Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 - 1669)
Rembrandt Harmenszoon (son of Harmen) van Rijn (family came from the Rhine River area) was born into an atmosphere that was conducive to creativity. After years of war and upheavel, life in the United Provinces of the Netherlands was renowned for its tranquility. Rembrandt's father was a prosperous miller, his mother the daughter of a baker. The van Rijns were Calvinists. In the year of the artist's birth, Leiden, his home town, was known as one of principal intellectual and artistic centres in the country.
The ninth of ten children, Rembrandt was educated in mathematics, Greek, classical literature, geography and history at the Latin School in Leiden. He then entered Leiden University where he undertook studies in science, particularly enjoying the anatomy classes in which cadavers were dissected on stage. The knowledge of anatomy he gained in the anatomy theatre was invaluable in his artistic career. Rembrandt, however, had a strong preference for painting which led him to abandon his studies after just a few months.
Rembrandt began his artistic studies under Jacob I. van Swanenburch, a history painter who had spent some time in Italy. It was in Swanenburch's crowded studio that Rembrandt first learned about the great Italian masters of the Renaissance. After three years apprenticeship having learned the basics of painting technique, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam where he continued to study in the studio of Pieter Lastman (1583 - 1633). Lastman had also spent time in Italy. Rembrandt was influenced considerably by Lastman's compositional style.
In 1625 Rembrandt returned to Leiden and set up his own independent studio and in 1629 he began the first of his numerous self-portraits (Self Portrait, 1929). The paintings he completed in his Leiden studio show a more mature use of chiaroscuro technique than his master, Lastman. Instead of using the lighting effect to create drama, Rembrandt used it to compose the entire painting. His use of light and dark gave his subjects a physical presence which for the first time involved the viewer in the painting. In his Leiden studio Rembrandt worked alongside Jan Lievens (1607 - 74) also a former student of Lastman. The two often worked on identical themes. In 1929 when Rembrandt produced paintings focusing on the apostle Paul (Peter and Paul in Conversation), Lievens painted the same apostle.
A commission from Dr Tulp, a well known physician in Amsterdam, brought Rembrandt back to live in Amsterdam. Commercial guild and association group portraits were popular, though these were usually stagnant, unimaginative representations. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632) which resulted from this commission, however, was unlike that of any other guild painting of the time. The individuals in the painting are not standing in a line, as in conventional group portraits, but are placed in a pyramidal arrangement. Also only two of the men (at the back) look out at the viewer, the others give their attention elsewhere. The cadaver is emphasised by its position on the diagonal which alters the painting's perspective. The reaction of Rembrandt's patrons and the general public bordered on sheer amazement.
Rembrandt's reputation as a portraitist grew. His brilliant, sharp technique brought him wealth and fame and he was in such high demand that he completed numerous portraits between 1632 and 1634 (Portrait of Maerten Soolmans,1634).
Works were commissioned by the wealthy who knew exactly the sort of paintings they wanted. There were rigid guidelines in 17th century Holland, to which artists had to comply. Sombre and often dull representations which served to flatter the wealthy subject were the result of these restrictive rules. Rembrandt's salvation was light. Light enabled him to override the dull harmony of contemporary paintings.
Rembrandt's marriage to the beautiful and wealthy Saskia van Uylenburch in 1634 ushered in a period of contentment. His works during this time reflected the opulence of their lifestyle, projecting exuberence and energy. This is particularly seen in religious works such as The Blinding of Samson, (1636).
The happy existence of the couple was to be short lived with the first of a series of tragic events occuring early in 1636. Their first child, Rombartus died after a short life which only spanned a few weeks. A daughter was born in 1638, but she too died, this time within a month. The couple's second daughter, born in 1640, suffered the same fate. During these difficult times Rembrandt bought a house in the Breestraat section of Amsterdam. He did not have the full amount of the purchase price but believed that he could make the required payments, as he had been working solidly.
In 1641 Rembrandt and Saskia finally had some joy with the birth of a son, Titus, who survived the difficult stages of early infancy. Rembrandt adored his son and frequently painted him (Titus in a Monk's Habit, 1660).
The following year brought the most profound sadness to Rembrandt's life when his beloved Saskia died at only thirty years of age. A dark shroud of despair descended over him, he was no longer the joyous contented man that he had once been. It was in this same year that he painted what is considered to be the most significant single work of his career, The Company of F.B. Cocq known as The Night Watch.. Despite his grief, and perhaps because of it, he was able to create a painting which leaves the viewer in awe.
This piece, commissioned by Captain Banning Cocq and his company, depicts a group of civic guards, a platoon of musketeers. It is, however unlike other such commissions of the day, in that it not only depicts the main characters but gives the viewer a sense of participation and anticipation. There is a whole stage of actors of whose roles, the viewer is not quite sure, but clearly something is happening. Light seems to glow from within illuminating some of these characters, prompting the viewer to wonder 'who are they?', 'what is their role?'; the young girl with the chicken dangling from her belt, the man with the drum, the man pointing, the barking dog. Some of the characters are focussed on something that seems to be behind the viewer, some seem as if they are ready to move. Rembrandt's love of the theatre is clearly seen in this masterpiece. The costumes, lighting, movement and drama give the viewer the impression of an elaborate stage play in progress.
This painting, although not severely damaging Rembrandt's reputation, was received with little enthusiasm by those who had paid for the commission. It seems that they weren't pleased with the artist's unconventional approach of incorporating action and drama into a portrait scene.
The reception Rembrandt received for this work did not help his psychological state. Still deeply grieved over his wife's death he was also beginning to suffer financial difficulties. The payments on his expensive house were becoming hard to make. The self portraits painted after this time reflect a more sombre, suffering soul (Self Portrait, 1952). Gone is the glint in the eye of a youthful artist with a playful heart and the world at his feet. Instead we see a man carrying the burden of immense sorrow, who now clearly views the world with different eyes.
As time passed Rembrandt sank deeper into debt. His situation was not helped when dramatic events in his personal life worsened his financial situation. Geertge Dircx, Titus' nurse maid and the artists' mistress, sued him for breach of promise, and won. Her jealousy had been spawned by Rembrandt's rejection of her for Hendrickje Stoffels the pretty housemaid he had recently employed. He was ordered to pay Geertge a monthly amount which he could in no way afford.
In 1654 amidst the turmoil in his personal life, Hendrickje gave birth to a healthy daughter, Cornelia. Rembrandt's gentle, tender portrayel of his lover in Hendrickje Bathing
(1654) offers the viewer some solace that perhaps, in his love for Hendrickje, he had at last found some refuge from his deep suffering.
By 1656 Rembrandt's financial situation was irreversible and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. The following year his extensive art and costume collection was sold to pay debts. Later his house was auctioned and he, Titus and Hendrickje moved to a more modest abode on the Rozengracht. Titus and Hendrickje resolved to take over the handling of Rembrandt's affairs, forming a company, employing him and selling his paintings for him.
Continuing to accept commissions, Rembrandt painted his last great collective portrait, The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild, in 1662. This piece again shows the innovation of the now mature artist. The characters in the painting are plausable and have presence. It is as if the viewer has walked in on their meeting, seemingly uninvited. The stark black of their costume is contrasted by the heavy decorative cloth on the table. Everything in the room is given substance by the careful rendering of light.
Rembrandt suffered another personal loss in July 1663 when Hendrickje Stoffels died. He continued to paint though clearly, as we see in his self portraits of this time, his often unhappy life had taken its toll. We see in these later works the reflection of a man whose eyes betray the hollowness he must have felt near the end of his life.
Before Rembrandt himself died in 1669 he had to face more grief with the death of his adored son, Titus of plague in 1668. One can only but wonder how this great artist made it through his final months. When he died an inventory of his possessions revealed that he had managed to re-assemble a new collection of art.
Rembrandt van Rijn was buried on October 8th in the Westerkerk. The legacy of his lifetime of work to Dutch art, and to European art as a whole should not be underestimated. His purposeful use light and shade to create atmosphere in his works took him beyond the conventional. His willingness to explore beyond the visual to depict the psychological character of his subject displayed innovation. This is seen most prominently in his numerous studies of his own visual image which reveal to us so much of what must have been below the surface. The courage to innovate and venture beyond convention, especially in the face of such adversity, could only be a lesson to those who came after.