, ushered in a period of prosperity and contentment, epitomized by the opulent Self-Portrait with Saskia. His religious paintings from these years are equally exuberant.

Rembrandt's most famous work, The Night Watch is also his largest measuring twelve by fifteen feet. It was finished in 1642 and marks both a climax and a turning point.

Rembrandt transposed the traditional Dutch Civic Guard group into a "history" composition of stupendous drama, color, tonal contrast and movement. Characteristically Rembrandt's is the inexplicable element, the incandescent figure of the little girl.

The year 1642, however, marked the beginning of the decline of Rembrandt's financial and fashionable fortunes, and perhaps too of his personal confidence and happiness (his wife Saskia died in this year).

The mood in his painting becomes ever more sombre, more searching; the paint itself both richer and more troubled; the psychological intensity of his images more impressive and haunting.

LIGHT FROM WITHIN

The 1640s and 1650s were Rembrandt's most productive period of etchings -- some, such as the famous Hundred-Guilder Print, as rich and complex as his major paintings -- and for drawn, painted and etched landscapes; during the same period he made hundreds of direct and forceful drawings (usually in a thick reed-pen), tautly structured yet almost throbbing with life.

In his last two decades Rembrandt tended to simplify his compositions, rejecting his earlier highly-strung Baroque for a more classical, more stable and enduring structure. His use of paint and handling of light became ever more richer and subtler.

This light, charged with an intense spirituality, seems to come from within rather than from an external source. His portraits and self-portraits transcend the individual they so vividly and faithfully depict and become "intimations of the universal destiny of mankind".

One of his greatest and most mysterious works, the picture known as The Jewish Bride, is conventional enough in theme -- it is perhaps a simple wedding portrait of two ordinary people -- but it celebrates marriage as a sacrament, a dedication in mutual love at once human and divine; formally it echoes traditional depictions of the biblical Jacob and Rachel.

Apart from these commercial occupations Rembrandt also used stock and service tools in his financial dealings. The activities of the workshop demonstrate how Rembrandt was not only an artist but an astute businessman involved in many facets of the art world.

The making of art was the domain of the artist, in this case Rembrandt and his associates. Rembrandt and his associates embraced the artistic problems they encountered and solved them through the production of prints, etchings and oil paintings.

Beyond the making of art and the complexity of the marketing structure was another level of motivation, a different kind of task -- that of connecting people in a shared higher aesthetic, a separation from the mediocrity of ordinary life.

"Rembrandt fever" is a compulsion which sweeps through the lives of those who are influenced by this wondrous taste. Rembrandt's art was not intended to be an object owned by a single individual, but a phenomenon to be shared by many.

At night, in the quiet evening when people would sit around and talk and maybe sing, someone would pull out a wondrous treasure -- an etching perhaps -- tucked away in a book, and all would look at it in awe and share in their appreciation for this beautiful creation which their contemporaries had created in Rembrandt's studio. These works were produced in great quantity and to Rembrandt's great fame.

Four hundred years after his death, the Rembrandt experience still carries the fragrance that bonds people together. To the person of higher aesthetic a Rembrandt exhibit is a dream come true, like Disneyland is for our children.

HORRENDOUS LIVING CONDITIONS

During the 17th century, the number of peasants and urban laborers in Holland for surpassed the nobility. In 1640, the city of Leyden was home to more than 20,000 textile workers alone.

The living conditions under which most people were forced to survive were horrendous -- comparable to those in England at the start of the industrial revolution. Most of them lived in tiny huts furnished with straw.

Grueling work schedules were the rule for everyone, including even the smallest of children. This usually meant from sunrise to sunset. In fact, children were recruited to work in mills and were considered no better than slaves. Things were so bad that in 1646, a law was passed which stated that children were not to work more than 14 hours a day.

Living conditions were exasperated by bad sewage systems and almost no sanitation, and led to general poor health which in turn encouraged six to eight plagues a year.

LEADING MERCHANTS

Dutch fortunes in the 17th century were principally made in shipping. Fully half of Europe's trade was carried in Dutch freighters. Holland possessed two thousand merchant ships, each with a capacity as high as 1000 tons.

In 1602, the United East India Company was established to trade with Java and the Spice Islands (for indigo, rice, cinnamon, cloves and other rare and exotic spices). The year 1641 is the year in which the Dutch gained control of Malacca. With this victory came unlimited access to the aforementioned islands and their valuable trade routes.

By 1650, the United East India Company's stock certificates were showing profits of 500 percent a year. Meanwhile, in the Americas, the West India Company traded with Brazil, Guiana and the Caribbean Islands for sugar and mahogany.

Holland was also a leader in the slave trade. The Dutch imported approximately 15,000 black African slaves a year and sold them for an enormous profit to the Americas.

THE REMBRANDT STUDIO

Rembrandt became the artistic heart and soul of an enterprise of unusual proportion, an establishment which to this day is referred to as the "Rembrandt workshop".

The activities which took place in this workshop were as numerous as they were diversified:

  • The buying and selling of old paintings and other works of art.
  • The production of new paintings by Rembrandt, his apprentices and assistants
  • The making of copies of works in stock and of new compositions
  • Acquiring and executing portrait commissions for Rembrandt and his assistants
  • Making etched copies after paintings and making original etchings
  • Publishing etchings
  • Trading in etching plates
  • Training apprentices and assistants
  • Giving art lessons to amateurs
  • Appraising works of art for legal purposes
  • Cleaning and vanishing paintings

THE REMBRANDT EXPERIENCE

The essential truths regarding Rembrandt is that he was influenced by a very powerful muse -- a higher inspiring force -- to create a body of work of immense proportions which would ultimately connect people to one another outside the normal events of everyday life.

This connection took place outside the realm of what people expected could happen to them in their ordinary lives and it happened when they encountered the world of Rembrandt, his workshop and his art.

Rembrandt is to this day an "experience", a phenomenon unto itself -- one of substance, quality and high aesthetic values. The occasion of experiencing Rembrandt's world was compounded by the fact that the people in Holland were obsessed with ownership of original art. It would be the equivalent today of every second family in the United States owning an original work of art.

Rembrandt's workshop was a crucible of astounding energy and force set up to fulfill these demands, and when visitors and clients entered into the workshop to view or purchase art, they entered into an experience that changed their lives.

PSYCHOLOGICAL PENETRATION

As he became more introspective and expressed himself with growing technical freedom, bourgeois clients who demanded a high degree of finish turned to artists such as van der Helst for their portraits. Rembrandt, however, continued to have personal supporters such as the rich Amsterdam Burgomaster, Jan Six, whose portrait he painted in 1654.

The deepening spirituality which the Six portrait exemplifies was paralleled in all aspects of his art. Bathsheba, for example, displays none of the dramatic qualities of his earlier biblical scenes, but presents a starkly honest portrayal of the bodily imperfections and quiet despair of the sitter.

The development of this unmatched psychological penetration is best witnessed in the marvelous series of Self-Portraits spanning forty years. The studies of facial expressions, confident stares and flamboyant costumes of the earlier ones give way to the unflinching patience and dignity of the mature portrayals, which include some of the most moving portraits ever painted.

THE SEARCH FOR IDENTITY

In some of his portraits, Rembrandt is very much the Protestant, holding his human identity clear of the dark as if by sheer will-power -- alone with himself, uncertain perhaps if man is made in the image of God, but determined to find out.

The search for identity is there even in the earliest portraits, though these are often clearly studies, exercises in capturing momentary expression.

The Dresden double portrait with Saskia, of his brash middle years in Amsterdam, is also a brash image, Rembrandt exultant at his fortune and rather vulgarly unconcerned with the dignity of station.

The element of role-playing, as in the London National Gallery portrait, where he is posed and clad like a Titian portrait then believed to represent the prince of poets, Ariosto, persists almost to the end.

But in one of the last of all, also in the London National Gallery, Rembrandt, hands folded, quietly resigned on the threshold of death -- but in his paint still vital with life -- records simply himself.

SEARCHING SELF-PORTRAITS

The recorded facts reveal little about one of the greatest artists in history, rivaled in scope of imagination and universal appeal perhaps only by Shakespeare. But the skeleton provided by the documents is endowed with both flesh and spirit by the sequence of Self-Portraits -- more than one-hundred drawings, etchings or paintings, ranging from his beginnings as an artist to the last year of his life.

They constitute the most remarkable autobiography ever painted, and culminate in the searching self-interrogations of Rembrandt's last decade; amongst these the three-quarter-length portrait at Kenwood, London, is one of the most impressive and haunting.

In almost all the late Self-Portraits, the demand that the spectator identify with the artist is irresistible: he looks at himself, searching; you look at him; he looks at you.

FAMOUS PUPILS

Rembrandt's output was enormous and, unlike most of his specialist Dutch contemporaries, he treated virtually every type of subject. He was an inspiring teacher and taught some of the leading painters of his day: Dou, Bol, Flinck, Hoogstraten, Maes, de Gelder and Fabritius.

Rembrandt taught pupils all through his working life, and many of them, while with him, responded to his vision with work of remarkable quality. Some, such as Ferdinand Bol, remained in some degree loyal to that vision throughout their careers, and Aert de Gelder, almost his last pupil, continued painting works of distinction in his style into the eighteenth century. His most able pupil was Carel Fabritius, the vital link between Rembrandt and Vermeer.

BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

The main course of Rembrandt's life is fairly clear. He was born in Leyden in 1606. When he was only twenty-one years old, Rembrandt enjoyed much success and even had pupils in his home town.

In the 1630s, Rembrandt enjoyed fashionable prosperity in Amsterdam. But his popularity soon declined, an event that was undoubtedly aggravated by the death of his wife Saskia in 1642.

Financial mismanagement plagued Rembrandt for many years and this culminated in bankruptcy and the enforced sale of his superb art collection in 1656/57.

The deaths of his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels in 1663 and of his only son Titus in 1668 at the age of twenty-seven were very devastating to him until his own death in 1669. Rembrandt died alone in poverty.