When you look at art throughout the ages, there is nothing quite so extravagant as the late renaissance moving through to the Baroque period. The artwork is indulgent and highly detailed, with every aspect of the frame covered. Rembrandt was known as a master of this field, producing elaborate self-portraits and depictions of biblical scenes embedded his name in the art world for the ages.
Born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn in 1606, he was the son of a miller and was able to attend a Latin school. At the age of 14, he began to study at the University of Leiden, but finding academia was not for him, he took up an apprenticeship as a painter. His home city of Leiden didn’t offer much in the way of artistic studies, so in 1624 after three years as an apprentice, he moved to Amsterdam and briefly studied Pieter Lastman. He then moved back to Leiden and set up a painter’s workshop with Jan Lievens. This was a trying time for up and coming artists as after the protestant reformation, the churches were no longer offering artists commissions as you could find in other countries at this time. This meant that artists were dependent on private commissions. Despite the difficult climate, Rembrandt started to make a name for himself.
Rembrandt decided to shun the advice given to young artists, which was to travel around Italy and learn from the artists there, as he believed he could learn everything he needed to know from his native land.
In 1631, Rembrandt returned to Amsterdam, as it offered far more opportunities that Leiden. He lodged in a house of art dealers called Hendrick Van Uylenburgh, and it was there that he met his future wife Saskia. They married in 1634. Rembrandt painted many pictures of his wife, with a grace and presences that only a man in love could present to the viewer.
You can see in the painting above how he depicted Saskia in an Arcadian costume, her hair flowing and light coming from the left of the canvas, highlighting her milky white skin. The flowers that she holds, symbolic of love and her attire that of the Roman goddess fauna. In his eyes, she was his beloved, and he showed the world her status to him through his artwork.
In 1636, Saskia gave birth to their first son, Rumbartus. He died after only two weeks. Over the next four years, two more children were born but died within a couple of months.
Professionally, Rembrandt went from strength to strength. The most important families and organisations in the city commissioned paintings. As well as portraits, he produced baroque history paintings such as Belshazzar’s Feast.
Fame suited Rembrandt and he lived flourished, perhaps a little too much in it, suffering accusations from Saskia’s family that he was squandering money his and hers. He was a compulsive buyer of art and collectibles, hoarding away paintings, props, and weaponry, but he was fast becoming a highly celebrated artist, so he couldn’t see the issue.
In 1639, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into a larger house. He used his new space to sketch anything he could see from the windows and with the house. The Italian influences had started to reach Holland, via prints and word from his more travelled peers. Many had started to experiment with the technique developed by Caravaggio called Chiaroscuro. Rembrandt’s work shows this influence from around 1630 onwards, with the development of patterns of light and shadow rather than a simple lighting to the side of a canvas. Using shadows around the eyes of his portraits presented viewers with a new type of reality in art, making expressions on faces much harder to determine and indicating that the subjects each had their own mind and thoughts.
You can see the chiaroscuro technique so well in the “Return of the Prodigal Son”. The fathers face lit from the left-hand side, mixed emotions playing across his face, as his son’s face almost lost in the shadow of the father’s body as he brings him to his chest. The people viewing from the right-hand sides faces become more muddled as they move towards the back of the canvas. It is a scene of mixed emotions, which is so well brought to life using this technique. There is a point to make about the father’s hands in this painting. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture. Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in judgment; in the parable, he objects to the father’s compassion for the sinful son.
In 1641 a fourth child, Titus, was born. And lived. Saskia was unwell after the birth and Rembrandt made various drawings of her looking tired and drawn in bed. In 1642, Saskia made a will leaving Rembrandt and Titus her fortune, although most of Rembrandt’s share would be lost if he married. She died shortly after, still aged only 30.
Leaving Rembrandt with a young child to care for was not ideal, and he employed a nurse called Geertge Dircx. For a short time, she became his common-law wife and the took on a new servant called Hendrickje Stoffels, who Rembrandt fell in love with. Geertge did not take well to this and she took Rembrandt to court claiming he had promised to marry her. Rembrandt counter attacked this claim with charges of Greertge pawning some of the jewelry Saskia had left for Titus. This ended with Greertge being sent to a house for correction, leaving Rembrandt to live happily with Hendrickje. Hendrickje was the model for “A Woman Bathing”.
As Rembrandt techniques developed he moved away from smoothly surfaced paintings and tended towards using a palette knife to apply paint to certain areas of the paintings, rendering the works better viewed from a distance to up close.
In the 1650s Amsterdam was hit by a massive economic depression. Rembrandt had not even completed half the payments on his house and his creditors began to chase him for money.
In July 1656, he successfully applied for ‘cessio bonorum’ – a respectable form of bankruptcy which avoided imprisonment. All his goods, including an impressive collection of paintings, were sold off for a pittance. Rembrandt, Titus, and Hendkrickje moved across town to a much poorer district, where Rembrandt continued to paint. He had always used himself as a model, but in the last twenty years of his life, he painted self-portraits with increasing frequency. In 1663, Hendrickje died after a long illness. Titus was left to look after his father. Continued money problems forced them to sell Saskia’s tomb.
Titus married in 1668 the daughter of an old family friend, then seven months later, he died. A daughter, Titia, was born six months later. In 1669, Rembrandt himself died and was buried in the Westerkerk next to Hendrickje and Titus. There was no official notice of his death.
Rembrandt lived a varied and at times extravagant life which fed his intuition for artworks which captured the human soul. He wasn’t only a painter though – he was a successful printmaker as well, and forged development in the print world, this makes Rembrandt a name for the ages as he mastered so many media.
I have had the great pleasure of seeing many of Rembrandt’s works on visits to the Mauritshuis in The Hague, The National Gallery in London and in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg. His work is varied and interesting and his later work benefits from a live viewing to anything I could show you in this article. This man lived and breathed art, and you can see the passion and knowledge on every canvas he created.
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