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Rembrandt: Painter of Light

Updated on August 19, 2013

The Writing on the Wall

Belshazzar's Feast by Rembrandt van Rijn
Belshazzar's Feast by Rembrandt van Rijn | Source

Did he influence the work of Christiaan Huygens?

One of my favourite paintings by the artist, Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) is Belshazzar’s Feast (c. 1635-8, National Gallery, London). The depiction is based on the story from the Book of Daniel, in the Bible. Belshazzar, son of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (he of the Hanging Gardens’ fame) decides to hold a feast using the sacred vessels stolen from enslaved Israelites. This is an actual act of profanation and while Belshazzar and his friends are feasting, a mysterious hand appears and writes in flame upon the wall Mene Mene Teqel Parsin. This is the moment depicted in Rembrandt’s painting. The perturbed king summons Israelite Daniel and asks him what the words mean. Daniel interprets the script as “God has measured your sovereignty and put end. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians. Belshazzar died that very night and the Persians ransacked Babylon soon after, giving rise to the expression the writing is on the wall.

Belshazzar’s Feast is probably the most overtly dramatic of all of the paintings by Rembrandt, which tend to be subtle in both subject matter and enunciation. In fact, the very career of the artist was defined by his ability to enunciate light. In 1631 Rembrandt left his native Leiden and moved to Amsterdam. Here, he found employment in the house of Hendrick van Uylenburgh, a dealer whose art business was to continue uninterrupted for fifty years. We now call this period the Dutch Golden Age.

In 1632, Rembrandt painted the portraits of two friends and art lovers, Maurits Huygens and Jacob de Gheyn III. The portraits were painted as a pair, and are still displayed together. We see the subjects standing in that glow of light in darkness that is familiar to students of Rembrandt. Both men are posed similarly; their individuality springs from difference of feature. De Gheyn is fair-haired and sunny in contrast to the more saturnine Huygens. For a lesser artist, this contrast would have been enough to differentiate the portraits, but Rembrandt was determined to capture every nuance of the human physiognomy. We can see the differences in hair texture; the wiry hair of Huygens, the sleeker locks of De Gheyn, the furrowed brow and deep-set eyes of Huygens, the more upswept brows and rounder cheeks of De Gheyn. Indeed, it would be tiresome to enumerate all of the nuances of feature that make either portrait so individual that we feel as if we personally know the men portrayed. In her book, Art Through The Ages, Helen Gardner writes

Rembrandt found that by manipulating light and shadow in terms of direction, intensity, distance and texture of surface, he could render the most subtle nuances of character and mood, of persons and whole scenes…he discovers for the modern world that differences of light and shade, subtly modulated, can be read as emotional differences.

Artists had, of course, been painting light since the Renaissance. I remember being puzzled by the constant allusions to the greatness of Rembrandt, whose best efforts seemed to have been painted from mud. My childish, untrained eye preferring the bright colours and gesticulating drama of Michelangelo. But Gardner is able define a new type of artist, the Baroque painter:

The difference from what went on before lies largely in the new desire to measure these physical forces. Just as the physicist in the seventeenth century is concerned not just with motion but with acceleration and velocity – degrees of motion – so the Baroque painter discovers degrees of light and dark, of differences in pose, in the movements of facial features and in psychic states. He arrives at these differences optically, not conceptually or in terms of some ideal.

Interestingly, Maurits Huygens was the uncle of Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), the scientist who invented the pendulum clock. Huygens was not just a maker of mechanical toys, however, but a philosopher and thinker whose discoveries on the nature of light, energy and motion helped establish the technology that shapes our lives today. His achievements are too numerous to list here. In addition to published papers that have become classics of scientific literature, Huygens discovered the rings of Saturn in 1656, and posited the wave or pulse theory of light between 1677 and 1678. He also engaged in extensive optical research and posited the notion of work or energy for the first time in science, and made calculations on the shape of the earth. Considering all of this makes me wonder how much of Huygens' creative thinking stemmed from his pondering and meditating over the works of his uncle’s favourite artist while in his youth. I just wonder. Alas, the genius that coincided with the Dutch Golden Age was not enough to save Rembrandt from the financial problems that haunted the final decade of his life. Hendrick van Uylenburgh died in 1661, and Rembrandt died in poverty in 1669.


Art Through the Ages by Helen Gardner, Eight Edition edited by Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

The Holy Bible


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