born July 15, 1606 , Leiden , Netherlands
died Oct. 4, 1669 , Amsterdam
In full Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Dutch painter, draftsman, and etcher of the 17th century, a giant in the history of art. His paintings are characterized by luxuriant brushwork, rich colour, and a mastery of chiaroscuro. Numerous portraits and self-portraits exhibit a profound penetration of character.
For most modern observers Rembrandt’s art has attained a kind of universal familiarity and popularity. Yet the biblical scenes and the self-portraits that today form the hallmark of his art were by no means typical of Dutch pictures of the 17th century; more commonly, his contemporaries produced landscapes, still life, or genre scenes of daily life that never held great interest for Rembrandt. In his own era Rembrandt achieved greatest fame as the most fashionable portrait painter of Amsterdam during the 1630s, but he was eventually eclipsed even during his own lifetime by younger rivals, including some of his own students. Another major field of accomplishment lay in the medium of etching. Rembrandt commanded high prices for his prints even during his lifetime, and his technical mastery had a lasting effect on printmakers for centuries.
If any quality typified the works of this great artist, especially in his youth, that quality would be a personal ambition to rival the dominant artists of Europe , particularly Peter Paul Rubens from nearby Antwerp . But the tides of fashion in Holland and Rembrandt’s own temperament seem to have frustrated much of his ambition and left him increasingly isolated and idiosyncratic in his final years. There is actually a kernel of truth to the apocryphal legend of Rembrandt’s rejection by the leading patrons of Amsterdam , although this loss of favour was gradual and never total. As a result of his increasing isolation, however, Rembrandt achieved a particular personal independence that doubtless contributed to his distinctive and evocative suggestion of the timeless human world of quiet yet deep emotional states. The silent human figure remained the central subject of Rembrandt’s art and contributed to the sense of a shared dialogue between viewer and picture, which still is the foundation of Rembrandt’s greatness as well as of his popularity today.
Early years in Leiden
Rembrandt’s youth does not help much to explain either the derivation or the character of his art. The artist’s father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller, a reasonably prosperous man; the family of his mother, Neeltje van Zuytbroeck, were bakers, but more important, they remained Catholics at a time when Leiden had adopted the Protestant creed. Indeed, Rembrandt’s father was the only member of his family who became a Calvinist rather than remaining a Catholic. According to a Leiden chronicle written during the artist’s lifetime (by Jan Orlers, 1641), the young Rembrandt was sent to a Latin school and directed toward the local university, the very first to have been established in Holland (1575) and a major centre of learning. But because the young man’s proclivities led toward art, he was apprenticed during the period 1619-22 to the local painter Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg. Little of the work of van Swanenburg can be identified today, and his art seems to have left scant influence on Rembrandt, but the fact that he, too, was a Catholic might have affected the choice of van Swanenburg as a master. Moreover, van Swanenburg’s father had also been a highly successful painter in Leiden and had trained Rubens’ master, Otto van Veen. Thus, this tutor held out a potential set of connections for the young Rembrandt.
But Rembrandt’s chief training came from the Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), who had spent time in Italy (1603-1606/07) and had returned to Amsterdam to become the leading painter of biblical, mythological, and historical pictures. Although Rembrandt seems to have spent only about half a year with Lastman around 1623, he fully absorbed the lessons of his master. From Lastman he learned the importance of painting lofty subjects in a broad format with careful attention to the ancient costumes, dramatic gestures, and compositional groupings of the full-length figures. The earliest Rembrandt pictures, including “Stoning of Saint Stephen” (1625), “Palamedes Before Agamemnon” (1626), and “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1626), clearly derive closely from both the themes and the pictorial formulas of Lastman. The baptism of the eunuch, for example, had already been painted by Lastman in a broad format a few years before (1623; Karlsruhe); Rembrandt’s version of the scene from Acts is transposed into a vertical format, but it retains most of the same figures, costumes, and accessories, yet condensed into a tighter, more dramatically lighted mass. Another close comparison of both theme and form is provided by Lastman’s 1622 panel and Rembrandt’s denser, vertical 1626 panel of the same subject, “Balaam’s Ass and the Angel.” Recent research links the “St. Stephen” and the “Palamedes” with commissions from the young Rembrandt in Leiden by a local humanist named Petrus Scriverius, whose estate cites two large pictures by Rembrandt; otherwise the early patrons of these pictures are unknown today.
The early Rembrandt paintings already reveal the artist’s ambition to rival the leading painters in Europe . Not only did he concentrate on the most learned and morally serious subjects but he also strove for the historically plausible settings and costumes that distinguished the pictures of Lastman and such painters in Rome as the German émigré Adam Elsheimer. Also evident in these early paintings are Rembrandt’s nascent fascination with dramatic personal responses and with spotlight effects of light and shadow. If anything, these elements came to dominate his art in the succeeding decade. In particular, Rembrandt’s exposure to a group of artists from nearby Utrecht led to an abrupt emulation of their sharply drawn chiaroscuro, or painting in light and dark. These Utrecht painters, led by Gerrit van Honthorst, had recently returned from Rome , and their art enjoyed not only local popularity but also strong favour in the courts of northern Europe . Hence, when Rembrandt painted such religious works as “The Presentation in the Temple” (c. 1627-28) or “Christ at Emmaus” (1628), he sought to emulate the drama of lighting and gesture of Elsheimer, Caravaggio, and, now, van Honthorst and to place himself firmly into the international world of art. A measure of the self-concept of Rembrandt around this time is the small but dramatic “Young Painter in the Studio” (c. 1629), which shows a full-length shadowy figure of an artist situated against the back wall and dwarfed by a massive panel lying on its easel in the foreground. This panel, seen from behind, lies in shadow, with only its near edge glowing with light. The overall effect is one of heroic confrontation within the very act of creation.
That Rembrandt had attained eminence as an artist by the end of the 1620s can be discerned from a famous reference, dating from 1629/30, in the autobiography of Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of the Prince of Orange. Huygens singles out Rembrandt as well as his young Leiden friend and colleague, Jan Lievens (1607-74), for special praise in terms of their future promise as artists. Rembrandt is lauded for his penetration to the essence of his subjects and for his effects in small format. In particular, the 1629 panel “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” is held up as a model for moving gesture and emotion, worthy of the finest works of Italy or even of antiquity. Huygens’ chief regret is that Rembrandt and Lievens never travelled to Italy for further study of the past masters.
Only in recent years has Lievens begun to receive attention commensurate with that paid to Rembrandt, although the careers of the two artists developed in tandem for many years. Lievens, too, journeyed from Leiden to Amsterdam for a two-year apprenticeship (1618-19) with Lastman. Indeed, it may well have been the example of Lievens that led Rembrandt to study with Lastman, and the influence of Lievens remained essential. Probably through Lievens came the exposure to Utrecht painting, which was to influence Rembrandt’s art. In the late 1620s Lievens’ art so closely resembled Rembrandt’s that scholars are still debating the proper attribution of some panels. For example, Lievens’ “Capture of Samson” (c. 1627-28; Amsterdam) appears to have been the stimulus for Rembrandt’s “Capture of Samson” (1628), and both works emulate the same subject as painted by Rubens (1610; London) and circulated throughout Europe in prints from an engraved version. In similar fashion Rembrandt and Lievens maintained a pictorial dialogue concerning the subject of the raising of Lazarus, beginning with Rembrandt’s c. 1630 panel (Los Angeles), followed by Lievens’ 1631 canvas (Brighton) and etching, and ending with Rembrandt’s masterful, dramatic, and large etching of about 1632. Rembrandt even seems to have predated some of his works to make them seem earlier than the comparable Lievens compositions. In 1632, however, Lievens departed for England , where he most likely became acquainted with Anthony Van Dyck, whose art redirected his own and led him to a later career in Antwerp between 1635 and 1644 before he returned to Amsterdam .
As part of the same ambition to paint historical pictures, both Rembrandt and Lievens also experimented with studies of heads, or what the Dutch call tronies. Often these figures wear exotic millinery and receive dramatic poses and lighting, but they are not portraits. Rather, they seem to have served as possible models or practice pieces for the character heads to be included within larger histories. Many of the pictures with the same models that were known in the 19th century as Rembrandt’s “father” or “mother” are actually such studies of heads, with special attention to the rendition of stuffs, of lighting, and of facial expressions or features. Many of the early self-portraits also seem to have been variants of the tronies formula, in which Rembrandt simply used his own features in lieu of those of another model and dressed himself up in military or fashionable garb: plumed hats, golden chains, armour gorgets. Some of the heads of the older models reappear virtually without change on the numerous prophets and apostles (including the luminous 1630 “Jeremiah”) that Rembrandt produced in 1630-31 in his later years in Leiden; this was a kind of picture that he left off doing until his final decade in the 1660s.
Rembrandt already enjoyed the attention of pupils and followers during his early years. His first disciple was Gerrit Dou, who emulated still another category of pictures from Rembrandt’s oeuvre: his genre scenes, or depictions of everyday activities. Rembrandt had already created such scenes in his 1626 “Music Lesson,” a work that also features archaic costumes and suggestions of lustfulness. Dou, also a Leiden native, the son of a glass engraver, became a pupil of Rembrandt in 1628 and continued this kind of subject but with overtones of seriousness and moral instruction and with an enamel-like fineness on a minute scale that was highly prized by collectors.
Having attracted the attention of the influential Huygens at court in The Hague, Rembrandt made inroads with the ruling House of Orange, chiefly with Prince Frederick Henry, for whom he painted in 1632-33 two scenes of Christ’s Passion, the “Raising of the Cross” and the “Descent from the Cross” (both in Munich) as well as a portrait of the princess Amalia van Solms that was to have been the pendant of a van Honthorst portrait of Frederick Henry. The Passion scenes were ordered for the Prince by Huygens and are closely linked to the model of Rubens, again known to Rembrandt chiefly through an engraving. At the time Rubens was the leading artistic force in Europe , and as a cultivated diplomat as well as a consummate painter he was especially favoured at princely courts. Thus, to emulate Rubens’ “Descent from the Cross” for his own princely patron was for Rembrandt the highest act of artistic self-assertion. Rembrandt even went so far as to produce his own 1633 etching of his picture in emulation of Rubens. One striking feature about both of Rembrandt’s Passion scenes is that the artist gave his own features to participants within the scene; in the “Raising of the Cross” he even employed modern dress and a focused light to underscore this personal involvement, meant perhaps to express his own meditative spirituality.
The letters from Rembrandt to Huygens concerning the Passion series survive, and they document a second phase of artistic production between 1636 and 1639, when three more pictures were made for Frederick Henry. The letters document the progressive disenchantment with Rembrandt by Huygens and the Prince, but one of them also contains a rare personal testimonial from Rembrandt concerning his artistic aims. The letter underscores the artist’s commitment to evoking “the greatest and most natural emotion” for his religious subjects. In this respect he is close to Rubens, who also was dedicated to the evocation of energy, drama, and emotion. Rembrandt’s works in comparison present less of the heroism and beauty of Rubens’ scenes but emphasize instead dramatic nocturnal lighting, humble figures, and intimate, lifelike reactions of his religious actors. These were basically the same elements that Huygens had already singled out for praise in Rembrandt’s earlier pictures, and they continued to inform his religious art during the 1630s.
Early years in Amsterdam
Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in late 1631. He already had a dealer in that city, Hendrick Uylenburgh, and his prospects at court were eclipsed by the domination of van Honthorst. Thus, the prosperity of Amsterdam , a capital of capitalism and a virtual city-state, drew him inexorably. In part through his introductions from Uylenburgh, Rembrandt quickly became one of the most fashionable and well-paid portraitists in Amsterdam . He was able to impress the regents of his adopted city, that clan of mercantile patricians who formed the centre of political power and influence. A mark of Rembrandt’s early success was his commission to paint “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), a commemoration of the annual anatomic demonstration to the city’s guild of surgeons by its praelector, or chief surgeon. This large-scale group portrait by Rembrandt has been justly celebrated ever since for its departure from the rule of showing a coordinated row of portrait heads. In contrast Rembrandt animated his subjects through a pyramidal composition and his mastery of dramatic lighting to focus attention on the actual process of the lecture itself. At the same time he enlivened the faces of the listeners with a rich variety of expressions of attention, investing them with the same suggestive pictorial psychology that would remain his trademark. Many of the same features can be found in Rembrandt’s portraits of individuals or of husbands and wives painted shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam . Although Rembrandt had painted very few portraits while at Leiden , his first four years in Amsterdam brought him some 50 portrait commissions, most of them quite well paid. Inasmuch as Nicolaes Tulp was not only a surgeon but also an alderman and a member of the Amsterdam town council, he was an influential man within the regents’ group. Also popular with the regents was Uylenburgh, the art dealer with whom Rembrandt lived briefly and also entered into commercial partnership. Many of Rembrandt’s portrait sitters (e.g., Marten Looten, 1632) appear to have been Mennonites, religious conservatives, whom he met through Uylenburgh and who were well connected with the Amsterdam regents.
Rembrandt also portrayed a number of religious leaders of Holland during his first decade in Amsterdam : the Remonstrant Johannes Uytenbogaert (1633 panel and 1635 etching), the Calvinist Johannes Elison (1634), and the Mennonite Cornelis Anslo (1641 double portrait panel and etching). This last figure was a renowned preacher, and Rembrandt’s portrayal emphasizes Mennonite reliance on the spoken word. In general his renditions take up the traditional challenge to the pictorial arts to render life without the aid of the spoken or the written word, as if in response to the challenge written in verse by the greatest of 17th-century Dutch poets, Joost van den Vondel:
“That’s right, Rembrandt, paint Cornelis’s voice! His visible self is second choice. The invisible can only be known through the word. For Anslo to be seen, he must be heard. ”
Yet, in addition to these portraits and the numerous pendant pairs of portraits during these early Amsterdam years, Rembrandt also clearly yearned for recognition, after the model of Rubens, as a painter of both mythologies and biblical stories. About the time of his move from Leiden , he produced his most extensive group of mythologies, beginning with “Andromeda” (c. 1630), which stresses the pathos rather than either the beauty or the heroism of the nude victim. A large “Pluto and Proserpina” (c. 1632) was clearly made for Frederick Henry at the same time as the Passion pictures, and both its scale and its frenetic energy attest to its relationship to the idiom of Rubens, although the refined execution still harks back to the Leiden of Dou. More typical, however, of Rembrandt’s tendency to demythologize is the way he renders such subjects as “Rape of Europa” (c. 1632) or “Rape of Ganymede” (1635). The former places a seraglio of exotically clad, small-scale women in front of a shoreline that includes a Dutch harbour scene. The latter scene is even more prosaic, showing a mewling toddler instead of the seductively beauteous youth of legend. Not only is the eagle elevating the child upward against a leaden-grey sky but also the frightened boy urinates reflexively in his horror. The artist seems almost to have taken pains to violate conventions of beauty and decorum in such a work, as if to engage in persiflage rather than homage to the classical heritage. Scholars still debate whether this work holds Neoplatonic significance as a mythic analogue to the union of the Christian soul with the divine or whether its irreverence lies closer to the homophilic traditions of the subject.
Rembrandt’s masterpiece of mythology followed a year later: “Danaë” (1636). Again, the artist avoided the standard formulation of the subject; instead of the shower of golden rays or coins that signal the arrival of Jupiter in his metamorphosed state, this picture simply bathes the heroine in a rich, luminous light. The “Danaë” also provided Rembrandt with the occasion for one of his most splendid nudes (reworked during the 1650s). He portrays the young woman waiting expectantly for her approaching lover despite the mournful, bound cupid above her head. The theory has been advanced that this was the large-scale picture sent as an unsolicited gift to Huygens and referred to in Rembrandt’s letters: “My lord, hang this piece in a strong light and so that one can stand a distance from it, then it will show at its best.”
Biblical paintings and etchings
If Rembrandt’s mythologies reveal a turn toward the unconventional, his biblical subjects offer a range of themes and stagings. His paintings include a number of unusual subjects from the Old Testament, drawn from the story of Samson in the Book of Judges or from the Book of Daniel. One large picture of this kind is “Belshazzar’s Feast” (c. 1635), a work filled with Oriental costumes, dramatic gestures, and horror-stricken facial expressions. (In addition, the presence of accurate Hebrew orthography testifies to Rembrandt’s connections with the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam through yet another religious leader, Menasseh ben Israel , an ecumenical and millenarian author. Rembrandt also etched a portrait of Menasseh in 1636.) Some of the same vitality and energy informs Rembrandt’s “Sacrifice of Isaac” (1635; St. Petersburg ), where the angel’s sudden intervention stills the hand of Abraham and causes the fatal knife to hang suspended in midair, giving the scene photographic immediacy. What is striking about the St. Petersburg picture is that it has a slightly modified mate in Munich, inscribed with the ambiguous signature Rembrandt verandert en overgeschildert (“Rembrandt altered and over-painted”), suggesting that the documented Uylenburgh workshop practice of copying works in stock might well have been a practice of Rembrandt’s own store of pictures during the 1630s.
Another feature of Rembrandt’s output during the 1630s is his development of ambitious etchings of biblical subjects. A beginning to this trend may already be seen in the 1633 “Descent from the Cross,” adapted from the painting for Frederick Henry, and in the mid-1630s Rembrandt and Uylenburgh seem to have had the ambition to create a series of large etchings at premium prices. One etching, “Christ Before Pilate” (1636), was carefully modeled in advance in an oil sketch of greys and browns (1634). Another oil sketch on canvas, “John the Baptist Preaching” (c. 1634), was never completed as a print. Its broad expanse of figures in picturesque costumes against a ruined setting still recalls the formulas of Lastman, who had died in 1633. Another ambitious etching that shows an ostentatious mastery of rich, dark tones is the 1634 “Annunciation to the Shepherds.” Here Rembrandt once more added a native Dutch element in transforming the shepherds into cowherds, who evince their own primal fear before the glowing angelic apparition. The character of experimentation that would typify Rembrandt’s etchings emerges from this print in the conscious reversal of lights and darks. Here the forms and highlights come forward out of the dense, dark lines, partly through relative lightness and partly through actual removal of lines with a burnisher. This technique, which creates the effect of light emerging out of darkness, became a hallmark of some of Rembrandt’s most moving late religious prints.
Some of Rembrandt’s finest pupils can be documented in Amsterdam in the late 1630s: Govert Flinck from Kleve , Jacob Backer of Harlingen , and Ferdinand Bol of Dordrecht . Flinck (1615-60) in particular may well have reproduced several of Rembrandt’s pictures for collectors or else collaborated with him in the workshop. But the replication of Rembrandt’s formulas for historical pictures, portraiture, and tronies remained a staple of his pupils for many years to come.
Marriage and family
Rembrandt married on June 22, 1634 . His bride was Saskia Uylenburgh (born in 1612), the cousin of Hendrick Uylenburgh and the daughter of the burgomaster of Leeuwarden . Saskia brought a substantial dowry as well as patrician status with her, so this marriage represented a substantial climb in social status for Rembrandt. At the time of the marriage, Rembrandt’s court connections with The Hague were at their zenith; hence, the match might have seemed well balanced. One of Saskia’s cousins and her guardian when the couple first met was the Reformed clergyman Johannes Cornelisz. Sylvius, whose posthumous etched portrait of 1646, emerging dynamically out of an illusionistic oval window frame, offers one of Rembrandt’s most moving likenesses. Yet Saskia herself was to be the subject of the largest number of single portraits during the 1630s. Rembrandt posed her in mythological dress, particularly in the flower-draped abundance of the goddess Flora (1634), and in formal attire with fastidious profile. But he also delighted in using her as his subject in a cluster of spontaneous domestic drawings, such as those catching her leaning out of a window or lying in bed. Some of the unhappy biographical data make the scenes in bed poignant: Saskia lost three children before the birth of a son, Titus, in 1641. Saskia herself died only a year later.
With his marriage Rembrandt seemed to be at the summit of his potential, and his self-portraits of the 1630s radiate confidence and prosperity. The climax of this trend is the stately, pyramidal self-portrait of 1640, which at once borrows its nonchalant pose upon a balustrade from Titian’s portrait, then thought to be the poet Ariosto, plus its rich costume and golden colour harmonies from Raphael’s portrait of the quintessential courtier Baldassare Castiglione. Both of these pictures had passed through prosperous Amsterdam ‘s art market in recent days, a fact which gave support to Rembrandt’s response to Huygens that he need not go to Italy to study the great masters. In addition, this image after the Renaissance model shows not only Rembrandt’s successful assimilation of the forms but also the courtier aspirations of Raphael, Titian, and, most recently, Rubens himself. Just as he had previously done with the Anslo portrait, Rembrandt also issued an etched version of this self-portrait on a stone sill in 1639.
If the velvet berets and fur-trimmed coats show Rembrandt to be a man luxuriating in his successes, a unique double portrait of Rembrandt and Saskia (c. 1635-36) seems to offer an ironic and reflective gaze at his life. Here, too, an etching echoes the subject of the painting, but in the 1636 etched double portrait Rembrandt shows himself at work, drawing as he looks up at the viewer. In the Dresden painting Saskia sits on the lap of a foppishly dressed Rembrandt, who gaily holds up a flagon of ale as he twists to offer a silly grin out of the picture. This tavern setting at once indulges a current “Arcadian” fashion for showing fashionable ladies as courtesans (yet another incarnation of the goddess Flora, with whom Rembrandt had already identified Saskia) as well as draws upon the pictorial tradition of the Prodigal Son with the tavern harlots. It is worth noting that the lavish dress of this couple offers an echo of the finery in the Kassel profile of Saskia, but here the suggestion of loose living and of future repentance from the Prodigal Son analogy also sounds a note of self-criticism.
As if to underscore the conspicuous consumption of the Dresden double portrait, Rembrandt purchased a large house in 1639 on the Jodenbreestraat. (This house is still known as the Rembrandt House, and today many of his etchings are kept there as a memorial.) In the same year Rembrandt painted a full-length portrait identified as Andries de Graeff, the brother of a leading Amsterdam patrician, Cornelis de Graeff, and son of the recent burgomaster, Jacob de Graeff. Cornelis’ brother-in-law and fellow patrician, Frans Banning Cocq, headed the civic guard that was to grant Rembrandt the commission for what is one of his grandest and most famous pictures: the group portrait nicknamed the “Night Watch” ( Amsterdam ).
The “Night Watch”
The proper title of the “Night Watch” ought to be “The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq.” Executed between 1640 and 1642, it was one of six such group portraits of militia companies designed for the new hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, the musketeer branch of the civic militia (alongside crossbowmen and archers). Two of the other group portraits were painted by Rembrandt’s pupil Flinck, and a third was entrusted to his emulator Backer. Most of the sitters in the “Night Watch” lived near one another in the drapers’ section of Amsterdam and were men of wealth, headed by Banning Cocq and his lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburgh. These are the two striding figures who lead the march in the spotlighted foreground of the large painting. Like the anatomy lesson group portrait of a decade earlier, Rembrandt’s militia group portrait differs from other Dutch instances by showing the entire scene animated and energized into a single, dynamic action. Emerging from in front of a large triumphal arch, the militia company seems to be setting out on a specific mission, evoking the glory days of the Dutch Revolution at the end of the preceding century. Scholars have debated whether in fact a specific ceremonial event was commemorated by this picture, such as the triumphal entry of the dowager French queen-mother, Marie de Médicis, in September 1638, one of the first state occasions for the young Dutch Republic . In any case, the militia company’s action elicits comparison of the armed guards at the city gates in a past era with the present protection of the city’s independence and privilege by her own citizens. Thus did Rembrandt in this largest of his pictures (even though trimmed seriously on its left side; originally about 4 1/2 × 5 metres) fuse history and portraiture, action and description. In the process he realized within an authentic Dutch pictorial tradition the same glories that Rubens had rendered in his equestrian portraits of reigning princes.
The contradictory experiences of Saskia’s death and the completion of the “Night Watch” in 1642 produced a watershed in Rembrandt’s life and artistic career. His connections at court had come to nothing late in the 1630s, and during the decade of the 1640s neither the sitters for his portraits nor the documented owners of his pictures reveal the kinds of social eminence of those of a decade earlier after his sudden arrival in Amsterdam (except for a couple of later submissions of religious pictures in 1646 to the court in The Hague). Legend has it that Rembrandt’s patronage suffered on account of the boldness of invention in a work like the “Night Watch”; while this is mere fable, the taste, especially in portraits, for greater refinement and detail of execution was exactly the opposite of Rembrandt’s own developing predilection. If he had delighted in the meticulous in his earlier portraits and in the later Leiden histories, Rembrandt now experimented with bolder brush strokes and stronger shadows with dark backgrounds. His followers, chiefly Bol, Flinck, and Backer, were becoming more successful and popular than their master, even among the highest levels of patronage.
Experimentation and exploration
Another cluster of talented pupils worked with Rembrandt around 1640: Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621-74) from Amsterdam; Carel Fabritius (1622-54), later a leading painter in Delft; and Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78) of Dordrecht, later better known for his art theory, Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst (1678; “Introduction to the High School of Painting”). Each of these made his own variation on the theme of the master, by adding colour to the history groups (van den Eeckhout), by working with a lighter background and experimenting with perspective effects (Fabritius), and by producing illusionistic experiments (van Hoogstraten).
Rembrandt’s art in general took on a more private and modest ambition during the 1640s. One measure of this development is provided by the comparison between his landscapes of the succeeding decades. During the 1630s the chief landscape efforts by Rembrandt took the form of paintings, which often show stormy skies and blasted trees. These wild pieces of nature respond to a heritage of powerful, stormy vistas, represented by several Rubens landscapes with narratives and in Dutch art by Hercules Seghers. During the early 1640s, however, Rembrandt turned increasingly to images with a more local, Dutch flavour, and he increasingly produced drawings and etchings rather than paintings of such scenes. Examples include the painted “Landscape with a Stone Bridge ,” the filigree etching of the Amsterdam skyline (c. 1641), the etched “Windmill” (1641), and several etched “Cottages” (1641/42). A climax of landscape etching was produced in 1643 with the “Three Trees.” Here a stormy sky at the upper left provides the dramatic contrasts of light and dark that had characterized painted landscapes, but the silhouetted trees of the hillside offer a topographic complement to a rural Dutch scene dotted with miniature windmills and human figures at their labours (including a lonely artist at the upper right, sketching on top of the hill!). This is a virtuoso performance that includes re-workings of the plate in dry-point for the delicate clouds.
One cliché of scholarship avers that this turn toward landscapes in both drawings and etchings indicates Rembrandt’s desire to find a peaceful alternative to the stresses in his life. More likely, these works meant a shift of marketing strategy away from the portraits and the kinds of histories that had been his staples during the halcyon days of the 1630s. When Rembrandt now created biblical histories, he omitted the Old Testament topics that had fascinated him earlier in favour of more conventional themes from the infancy or mission of Christ. Some of the pictures, such as the 1648 “Christ at Emmaus” ( Paris ), already exemplify the quiet dignity and human vulnerability of Rembrandt’s later spirituality, but a number of his other pictures exist in several versions, many of which were doubtless copies by associates, such as van den Eeckhout. Quite a few other paintings show sentimental single figures of young girls or old, bearded men without any of the force of the earlier figures and without their refined technique.
This fallow period of paintings is accompanied by a relative silence in the documents concerning Rembrandt during the 1640s. The exceptions are unpleasant. Despite Rembrandt’s posthumous tribute to Saskia’s former guardian, Sylvius, in the 1646 etching, the Uylenburghs made legal inquiries concerning Rembrandt’s administration of Saskia’s estate. In addition Rembrandt was having an affair with Titus’ nurse, Geertghe Dircx, but at the end of the decade she sued him for breach of promise of marriage. The episode dragged on and ended badly, with a cash settlement by Rembrandt, followed by the commitment of Geertghe to a reformatory and her early death in 1656.
Etchings of the 1640s and ’50s
In light of the importance of painted portraits and the relative scarcity of etched portraits in Rembrandt’s output, it surely must be significant that in the late 1640s and the 1650s the artist produced a series of spectacular etched likenesses of friends and associates: the landscape painter Jan Asselijn (c. 1647), the Jewish physician Ephraim Bonus (1647), the patrician and then burgomaster Jan Six (1647), the print seller Clement de Jonghe (1651), the municipal auctioneer Pieter Haaringh (1655), and the apothecary Abraham Francen (c. 1657). The personal nature of some of these etchings emerges when viewed against the fact that Rembrandt filed for bankruptcy in 1656, for Francen, an art collector, stood by Rembrandt during his financial crises, while Haaringh must have been the auctioneer of Rembrandt’s goods in the winter of 1655/56. But the interest in these plates is not just biographical; they are among the richest and most complex of Rembrandt’s etched work. The “Jan Six,” in particular, is worked up with meticulous care; velvety darks, reworked in dry-point to allow the subtlest nuances, are broken only by the glaring white of the paper for the light-filled window where the elegant young man stands. A decade later this same formula with a window was repeated in the Francen etching. Similar control of lights emerging out of darks can be found in the portrait of Bonus. In many of these portraits numerous details in the plates were reworked to produce subsequent states, and both etching and dry-point were combined with burnishing to alter the linear or tonal qualities of figures and settings.
Etchings of religious subjects also came to occupy increasing importance in the output of Rembrandt in the later 1640s and early 1650s. The largest, most celebrated religious etching, now known as the “Hundred Guilder Print” because of its high prices, was produced over an extended period of time, c. 1643-49, and it shows the full richness of Rembrandt’s etching technique and experimentation. The subject, as in many of the paintings of the 1640s, is Christ’s ministry-healing the sick, receiving the little children, and preaching to the multitude. It is spread out across a huge wall like the one for the “Night Watch” or the multi-figural biblical episodes of the 1630s (e.g., the “Doubting Thomas,” 1634). In this large print, almost 30 × 40 centimetres, there are enormous variations in the techniques of different segments, creating a range of lights and darks, of descriptive detail or sketchiness, and of narrative focus. At the centre of the entire composition, almost dissolving in his delicately worked halo before the dark wall, is the tall figure of Christ. Rembrandt had made a number of painted sketches for the face of Christ from a single model, possibly a young Jewish man from his neighbourhood; replicas of these sketches doubtless served the same purpose as the tronies of the 1630s, that is, as models for biblical histories, and the 1656 inventory of Rembrandt’s collection lists three such heads, two by him. This is also the same Christ featured in the 1648 “Christ at Emmaus,” where the quiet and reflective apostles take the place of the crowd of the “Hundred Guilder Print.”
The human component of religious stories became an increasing concern of the artist, and some of his most moving visions were developed in etchings of the early 1650s. As if a complement to the “Hundred Guilder Print,” the etching of “Christ Preaching” (c. 1652), known as “La Petite Tombe,” carries out the same theme within a more intimate and structured space, now marked by deep, dark passages of dry-point. Other etchings carry to the ultimate Rembrandt’s fascination with figures emerging out of darkness. In contrast, however, to the drama of earlier biblical etching experiments, such as the 1634 “Annunciation to the Shepherds,” these are sombre, meditative environments of quiet inwardness, such as the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (with lamp, c. 1654; at night, c. 1652). Most of these nocturnal visions concern themselves with the issue of divine revelation as a personal epiphany, often around the body of Christ in either infancy or Passion: “Entombment” (c. 1654) and “Descent from the Cross” (c. 1654), plus the dark “Presentation in the Temple ” (c. 1654). In addition Rembrandt produced a pair of large-scale etchings that he reworked almost continuously during the mid-1650s as a kind of meditative exercise that produced increasingly focused attention on the figure of Christ and on the spiritual content of the scene-at the expense of the narrative richness of the earlier states. These two prints also depict key moments of Christ’s Passion: “The Three Crosses” (1653; four states) and “Christ Presented to the People” (1655; six states). Most scholars seem to think that Rembrandt continued to work on the plate of the “Three Crosses” until around 1660, after which time he abandoned this most widespread and easily available of mediums entirely, except for a single commissioned portrait of 1665.
The other chief burst of pictorial activity during the 1650s was a continuation of the interest in landscape in both etching and painting. Again, most of the etchings show local, Dutch rural settings of gabled cottages and farm buildings, but some reflect renewed interest in monumental or picturesque buildings, such as towers or obelisks. One masterwork of etching is the oblong 1651 panorama, known as the “Goldweigher’s Field,” which was actually the estate, near Haarlem,of Christoffel Thijsz., the man who had sold Rembrandt his house 12 years earlier and was thus his creditor. Like the rendition of the delicate skyline of Amsterdam a decade earlier, this print has a refined sense of spatial gradation achieved through scale, tonal change (including rich foreground dry point accents), and a curving perspective; its broad format replicates in etching the formulas used in Dutch landscape paintings by artists such as Jan van Goyen. In paintings Rembrandt’s landscapes (“The Mill”; “River Landscape with Ruins”) incorporate the bluer skies and more careful structures of the Italianate Dutch landscape painters, one of whom, Asselijn, was the subject of a portrait etching of about 1647.
After a gap of nearly a decade Rembrandt also returned to self-portraits at the end of the 1640s, including his final etched self-portrait, which shows him emerging out of the shadows as he draws beside a window (1648; five states). This is a fleshier figure than the jaunty courtier of 1639, but the presence of his own portrait amid those of his friends and patrons might point to a renewed confidence. At a time when portrait patrons began to return Rembrandt also produced some self-portraits, notably the large, three-quarter-length 1652 likeness.
Rembrandt’s art of the 1640s did not inspire many pupils or followers, although Nicolaes Maes of Dordrecht (1634-93) seems to have apprenticed in the early 1650s and to have assimilated some of the single figure types of young or old women in ruddy colours, but used in this case for moralizing on their behaviour.
Beginning in 1653 the documents reveal a steadily worsening financial picture for Rembrandt, and in 1656, after transferring most of his assets to Titus, he applied for bankruptcy. Because of the auction of his possessions an inventory of his collections was drawn up in 1656 prior to liquidation. Analysis of his collections reveals not only quite a number of his own works, including many landscapes and animal pictures, but also a vast collection of prints and drawings by other artists, usually mounted in books. Of the Dutch masters owned by Rembrandt, Seghers and Lievens predominate, but the Fleming Adriaen Brouwer, the Dutchman Jan Porcellis, and numerous Italians are also present. The variety of other items, including naturalia, Orientalia, and weapons, have been related to the contemporary princely tradition of the encyclopaedic collection, or Kunst- und Wunderkammer (arts and natural wonders room), a kind of personal museum. Here, as in the very subjects of his pictures and his early education in Leiden , Rembrandt is seen as a cosmopolitan, learned, and ambitious individual with broad interests.
Rembrandt’s fame extended far beyond Holland . His “Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer” (1653) was produced for a Sicilian, Don Antonio Ruffo. The imaginative classical subject, incorporating the worlds of philosopher, poet, and prince into a single work, seems to have been Rembrandt’s own idea. This work not only seems to glow with its own inner light, coming out of a murky darkness, but it also shows Rembrandt’s strength at painting character heads in meditative reverie. In 1660 Ruffo asked for a companion picture, and Rembrandt delivered an “Alexander” along with a “Homer” (1663; preserved only in a fragment).
Closer to home Rembrandt received an important large commission for another anatomy lesson by Dr. Jan Deyman (fragment, 1656). The well-known “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (1662) was a final group portrait, painted for the sampling officials closely connected with the musketeers’ company shown in the “Night Watch.” This work is at once filled with the lively animation of Rembrandt’s other groups, but it conforms more closely to the conventions of clustered yet balanced rows of posed heads that were the rule for such assignments.
The grandest commissions in Amsterdam , however, were the pictures for the new and grand Town Hall, and these were going to Rembrandt’s circle-to Lievens, Bol, and especially Flinck, rather than to Rembrandt himself. Rembrandt’s only venture, “The Conspiracy of Julius Civilis” (fragment, c. 1661-62), depicted a heroic moment of Dutch revolt against the ancient Romans rendered as a nocturnal dinner oath by suffused candlelight. But Rembrandt’s painting of the one-eyed chief conspirator, Julius Civilis, and his coarse band was only briefly hung in 1662 and never paid for, probably because it lacked the proper heroic decorum to be found in works by Flinck and Bol. Thus, two decades after the triumph of the Kloveniersdoelen militia commissions shared with his former students Rembrandt lost out to them on the success and the rewards of his hometown’s principal adornment.
Rembrandt did share his later years with someone: Hendrickje Stoffels (c. 1615-63) had become his live-in companion after Geertghe Dircx, and she was even more featured as his subject than Saskia had been. The full-bodied nude of the 1654 “Bathsheba” has traditionally been identified with Hendrickje and accords well with her numerous portraits and studies (e.g., “Woman Bathing,”1655). In 1654, shortly before she bore a daughter, Cornelia, Hendrickje was officially censured by the church council for living in sin. At the same time Titus, who held Rembrandt’s assets in his name, became the subject of numerous portraits before he predeceased his father in 1668, just prior to his 27th birthday.
Despite financial strains and lack of prominent commissions Rembrandt was able to summon his energies in his final decade of creativity to produce the kinds of soulful pictures for which he is best loved today. He returned to biblical histories but gave them the portrait-like, stilled power of personality that was already present in the “Aristotle.” Beginning with “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph” (1656), family drama became the subject, as it did for the “Return of the Prodigal Son.” In this later work, unfinished at Rembrandt’s death, the sombre figures seem to emerge with their own glow out of a gloomy background, and each turns his gaze inward in quiet reflection. Some works so closely resemble portraits that their religious identity is submerged or even lost; such is the case of the “Jewish Bride” (c. 1664; Amsterdam ) where the husband’s tender embrace of his wife dominates over the thickly painted exotic, rich, gold and vermilion costumes of the figures. A rare family portrait in modern costume from the late 1660s (Braunschweig) shows close affinity with the Amsterdam couple and prompts the question of whether the couple of the “Jewish Bride” might not be biblical but rather a costumed double portrait in historical guise, akin to the portrait of the musketeers of the “Night Watch.”
Personal isolation and internal anguish dominate Rembrandt’s interpretations of other historical figures: “Peter Denying Christ” (1660) and “Lucretia” (1664, 1666). A series of half-length, portrait-like apostles of 1661, especially the “Self Portrait as the Apostle Paul” (1661), completes the overlap between contemporary individuals and historical subjects in Rembrandt’s oeuvre. These were painted at the same time as the “Homer” and the “Alexander” exported to Ruffo in Sicily and culminate the tronies tradition of model heads of historical figures.
In light of his own financial woes during this later period, Rembrandt could not sustain a large workshop or circle of pupils. Yet Aert de Gelder of Dordrecht (c. 1645-1727) spent at least a couple of years with Rembrandt around 1660 after training initially with van Hoogstraten. De Gelder, too, chiefly created half-length historical pictures in the manner of Rembrandt in the 1660s, and his “Self-Portrait as the Painter Zeuxis” (1685; Frankfurt ) has been related to the late, laughing self-portrait by Rembrandt (c. 1668-69; Cologne ), where the aged artist seems to smirk at his destiny as well as at the stern figure alongside him.
Rembrandt was not without patrons for portraits during his final decade, and some of his most moving likenesses were produced then with the kind of stillness and empathy that he also brought to his single-figure, biblical characters. Included among his sitters were the wealthy Trip family, also originally from Dordrecht and patrons of Bol. Rembrandt had painted mother and daughter of the Elias Trip clan in 1639, and in 1661 he painted Elias’ brother, Jacob, and his wife, Marguerite de Geer. Most other sitters for the late works of Rembrandt are unknown, except for the classicizing artist Gerard de Lairesse (1665) and the religious poet Jeremias de Decker (1666), a close friend. Yet there are impressive but anonymous pendants (especially in New York and Washington ) plus a family group (Braunschweig) showing thick, colourful impasto applied with a palette knife.
Finally, the last dozen years of his life were a fertile period for self-portraits. In addition to using his face for St. Paul in the apostles series of 1661, Rembrandt shows himself in another larger half-length portrait of around that time (Kenwood House) with palette in hand and two large arcs on the background to record his mastery of geometry (possibly also an allusion to the hemispheres of a world map in the conventions of Dutch cartography). Two further canvases record the artist in his final year, 1669. The first (London) presents the pyramidal dignity of his early maturity; the second (The Hague) combines an exotic turban, as seen in the early tronies, with a dispassionate, almost clinical directness in recording his firm gaze amidst his sagging flesh.
With the ascendance of a classicizing taste for clear compositions and handsome protagonists, Rembrandt was eclipsed even during his lifetime by his own pupils, particularly by Flinck and Bol. After an ambitious period, when he emulated the models of Lastman, van Honthorst, and Rubens, Rembrandt himself gave up the attempt to follow international currents, although he never renounced the serious themes of biblical subjects. Rembrandt has been lauded for his spiritual qualities, and his art shows contact with orthodox Calvinists as well as with Mennonites, Remonstrants, and even Jews in tolerant Amsterdam . Although he enjoyed patrician patronage from the de Graeff circle and painted important group portraits throughout his career, his art never held sway at the peak of Amsterdam fashion after the 1630s, though it never was fully eclipsed.
Rembrandt was never really forgotten, but he was eagerly rediscovered by artists during the 19th century, who found in his works echoes of many of their own Romantic strivings for independent formal means and experiments with the depiction of character and passion. His etchings, which continued to exert considerable influence over later practitioners of that medium, such as Giovanni Castiglione in 17th-century Genoa or Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 18th-century Venice , also came back into prominence with the etching revival in the mid-19th century. His emphasis on the natural rather than the beautiful accorded well with the credo of a painter such as Courbet, who strove to be “modern” in protest against French academic training. Thus, Rembrandt acquired the mantle of the Romantic hero-of the individual following his own inner light.
Modern scholarship has followed several leads in evaluating Rembrandt. Debates continue over precisely which works belong to him and which can be assigned to pupils, followers, imitators, or even later forgers. Scientific investigations in the laboratory have added to the data necessary for drawing such conclusions, but the recent studies of Rembrandt’s pupils have at once given their own characters sharper focus while also serving as a reminder of how little one can define their precise relationship to Rembrandt while they were working in his studio. The study of workshop working method remains a crucial task for sorting out authentic Rembrandt paintings or drawingsfrom the inauthentic works or works that seem to have at least partial contributions from his students. This latter category-consisting of works formerly ascribed to Rembrandt but not yet fully attributable to the defined oeuvres of his individual students-remains a growing corpus that will occupy scholars for years to come.
The integration of Rembrandt’s works into a larger and longer visual tradition has also been a recent project of scholarship, which has determined that many of Rembrandt’s religious subjects conform to earlier models, especially from Dutch prints. In addition, the less familiar Dutch tradition of ambitious historical pictures for town halls, palaces, and wealthy patrons has been clarified, in light of which Rembrandt no longer seems like quite such an anomaly.
Finally, major discoveries concerning Rembrandt’s relationship to his patrons and to contemporary politics, economics, and social structure in Amsterdam have provided insights into this artist’s role within the culture of his day. It is now possible to compare his achievement with that of rivals and colleagues, such as Lievens, Flinck, and Bol, by considering patrons and status as well as by drawing on modern evaluations of their respective ambitions. In this light the fact that Rembrandt was himself a collector and a student of past art from both Italy and Holland acquires greater meaning, even as it dispels the persistent myth of the isolated genius.
Thus, the current image of Rembrandt ties him more closely to his environment in various ways: through working method, favoured subjects, and patronage within the Dutch urban culture. Without denying the creativity and the distinctive personal sensitivity that has always been the basis of Rembrandt’s popularity, modern interest focuses on Rembrandt and his art in terms of their meaning for 17th-century Holland, for it is only by comparing his accomplishments to those of his fellow artists that one can truly grasp the achievement of this beloved Dutch master.