Rembrandt is considered to be a master of light; generally regarded as one of the greatest painters who has ever lived; remembered especially for his masterful group portraits, completely removed from the usual conventions, his compositions displayed his mastery of painting, with perfect characterizations of figures that had sharply detailed faces, resulting from his studies of gestures.
Renowned for his versatility, the notable use of chiaroscuro in his works, and his iconic self-portraits, Rembrandt, (…); known for displaying unprecedented levels of detail and psychological character in his figures, his life was reflected in his works, particularly through his self-portraits, a genre that the artist cultivated throughout his career. While his first works are more cheerful and bright, those of his later years have a somber and serene character, reflecting a much greater depth. In his portraits, he succeeded in reproducing human skin in a particularly realistic way.
Having left no diaries or memoirs, it’s difficult to tell what the artist was really like as a person. Through a few of his letters, generally pleading for patronage, his passion for the art of painting and drawing are visible. He was also apparently a stubborn man. The assumption comes from an incident with one of his commissioners: in the middle of painting a portrait of a rich family, his pet monkey died. For reasons unknown, Rembrandt paid homage to his pet by adding him to the portrait, to which the family had a negative reaction. Despite their insistence on having the monkey removed, the artist adamantly refused and ended up losing his commission.
Born in the city of Leiden in 1606, unlike many artists at the time, Rembrandt didn’t come from a family of artists or craftsmen; rather, both his parents were from working class background; despite this and having abandoned university to dedicate himself to painting, Rembrandt was neither a peasant nor uneducated. After his studies he opened his own studio in Leiden and began teaching.Later he moved to Amsterdam in 1631, becoming a burgess and a member of the local guild of painters, where he taught students and successfully practiced as a professional portraitist. He lost his wife Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1642, and, from that moment on, he began to face a series of personal and professional problems: he went on to suffer 25 lawsuits and went bankrupt. His goods were auctioned in 1656 – as an art collector, he had in his possession important works such as paintings by Raphael, Jan van Eyck and even a sculpture by Michelangelo.
Saskia van Uylenburgh, the Artist’s wife (c. 1634-1640).
Rembrandt was born amidst the Dutch Golden Age, and experienced the prolific financial, cultural and artistic of Amsterdam at the time. His success began in the 1630s. In the early years of his career he received numerous orders and found it easy to find work in the midst of a prosperous and wealthy Holland that was going through its golden years.
Hefirsttrained under the Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburgh, who taught him the basics of painting and particularly thedistinct and demanding skill of painting fire – possibly initiating his lifelong interest in the effects of light. He then trained under Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, who specialized in biblical and historical themes. Even at an early stage, he was quite skilled in printmaking as well as painting. He displayed elaborate and minuscule details in etchings. He was no longer limited to the Dutch Republic thanks to the prints being shared extensively, elevating him into international fame. Further innovations include how he arranged his group portraits – he broke the norm of grand and formal compositions, moving towards depictions of mid-action scenes and rendering their various moods and dramatic guises. In his late works, he experimented printing on different kinds of surfaces, including on vellum and Japanese paper, which he commonly used.
Rembrandt had a lifelong interest in the effects of light; Of the many genres he cultivated, religious and portraiture were the two in which he shone the most. With rich details, great expressiveness and strong drama in his compositions, Rembrandt’s unique style was well accepted during his time. After moving to Amsterdam in 1632, he set up his own studio where, when he wasn’t working on his commissions from rich patrons, he taught students. He was praised by the poet Constantijn Huygens, one of the most influential patrons of the time. The distribution via reproductions of his engravings contributed to his fame throughout Europe during his lifetime.
Favouring brutal realism over beauty; (…) besides landscapes and portraits, he also added biblical, mythological and allegorical themes to his works, displaying an impressive range of subject, theme and character; a master of handling light effects, he developed a method of clustering the bright elements in the scene into a single area, surrounded by coherent darker tones, creating a concentrated, eye catching intensity of light; neglecting the use of strong, saturated colours, in order to maintain tonal harmony in his composition. However, in a few of his works he chose to use strong and vibrant colours. With intense realism and refined technique, one of his painting techniques was the intense play of light and shadows characteristic of the Baroque style. He used a lot of paint in his works, thus adding a lot of texture and creating a relief effect. In the engravings, he used the etching technique, which consists of the application of nitric acid diluted in water on a metal plate.
Of the numerous drawings that he made, around 1,000 have survived. He sold only a few of them, but most were for study purposes. Consisting sketches, preliminary drawings, traces of drawings and mementos that were available to his students in the workshop, sorted by topic. He also created around 300 etchings, 80 of which copper plates have been preserved. Rembrandt’s early etchings show clear style differences to his contemporaries and suggest that he approached this art genre as an autodidact. Rembrandt’s technique was freer than that of other artists, who approached copperplate engraving with regular lines and hatching so that his etchings appear more vivid. He gave them a painterly character with the play of light and dark and the perspective created by different hatching.
Christ and His Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane (1634).
The Little Children Being Brought to Jesus (1646-50).
Many of his historical paintings and etchings show artistically processed biblical scenes and myths for the first time. He rendered scenes from the Old and New Testaments, myths and portraits of historical personalities. He developed a particularly condensed representation of the stories depicted, so that narrative contexts that extend beyond that are expressed in the depiction of a certain moment. In addition to striving to convey as much action as possible in his pictures, to depict the action at its peak, Rembrandt also took external influences from his immediate surroundings into his own scenes.
Throughout his life, his self-portraits show him with different gestures and different facial expressions as well as in different roles. He portrayed himself in nearly 50 paintings, 20 etchings and about 10 drawings. He studied himself primarily at the beginning of his career, when he made etchings of himself in various emotional states with the according postures and body language. In his later work, instead, he increasingly made portraits that revealed his age or in which he assumed historical roles.
After moving to Amsterdam, he began to paint more portraits while working in Uylenburgh’s studio, and with them quickly dominated the market for portraiture. The success came from his experience with historical paintings. He portrayed figures involved in small acts, such as handing over a letter by a woman to her husband in a double portrait. Compared with other portrait painters, he took more liberty in representing his sitters, so that his pictures show less similarities in physical characteristics compared to other portraits of the same person.
Besides the influence of his formal teacher with whom he had direct contact with, he was greatly influenced by contemporary and classical Italian masters and especially the chiaroscuro technique derived from Caravaggio. His focus on history was a consequence of his training with the famous history painter Pieter Lastman, on whose themes and compositions Rembrandt initially oriented himself.
The Triumph of Mordecai (1617) by Pieter Lastman.
The Calling of Saint Matthew (1599-1600) by Caravaggio.
Rembrandt greatly influenced numerous notorious artists that followed; these include Van Gogh, who claimed: “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.” and whose vast self portraiture connects to Rembrandts; Auguste Rodin who also had an incredible admiration for his work, considering him “the colossus of art” and even stating that any comparison between the two of them was a “sacrilege”.
His legacy is vast and (…) ; great impact in the art world and its studies of light; he innovated in technique across the three medias he worked with (painting, drawing and etching). As he didn’t sign many of his drawings, scholars still debate if some of his works are really his. The biographical movie Rembrandt (1936) unfortunately depicts misleading information on the artist’s life, displaying his early life in poverty and uneducated.
He created almost one hundred self-portraits (about 10% of his works): over 40 paintings, 31 etchings and around 7 drawings – an extremely large number for any artist up until then.
He created his self-portraits by looking in a mirror, meaning his actual features are reversed from what we see in the paintings.
Rembrandt was initially named Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn. “Harmenszoon” comes from his father’s name “Harmen” and “van Rijn” refers to his hometown (Rhine River). He added the silent ‘d’ in his signature, in 1633.
He initially signed his paintings with his Latin Monogram: “RHL” (Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis). Later on, he changed it to “RHL-van-Rijn”, and eventually settled on “Rembrandt” for the rest of his career.
Although he had commercial and financial success for many years, he ended up wasting his fortune and ended up declaring bankruptcy; forced to sell many paintings, antiquities and even his house; moved into a smaller home with his family, but never recovered financially and eventually died in poverty.
Although he was an atheist, he was given a funeral and was buried in a rented grave owned by the church.
It’s probable that he suffered from Stereoblindness as many of his self-portraits show his eyes as exotropic, meaning that he had insufficient depth perception.
After his wife’s death, his paintings changed substantially in size, theme and style.
He had a pet monkey named Puck.
“Choose only one master – Nature.”
“Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”