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Rembrandt's Paintings: An Analytical and Biographical Overview

Updated on March 6, 2014

Most Celebrated Self-Portrait 1658


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden, Holland, on July 15, 1606. He came from a fairly well-to do family. His father was a miller and his mother was the daughter of a baker. His education was a priority of his parents, and he was initially enrolled in Latin school at the age of seven and went on to study at the University of Leiden at the age of thirteen. However, he was apparently much more taken with painting and went on for three years under the apprenticeship of painter Jacob van Swanenburgh.

He went thereafter to Amsterdam where he studied under Pieter Lastman for six months. Lastman had studied in Italy and was greatly influenced by Caravaggio's work, which in turn affected Rembrandt's own work.

Rembrandt returned to Leiden in 1625 and opened a studio which he shared with his friend Jan Lievens. During this time he worked very hard and took in pupils. From early on he experimented with many techniques, but was most concerned with the way in which light would change the appearance of his subjects, as we can clearly see in the following:

Touch (1624-1625) - oil on canvas


Above, we see a brilliant early example of Rembrandt's use of the technique known as chiaroscuro, which is meant to showcase contrasts of light and dark. In Touch, the subjects are illuminated by a candle held at the center of the piece. Note the effect this light source has on the subjects of the paintings, as well as the corresponding shadow effects at which Rembrandt was an expert.

As you can see below, Balaam and his Ass also makes excellent use of chiaroscuro. In this case, the figures in the forefront are illuminated by an unknown light source whilst the figures in their shadows fade into obscurity. This is an example of Rembrandt's tendency early in his career to paint subjects in action, as figures in the spotlight.

Balaam and his Ass (1626) - oil on oak canvas


The following two paintings further exemplify the artistic principles I have discussed above. In Two Old Men Disputing, we see again the effect of light and dark on the subjects.

Two Old Men Disputing (1628) - oil on oak panel


In The Abduction of Proserpina, we once again witness Rembrandt's ability to use light and dark to emphasize the action and movement of his subject(s).

The Abduction of Proserpina (1631) - oil on oak panel


Rembrandt's hard work during his seven years in Leiden paid off as he became widely recognized by collectors and began to receive portrait commissions from wealthy patrons in Amsterdam. He moved there permanently in 1632 and the next ten years were his happiest and most prosperous. Early during his stay in Amsterdam, he painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, one of his most famous pieces and his first group portrait:

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632) - oil on canvas


The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633) - oil on canvas


Rembrandt married Saskia van Uijlenburgh in 1634. She was wealthy and beautiful, featuring as prominently in society as she does in Rembrandt's own works. She appears in many of his paintings, such as that below, which also is one of many pieces to exemplify Rembrandt's religious upbringing. He had the tendency, especially in his later works, to portray tales from the bible.

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (1635)

oil on canvas
oil on canvas | Source

A common theme in his landscape pieces is a peaceful scene with an ominously dark and foreboding sky, as seen in The Stone Bridge below:

The Night Watch (1642) - oil on canvas


In his personal life, Rembrandt had given himself over to impulsive indulgence, spending money recklessly. He spoiled Saskia with jewels and fine clothing, but was otherwise relatively unsociable, preferring to spend long hours in his studio. He withdrew even more from society upon the death of Saskia in 1642, at which time his painting The Night Watch (above) was heavily criticized by those who found his trademark chiaroscuro technique somewhat dated.

Rembrandt suffered great hardship upon the death of his wife, and this is reflected in his art. He was formerly preoccupied with putting his subjects in the spotlight and portraying them in action. His own suffering gained him a certain empathy for the sensibilities of the human soul, which we see in the form of a golden-brown haze which surrounds his subjects. The following are excellent examples thereof:

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1646) - oil on canvas


A Woman Bathing (1654) - oil on oak panel


Moses with the Tablets of the Law (1659) - oil on canvas


Two Young Africans (1661) - oil on canvas


These final years are noted by some to be Rembrandt's most creative period. He had been largely forgotten by patrons and collectors, receiving very few commissions. He focused on painting out of his own interest, which was largely an exploration of human feeling and emotion as well as motifs from bible stories.

One of the very few commissions he did receive in this period was his greatest group portrait, Sampling Officials of the Draper's Guild.

Sampling Officials of the Draper's Guild (1662)


Rembrandt would continue to be plagued by hardship upon the death of his long-time servant and friend Hendrickje in 1663, and then the death of his son, Titus, five years later. Rembrandt himself died the year after, in 1669, but as we have seen, his legacy remains to this very day.

The Stone Bridge (1638) - oil on oak panel


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