Rembrandt- The Man and the Artist
The story of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn begins and ends in the Netherlands. Born in a country home near Leiden, Rembrandt may have spent his days playing along the banks of the Rhine River or working in his father's mill, which was aptly named "De Rijn."
Little is known of Rembrandt's childhood. Born on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt was the eighth of the nine or more children born to his parents . His father, Harmen was a successful mill owner and businessman; his mother, Cornelia was the daughter of a local baker.
When Rembrandt was around six years old, his parents enrolled him in the Latin school where he would study for the next seven years. At the age of thirteen (possibly fourteen), he went on to study at the Latin University of Leiden. In less than a year, Rembrandt made the decision to leave the University in pursuit of his first love, the love of painting.
Like many painters of the time, Rembrandt learned his craft through apprenticeship. His first teacher was Jacob van Swanenburgh, a history painter who had studied in Italy. Rembrandt spent three years under his tutelage before moving on to work with the famous artist, Pieter Lastman.
In 1627, Rembrandt became both a teacher and a pupil. Feeling he'd been taught all he needed in regards to artistic technique, he opened his own studio. Acknowledging that he had more to learn in other areas, he returned to the Latin University. He graduated at the age of twenty-two.
Master of Portraiture
Rembrandt was and continues to be the master of portraiture. His self-portraits give us a glimpse of the man he was, the way he changed during the course of his lifetime, and the things he enjoyed. His search for perfection in regards to portrait painting is evident in the more than 100 portraits he painted of himself.
Closely observing his own facial features, Rembrandt etched, sketched, and painted his own image; different expressions, different moods, a change of clothing; formal, casual, and even theatrical. He used himself as a model, and in turn has provided us with a slide show of his life. We see him as a young man, and we see him move into middle age. A little older, a little heavier; lines around the mouth that come from smiling and enjoying his family , and later the sadness in his eyes after experiencing the loss of his wife.
Other portraits depict family members; his mother reading the Bible; his father in cape and hat; his son, studying in the lamplight. Rembrandt and Saski immortalizes the joy in his marriage. The two of them simply playing dress-up for the canvas, and quite obviously having a great time.
Self portraits are not only a great way of getting to know and be comfortable with yourself, but a way for others to get to know you as well. They are a form of expression, a way of letting people know exactly who you are without ever having to speak. The clothing you wear, the objects you surround yourself with; all of these things are a window to the soul. You are in a position to introduce yourself and still keep an air of mystery, to be remembered in a way of your own choosing. But remember, the brush of a truly great artist never lies. The soul shines through. If it doesn't, it's not really you.
The 17th century found Holland a rich and powerful nation for trade. Amsterdam was home to a diverse citizenry; craftsmen, businessmen, dockworkers, shipping companies, and merchants, all found room to do business in the busy port. Markets bustled with activity, and shops were filled with imported fabrics, spices from the orient, fresh flowers, fish, and cheese.
Amsterdam also boasted a new interest and patronage for the arts. The study of science, philosophy, and great literature came to the forefront. Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1632, becoming an important factor in the era known as the Dutch Golden Age.
Rembrandt wasted no time in establishing himself as the most sought after artist in the city of Amsterdam. Commissions for portraits were endless. It seemed that everyone from middle class merchants to the most affluent of citizens wished to capture the likeness of a loved one or even themselves. The subjects in his paintings often wore black, gazing at him in complete seriousness. It wasn't seemly to look as if you were having a good time, then again, if you look closely at their clothing......... maybe they were just extremely uncomfortable. Put me in a ruffled collar, and you're going to get a bit of crabby. Of course, no one will ever get me in a ruffled collar, ever.
"The Night Watch"
One of Rembrandt's greatest portraits was The Night Watch, a painting commissioned by a group of soldiers for their clubhouse. Bored with the usual stiff and unnatural paintings he'd been doing, Rembrandt decided to have a little fun. The result was breathtaking, but the commissioners hated it. It seems that all of them wanted equal space, and the scene created by the artist, though beautiful, showcased certain men more than others.
Rembrandt was also commissioned for many other types of work. He painted versions of historical events, stories from the Bible and the legends of Roman mythology. His Biblical depictions are unequaled; they are also inaccurate to a certain degree. Costuming and props were the artist's choice, and many 17th century items can be found in his paintings.
Rembrandt is famous for his impeccable use of colors, mainly his ability to contrast light and dark paints. Some paintings are smooth and light, others are piled with paint in order to give the viewer an illusion of depth. His renditions of jewelry were done with thickened paint; gold shimmered and precious stones glowed with a light all their own. Texturing made them come alive; his paintings could almost be seen as treasure chests filled with riches you could almost touch, but to touch them would break the spell. His paintings are magic.
Often, Rembrandt would peruse the countryside, taking long walks, while breathing in the fresh air. Nature was another source of inspiration. Sketchbook at hand, he'd make drawings of the environment; landscapes, farms, marshes, mills, small country cottages, ships in port, the bridges spanning the Rhine. Rembrandt captured the many facets of what was 17th century Amsterdam, and then he immortalized what was Holland's very own unique landscape on canvas.
The Mill is the largest of Rembrandt's many landscapes, but it isn't a real place. It's a place of imagination. Rembrandt used a compilation of sketches in the painting, a little of this, and a little of that. He created his own scene, and he used many of the ideas he'd gathered while relaxing, to depict what he believed was a perfect place.
Rembrandt and his wife Saskia were married in 1634. Eight years later, they'd have experienced the birth of four children. Only one son, Titus, would survive infancy and grow into adulthood. Within a year of Titus' birth Saskia would succumb to a long illness that was believed to have been tuberculosis. Rembrandt was devastated.
The loss of his wife, combined with what he saw as the failures of some of his paintings led him into depression. Sadness not only had an effect on the man, it changed the way he painted. No longer caring what people expected from him, he began to paint what he wanted to paint. No more planning, no taking orders, he did what he wanted. The result, his work was better than ever.
Freedom in his art, also gave him the freedom to move on with his life. He fell in love, remarried, and had another child. His new wife Hendrickje, and daughter Cornelia gave him new focus and inspiration. Many of his paintings from that period carry their likenesses.
The Later Years
Rembrandt is believed by many to be the greatest painter of his time, of any time. He had a gift for making his paintings come to life, the people seem real. It's almost as if they could be friends, men and women dressed up for a costume ball.
At the time of his death, at the age of sixty-three, Rembrandt was still actively painting. His last painting, though unfinished, was titled Simeon in the Temple. Rembrandt left his wife and daughter with a beautiful home, and he left them with his own carefully selected treasure chest of valuables, but as for money............. the cash was gone.
Rembrandt believed in enjoying the things that money could buy; he was a great collector of other artists' work, proven by the jewelry, paintings, antiques, costumes, armor, and statues he left behind. We can still see these things, even today. They're placed here and there on the canvases he painted; they were props in the creation of his own work, and he continues to share each and every one of them. How lucky we are.