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Rembrandt

(1606-1669)

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Rembrandt was a Dutch baroque artist who ranks as one of the greatest

painters in the history of Western art. His full name was Rembrandt

Harmenszoon van Rijn, and he possessed a profound understanding of human

nature that was matched by a brilliant technique- not only in painting but

in drawing and etching- and his work made an enormous impact on his

contemporaries and influenced the style of many later artists. Perhaps no

painter has ever equaled Rembrandt's chiaroscuro effects or his bold

impasto.

Life

Born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt was the son of a miller.

Despite the fact that he came from a family of relatively modest means, his

parents took great care with his education. Rembrandt began his studies at

the Latin School, and at the age of 14 he was enrolled at the University of

Leiden. The program did not interest him, and he soon left to study art-

first with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch, and then, in Amsterdam,

with Pieter Lastman, known for his historical paintings. After six months,

having mastered everything he had been taught, Rembrandt returned to

Leiden, where he was soon so highly regarded that although barely 22 years

old, he took his first pupils, among them Gerrit Dou.

Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1631; his marriage in 1634 to Saskia

van Uylenburgh, the cousin of a successful art dealer, enhanced his career,

bringing him in contact with wealthy patrons who eagerly commissioned

portraits. An exceptionally fine example from this period is the Portrait

of Nicolaes Ruts (1631, Frick Collection, New York City). In addition,

Rembrandt's mythological and religious works were much in demand, and he

painted numerous dramatic masterpieces such as The Blinding of Samson

(1636, Stдdelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Because of his renown as a

teacher, his studio was filled with pupils, some of whom (such as Carel

Fabritius) were already trained artists. In the 20th century, scholars have

reattributed a number of his paintings to his associates; attributing and

identifying Rembrandt's works is an active area of art scholarship.

In contrast to his successful public career, however, Rembrandt's family

life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641 Saskia gave birth to

four children, but only the last, Titus, survived; her own death came in

1642. Hendrickje Stoffels, engaged as his housekeeper about 1649,

eventually became his common-law wife and was the model for many of his

pictures.

Despite Rembrandt's financial success as an artist, teacher, and art

dealer, his penchant for ostentatious living forced him to declare

bankruptcy in 1656. An inventory of his collection of art and antiquities,

taken before an auction to pay his debts, showed the breadth of Rembrandt's

interests: ancient sculpture, Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings,

Far Eastern art, contemporary Dutch works, weapons, and armor.

Unfortunately, the results of the auction-including the sale of his house-

were disappointing.

These problems in no way affected Rembrandt's work; if anything, his

artistry increased. Some of the great paintings from this period are The

Jewish Bride (1632), The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1661, Rijksmuseum,

Amsterdam), Bathsheba (1654, Musйe du Louvre, Paris), Jacob Blessing the

Sons of Joseph (1656, Staatliche Gemдldegalerie, Kassel, Germany), and a

self-portrait (1658, Frick Collection). His personal life, however,

continued to be marred by sorrow, for his beloved Hendrickje died in 1663,

and his son, Titus, in 1668. Eleven months later, on October 4, 1669,

Rembrandt died in Amsterdam.

Early Painting

Rembrandt may have created more than 600 paintings as well as an

enormous number of drawings and etchings. The style of his earliest

paintings, executed in the 1620s, shows the influence of his teacher,

Pieter Lastman, in the choice of dramatic subjects, crowded compositional

arrangements, and emphatic contrasts of light and shadow. The Noble Slav

(1632, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City) shows Rembrandt's love of

exotic costumes, a feature characteristic of many of his early works.

A magnificent canvas, Portrait of a Man and His Wife (1633, Isabella

Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), shows his early portrait style-his

preoccupation with the sitters' features and with details of clothing and

room furnishings; this careful rendering of interiors was to be eliminated

in his later works. Members of Rembrandt's family who served as his models

are sometimes portrayed in other guises, as in Rembrandt's Mother as the

Prophetess Anna (1631, Rijksmuseum), or the wistful Saskia as Flora, (1634,

the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg).

Perhaps no artist ever painted as many self-portraits (about 60), or

subjected himself to such penetrating self-analysis. Not every early

portrayal, however, can be interpreted as objective representation, for

these pictures frequently served as studies of various emotions, later to

be incorporated into his biblical and historical paintings. The self-

portraits also may have served to demonstrate his command of chiaroscuro;

thus, it is difficult to tell what Rembrandt looked like from such a self-

portrait as the one painted about 1628 (Rijksmuseum, on loan from the Daan

Cevat Collection, England), in which deep shadows cover most of his face,

barely revealing his features. On the other hand, in none of these youthful

self-portraits did he attempt to disguise his homely features.

Biblical subjects account for about one-third of Rembrandt's entire

production. This was somewhat unusual in Protestant Holland of the 17th

century, for church patronage was nonexistent and religious art was not

regarded as important. In Rembrandt's early biblical works, drama was

emphasized, in keeping with baroque taste.

Among Rembrandt's first major public commissions in Amsterdam was the

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp (1632, Mauritshuis, The Hague). This work

depicts the regents of the Guild of Surgeons gathered for a dissection and

lecture. Such group portraits were a genre unique to Holland and meant

substantial income for an artist in a country where neither church nor

royalty acted as patrons of art. Rembrandt's painting surpasses

commemorative portraits made by other Dutch artists with its interesting

pyramidal arrangement of the figures, lending naturalism to the scene.

Middle Period

Many of Rembrandt's paintings of the 1640s show the influence of

classicism in style and spirit. A 1640 self-portrait (National Gallery,

London), based on works by the Italian Renaissance artists Raphael and

Titian, reflects his assimilation of classicism both in formal organization

and in his expression of inner calm. In the Portrait of the Mennonite

Preacher Anslo and His Wife (1641, Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem),

quieter in feeling than his earlier work, the interplay between the figures

is masterfully rendered; the preacher speaks, perhaps explaining a biblical

passage to his wife, who quietly listens. A number of Rembrandt's other

works depict dialogues and, like this one, represent one specific moment.

In the moving Supper at Emmaus (1648, Musйe du Louvre), Rembrandt's use of

light immediately conveys the meaning of the scene.

His group portraiture continued to develop in richness and complexity.

The so-called Night Watch-more accurately titled The Shooting Company of

Captain Frans Banning Cocq (1642, Rijksmuseum)-portrays the bustling

activity of a military company, gathered behind its leaders, preparing for

a parade or shooting contest. In departing from the customary static mode

of painting rows of figures for the corporate portrait, Rembrandt achieved

a powerful dramatic effect. Despite the popular myth that the painting was

rejected by those who commissioned it, and led to a decline in Rembrandt's

reputation and fortune, it was actually well received. Many of Rembrandt's

landscapes in this middle period are romantic and based on his imagination

rather than recording specific places. The inclusion of ancient ruins and

rolling hills, not a part of the flat Dutch countryside, as in River Valley

with Ruins (Staatliche Gemдldegalerie, Kassel), suggests a classical

influence derived from Italy.

Late Period

Rembrandt's greatest paintings were created during the last two

decades of his life. Baroque drama, outward splendor, and superficial

details no longer mattered to him. His self-portraits, portrayals of single

figures and groups, and historical and religious works reveal a concern

with mood and with spiritual qualities. His palette grew richly coloristic

and his brushwork became increasingly bold; he built thick impastos that

seem miraculously to float over the canvas. In Portrait of the Painter in

Old Age (1669?, National Gallery, London), Rembrandt's features betray a

slightly sarcastic mood. One of his finest single portraits (1654,

Stichting Jan Six, Amsterdam) is that of Jan Six. Six, wearing a deeply

colored red, gold, and gray costume, is shown putting on a glove. The

portrait is painted in a semiabstract style that demonstrates Rembrandt's

daring technical bravura. Six's quiet, meditative mood is expressed by the

subtle play of light on his face. In such late biblical works as Potiphar's

Wife Accusing Joseph (1655, Staatliche Museen, Berlin-Dahlem), and the very

moving Return of the Prodigal Son (1669?, the Hermitage) Rembrandt

concentrated on the inherent psychological drama rather than on the

excitement of the narrative as he had in works of his early period. In

general, after his early period, Rembrandt was not particularly interested

in allegorical and mythological subjects.

Graphic Work

For Rembrandt, drawing and etching were as much major vehicles of

expression as painting. Some 1400 drawings, recording a wide range of

outward and inner visions, are attributed to him, works mostly done for

their own sake rather than as preparatory studies for paintings or prints.

The majority of them are not signed, because they were made for his private

use. Rembrandt's early drawings (of the 1630s) were frequently executed in

black or red chalk; later his favorite medium became pen and ink on white

paper, often in combination with brushwork, lending a tonal accent. In some

drawings, such as The Finding of Moses (1635?, Rijksprentenkabinet,

Amsterdam), a few charged lines indicating three figures carry maximum

expression. Other drawings were, in contrast, highly finished, such as The

Eastern Gate at Rhenen (Oostpoort) (1648?, Musйe, Bayonne, France), which

displays details of architecture and perspective. He made masterful

drawings throughout the early as well as mature phases of his career. An

example of an early work is Portrait of a Man in an Armchair, Seen Through

a Frame (1634, private collection, New York City), done in chalk,

considered Rembrandt's most finished portrait drawing. Superb later works

are Nathan Admonishing David (1655-1656?, Metropolitan Museum), done with a

reed pen, and a genre piece, A Woman Sleeping (Hendrickje?) (1655?, British

Museum, London), a powerful brush drawing universally praised as one of his

finest.

Rembrandt's etchings were internationally renowned even during his

lifetime. He exploited the etching process for its unique potential,

using scribbling strokes to produce extraordinarily expressive lines. In

combination with etching he employed the drypoint needle, achieving

special effects with the burr in his mature graphic work. Indeed,

Rembrandt's most impressive etchings date from his mature period. They

include the magnificent full-length portrait of Jan Six (1647,

Bibliothиque Nationale, Paris), the famous Christ Healing the Sick, also

known as the 100 Guilder Print (1642-1645?), the poetic landscape Three

Trees (1643), and Christ Preaching, or La Petite Tombe (1652?), all in

the British Museum.

[pic]The Music Party, 1626, oil on wood, Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam.

[pic]The Rich Old Man from the Parable, detail, 1627, oil on wood,

Gemдldegalerie, Berlin.

[pic]Self Portrait, 1627, oil on canvas, Staatliche Museen Kassel,

Gemдldegalerie Alte Meister.

[pic]Self Portrait, 1629, oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis at The Hague.

[pic]Self Portrait, 1629, panel, Pinakothek at Munich.

[pic]Artist in his Studio, 1629, oil on panel, Museum of Fine Arts,

Boston.

[pic]Bust of an Old Man in a Fur Cap, 1630, oil on wood, Tiroler

Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck.

[pic]Belshazzar's Feast, 1630-35, National Gallery at London.

[pic]Nicolaes Ruts, 1631, oil on mahogany panel, Frick Collection at New

York.


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