Overview

Rembrandt

(1606—1669) Dutch painter


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(b Leiden, 15 July 1606; d Amsterdam, 4 Oct. 1669).

Dutch painter, etcher, and draughtsman, his country's greatest artist. The son of a prosperous miller, he attended Leiden's Latin school before registering at the city's university in 1620, but he probably never actually studied there. At about this time he was apprenticed to the mediocre local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (c.1571–1638), with whom he is said to have studied for about three years. However, much more important for Rembrandt's development were six months spent in Amsterdam with Pieter Lastman, c.1624. From Lastman he took not only his predilection for mythological and religious subjects, but also his way of treating them, with exaggerated gestures and expressions, vivid lighting effects, and a meticulous, glossy finish, as in his earliest dated work—the Stoning of St Stephen (1625, Mus. B.-A., Lyons). Houbraken says that Rembrandt also studied with Jacob Pynas and Joris van Schooten (1587–1651), but this can have been only briefly, for by 1625 he was working as an independent master in Leiden. There he had a close association with his friend Jan Lievens, but they parted company when Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam (his home for the rest of his life) in 1631/2. The paintings of his Leiden period are mainly figure subjects, often involving old men depicted as philosophers or biblical characters. He also did portraits of himself and of members of his family, but it is not until 1631 that he painted his earliest known formal commissioned portraits, notably that of Nicolaes Ruts, a prosperous Amsterdam merchant (Frick Coll., New York). Rembrandt no doubt realized that here he had a recipe for success, as this type of work dominated his output in his early years in Amsterdam. It was the busiest period of his life, as he soon established himself as the leading portraitist in the city. The work that most clearly demonstrated his superiority to rivals such as Thomas de Keyser is the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague), which brought new vitality and richness to the group portrait. Rembrandt's great energy in his early years in Amsterdam comes out also in his religious works. The most important commission he received during the 1630s was from the Stadholder (head of state) Prince Frederick Henry of Orange for five pictures depicting scenes of Christ's Passion (Alte Pin., Munich), and the Baroque tendencies of his work at this time are even more emphatically expressed in his sensational, life-size Blinding of Samson (1636, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Rembrandt presented this picture to the diplomat and writer Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), who was secretary to the Stadholder and who had probably secured the commission for the Passion series.

Rembrandt's success in the 1630s was personal as well as professional. In 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, cousin of a picture-dealer associate, and from the evidence of his wonderfully tender portraits of her it must have been a blissful union. In 1639 he bought an imposing house (now a Rembrandt museum), and he spent lavishly on works of art and anything else that took his fancy or looked as if it might be useful as a prop—armour, old costumes, etc. His domestic happiness was, however, marred by a succession of infant deaths: of the four children Saskia bore him, only his son Titus (1641–68), who became one of his favourite models, lived longer than two months. Saskia herself died in 1642, and in this year Rembrandt finished his most famous picture, The Night Watch (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), which Jacob Rosenberg, in his standard monograph on the artist, calls ‘a thunderbolt of genius’. The erroneous title dates from the late 18th century when the painting was so discoloured with dirty varnish that it looked like a night scene. Its correct title is The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, and it is the culminating work of the Dutch tradition of civic guard portraits (a genre particularly associated with Frans Hals). It is also the most ambitious picture of any kind painted by a Dutch artist up to this date, and Rembrandt showed remarkable originality in making a pictorial drama out of an insignificant event. To do this he subordinated the individual portraits to the demands of the composition, and according to popular legend the sitters who had paid for the picture were appalled at this and demanded that Rembrandt make radical changes, paint a new picture, or refund their money. Rembrandt's refusal is supposed to have been his downfall and to have led him into penniless obscurity. There is, however, no basis in fact for the story, which seems to be a 19th-century invention; indeed all the available evidence suggests that the picture was well received by contemporaries. Samuel van Hoogstraten, for example, wrote: ‘It is so painter-like in thought, so dashing in movement, and so powerful’ that the pictures beside which it hung were made to seem ‘like playing cards’.

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Subjects: art.


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