Rembrandt

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Artists

The Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn was one of the greatest artists of the European baroque period. His paintings, drawings, and etchings cover a wide range of subjects—including portraits, landscapes, religious stories, and scenes of everyday life. His work displays a sympathetic understanding of human nature that continues to be admired today.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, one of seven children, was born in Leiden, Holland, on July 15, 1606. His father was a miller, and his mother was a baker's daughter. The simple, religious Harmenszoon family was called van Rijn ("of the Rhine") because the Rhine River flowed near their mill.

At 13, Rembrandt was enrolled in the University of Leiden. Soon after, he convinced his parents to allow him to study art with a local painter. After three years he went to Amsterdam to study with a noted artist, Pieter Lastman. Lastman had studied in Italy and had been influenced by the work of the Italian artist Caravaggio (1573-1610). Though Rembrandt returned to Leiden after only six months, his stay in Amsterdam strongly affected his early style and subject matter.

Upon his return to Leiden, in 1625, Rembrandt shared a studio with a fellow artist, Jan Lievens. During his seven years in Leiden, Rembrandt painted ordinary people, including members of his own family. He also painted a number of self-portraits. He experimented with different techniques and was particularly interested in chiaroscuro—contrasts of light and dark.

About 1632 Rembrandt settled in Amsterdam, where there were more opportunities to paint portraits for rich patrons. In that year he painted his first group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, a picture of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. His reputation established, he received many more commissions.

The next ten years were Rembrandt's happiest and most prosperous. In 1634 he married the beautiful and wealthy Saskia van Uijlenburgh. Rembrandt spent money extravagantly, buying fine clothes and jewels for Saskia and himself and purchasing a grand home that he filled with works of art. He worked long hours in his studio, producing paintings and teaching his many pupils.

The completion of the great group portrait known as The Night Watch in 1642 can be said to mark the end of Rembrandt's most successful period. That same year, Saskia died, leaving him with their infant son, Titus. At the same time, his style of portraiture was becoming less fashionable. Rembrandt began to paint more subjects of his own choosing, especially illustrations of Bible stories.

Earlier, Rembrandt had painted people in the midst of dramatic action. He had made them look like actors in a spotlight. Now he became more interested in people's inner feelings. The light in his paintings became a golden-brown haze surrounding the figures. His paintings, including his later self-portraits, reflected a deeper understanding of the human soul.

In 1656, despite the efforts of his son and of his devoted housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt went bankrupt. He had to sell all his belongings and move to a poorer neighborhood. Yet Rembrandt's most creative period was the last ten years of his life. Though his popularity had declined, he continued to receive important commissions. One of these was perhaps his greatest group portrait, The Syndics of the Cloth Merchants' Guild (1661-62).

In 1663 Hendrickje died. Five years later Titus died. Old and in failing health, Rembrandt died the following year, on October 4, 1669, in Amsterdam.

Reviewed by Aaron H. Jacobsen
Author, The Baroque Sketchbook

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