Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was one of the greatest European painters that have ever lived. His paintings shaped the birth and development of Dutch art that began to flourish in 17th century. Rembrandt was undeniably a significant figure of Western art history, famous for his exceptional talent in printmaking, drawing and oil painting.
Rembrandt was a prolific painter as he was capable of producing approximately 600 paintings and 2,300 engravings and drawings. Most of his paintings were portraits of monarchs, noblemen, merchants and ordinary subjects including his self-portraits. His style was comparable to Italian painters in terms of his ability to put emotion into the gesture and facial expression of his characters.
A few examples of Rembrandt’s most popular works include The Abduction of Europa (1632), The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh (1635), The Night Watch (1642), and The Polish Rider.
Born on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a son of a well-off miller while his mother was a daughter of a businessman. He grew up in Leiden of the Dutch Republic living a comfortable life among his nine siblings.
Rembrandt was raised by a religious family, with his mother being Roman Catholic and his father a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. No wonder a great number of paintings would depict religious themes and motifs.
During his childhood years, he received formal training from a Latin school and later pursued a diploma course at the University of Leiden. While growing up, he was developing his keen interest in painting that made him decide to enter the studio of Jacob van Swanenburgh. He stayed with the said master for three years before he decided to render an apprenticeship to Pieter Lastman. His practicum in Amsterdam with Lastman lasted for six months.
As he found himself capable enough to be independent, he decided to join the company of Jan Lievens and the two of them opened their own studio around 1627. Gerrit Dou was one of his notable students at the time.
Constantijn Huygens took notice of Rembrandt’s brilliant art works in 1629. This opportunity served well in the popularity of the painter in the city. He began receiving major commissions by the court of The Hague during the early 1630’s. His successful stint under the patronage of Huygens earned him a recommendation to work for Prince Frederik Hendrik from 1630’s to 1646.
Prince Hendrik’s invitation to Rembrandt prompted the artist to move to Amsterdam in 1631. He stayed in the household of Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who was also an art trader. At the time, Rembrandt would be keen to painting portraits for various clients and he would have already met Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of Hendrick.
Saskia came from an aristocratic family in the Netherlands. Rembrandt and Saskia got married in 1634 at the Church of St. Annaparochie. Apparently, this marital relationship did help the painter’s cause in expanding his elite social circles that enabled him to receive more noble commissions.
In 1634, Rembrandt became a recognized member of the local painter’s guild and the burgess of Amsterdam. This cemented his reputation in the industry and his social status attracted more and more young talents such as Govert Flinck, Gerard Dou, Samuel van Hoogstraten, and Ferdinand Bol.
Together with his wife, Rembrandt moved into Nieuwe Doelenstraat in 1635 but four years later the couple decided to move into their new house in Breestraat, an upscale neighborhood. This house has been transformed into a museum called the Rembrandt House Museum located at the modern-day Jodenbreestraat.
In 1635, the couple’s eldest son, Rumbartus died after two months of birth and Cornelia died in 1638 shortly after her birth. This was followed by another tragedy in the family when another Cornelia died in 1640. Fortunately, lady luck turned into their side when Titus was born in 1641, who was the only child to have survived until adulthood. However, as though death became a regular phenomenon in the household, Saskia suffered from tuberculosis during the early 1640’s, which resulted to her death in 1642.
These personal setbacks in Rembrandt’s life have had inspired him to draw very moving and emotional works. At some point, he would draw the ill-stricken Saskia in bed. But it seemed that it didn’t take Rembrandt too long to cope with these tragic situations as he found a new lover in Geertje Dircx, Titus’ nurse.
The late 1640’s was another significant phase in the personal life of Rembrandt for he had a relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels, whom he had a daughter too. Around the time he would have been active in art dealing, through which he sold several of his own paintings to prevent filing bankruptcy to the court. However, he saw the bankruptcy coming as he could no longer afford to pay the mortgage of his upscale house which forced him to sell it and settle for a modest one in Rozengracht in 1660.
1660’s onward was the beginning of Rembrandt’s new life with his new wife. He was still a significant painter of his time in fact he was hired by the government to decorate the city hall. One of the frescoes was The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis but it was discarded by the commissioners.
Rembrandt continued painting portraits for different clients, and these works were considered as major commissions. He was once visited by Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1667 when the monarch was in Amsterdam for political reasons.
Rembrandt was the last among his own family that died. Hendrickje died in 1663 while his only son Titus died in 1668. A year later, Rembrandt died in October 1669 and he was buried in Westerkerk.
The Night Watch is considered a Rembrandt masterpiece. He began working on this painting in 1640 and completed by 1642. This painting was the result of a commission for the Kloveniersdoelen Hall, which depicts a company of musketeers and they were assembled in a dark hall. The gesture, stance and poise of the characters seem to suggest that they were preparing for some kind of a mission.
Two men in the front were discussing something while the musketeers behind them looked like in jubilee. Rembrandt obviously used chiaroscuro as a device here to imply the two men in the middle as the significant characters of the painting. The use of this device simply suggests that this work can be classified as Baroque. Italian painters such as Caravaggio and Battistelo Caracciolo did use chiaroscuro in their paintings but there was no solid evidence that would say Rembrandt had a closer look of the said artists’ art works.
In 1715, The Night Watch was transferred to the town hall of Amsterdam. But it didn’t last there as it is now placed at the Rijksmuseum in the same city.
Rembrandt talent extends beyond painting, as he was also adept at etchings or printmaking. During his lifetime, he was able to produce around 300 of them beginning from 1626 to 1660. Around the time was also the golden age of his career; that his printing press business was doing well but then he was bankrupt, not only did he give up the business but he also abandoned engraving.
He was knowledgeable of using burin as a technique but he enjoyed the creative leeway that he had in etching compared to oil painting where most instructions depended upon his client. This could also be the reason why Rembrandt became too invested in printmaking throughout the said period.
Similar to his style in painting, he was also pretty fluid in his printmaking style. He began with using sketching then moved to painting and then settled with a simpler style toward the latter part of his engraving stint.
During the 1640’s, he focused his attention to completing the Hundred Guilder Print. This became one of his most significant works that served as a source of inspiration among younger Dutch artists of his time. It took him nearly a decade to finish it off due to the multiple revisions that was needed. But this experience yielded to a much better printmaking style that Rembrandt demonstrated in the 1650’s.
During the said period, Rembrandt became an expert in doing larger prints on the plate. He began using the hatching technique to shadow certain areas of the plate. This was also the time when he tried using different kinds of medium like paper to see the effects it would yield. Rembrandt simply revolutionized the printmaking business with his experimentations that made him one of the greatest Dutch artists.
It is said that Rembrandt didn’t have a consistent and definite style in painting throughout his career. Most of his paintings were inspired by biblical events and characters, especially during his apprentice years. His early paintings in Amsterdam would emulate drama and strong emotions.
But as he develops his own style, in the 1630’s, his themes became more focused on dramatic landscapes – with trees, storms and dark clouds as subjects – as the use of larger canvases entered the Dutch arts and culture.
In 1640, Rembrandt had then again changed his theme and subject as this was the period when his family was struck with a series of unfortunate events. His creations became more emotive. The emotions it evoked were so strong that anybody would be moved by looking at it.
During the advanced years of his life, there was a change in Rembrandt’s style again. The coloring was more detailed and vivid combined with stronger brush strokes. Consequently, his art works, most of which were portraits, looked more vibrant, full of life and less dramatic.