A Rembrandt biography
Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) – Visual Artist
What is the mark of this man? How to see Rembrandt, the genius artist from the Dutch Golden Age? He is revered by those who art lovers around the world idolize, for example, Vincent Van Gough and the French sculptor Rodin. The latter protested when compared to Rembrandt: “Me comparer à Rembrandt, quel sacrilège!.” As is his way, Rembrandt helps us answer this question.
In 1658, he was bankrupt, and his reputation tarnished by a sexual scandal. Rembrandt did what he did best. He painted another self-portrait, one of about hundred in his lifetime. The 1658 ‘selfie’, known as The Frick, demonstrates no self-pity, no bitterness. Rembrandt’s life was beset by Shakespeare’s ‘slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.’ Despite such outrageous misfortune, in the Frick self-portrait he sits like a king. It is the “calmest and grandest of all his portraits,” writes Kenneth Clark in his biography of the painter.
Yet, the Frick is not a painting that demonstrates an unsustainable bravado. It says something more honest. ‘Here I am, despite all my misfortunes still upright, still painting, and still looking at you, looking at me!’ It is the work of a survivor.
Rembrandt Harmenzoon van Rijn, to give him his full name, was born in 1606 in Leiden. Located in what was then the Dutch Republic, Leiden is now in the Netherlands. He was the ninth child of a miller, Harmen Gerritzoon van Rijn. His mother was the daughter of a baker. Rembrandt’s upbringing was comfortable.
After studying Latin as a child, Rembrandt started at the University of Leiden at the age of thirteen. He dropped out soon after as he was more drawn to painting than his university studies. For three years Jacob Van Swanenburg, the Leiden history painter, taught him. After a short six-month apprenticeship with Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, he returned to Leiden for a few years in the late 1620s. He opened a studio in his hometown with his childhood friend, the artist Jan Lievens and took on students for the first time.
His canvas was broad. He was a master of three media: painting, etching – the greatest etcher of all time – and drawing.
The subject matter of his paintings was diverse. Religious scenes, history pieces, portraits, and self-portraits. And within this wide scope, he painted professionals at work. Surgeons at autopsy, drapers in their trading hall and, in Night Watch, the men of the civic guard.
He painted and etched landscapes and wildlife; as well as grand scriptural, allegorical, and historical scenes. He found drama in the mundane and slivers of tender detail in the great dramatic works.
In much of his work, he is there or thereabouts, looking at us looking at him. Not in a narcissistic way. He is looking at us much as if we were the sitter, the subject. This is a remarkable trick. All those who set eyes on one of the paintings in which he appears become in that instant the sitter and the subject. More than 3.5 centuries after his death, he is still sizing us up as sitter.
This happens most in his self-portraits, painted at all stages of his life. They are a visual record of how the artist’s physiognomy changed over time and how time changed him. The early versions show the steady-eyed youth who will become the man, such as the 1629 Self Portrait in a Gorget. Towards the end of his life, in the 1662 self-portrait, he poses in another role: that of a metaphysical alchemist. He stands in front of a painting within the painting. In the painting within, he has drawn perfect semi-circles.
Another of his biographers, Simon Schama, says this about his subject. “He didn’t seek to confront, rather to confound.” This appears correct. In his self-portraits, he does gaze at us not in a confrontational way. How exactly he is looking at us is not that easy to understand. It is confounding.
While no practical joker, he is a subtle magician. He hides in plain sight and what you see is not always what you get. He is a serious dramatic painter. Yet there is an impishness about his work that is on occasions breath-taking.
Take for instance his cameo in one of his most well-known works, The Night Watch. Captain Banninck Cocq and seventeen members of Amsterdam’s civic guard commissioned the painting. It was to hang in the Banqueting Hall of the new Musketeers’ Hall. It was one of the commissions presented to the visiting French Queen. Marie de Medici visited Amsterdam amidst much pageantry at this moment in history.
Its dynamic sense of movement disturbs the conventions of such paintings. They would usually consist of a more somber group portrait. Instead, the atmosphere of Night Watch, while martial, is also carnival-esque. This could be a troupe of street theatre performers. It is chaotic, colourful, and anarchic.
All the action is to the front so it would be easy to miss a face right at the back. Two eyes peering as if over a brick wall to see what all the fuss is about. There is a shock of recognition. It is the painter himself. This time, he is not so much looking at us as his sitter. But he is checking to see what we make of this burlesque that he has created. Like a writer looking from the back of the theatre to see the audience’s reaction to his new play on opening night. It is not impishness then. It is a hopeful, hidden curiosity. But he wants us to know he is looking.
This may be a painter’s trick, but it is a generous one. Rembrandt allows us to be the artist ourselves. He is saying that we can see what he sees. We are on a level.
By the 1630s Rembrandt had established his reputation. He was by now a leading light within the Dutch Golden Age. He had the patronage of the political leader Constantin Huygens. Huygens brokered commissions for his protegee from Frederik Henrick, the Prince of Orange. Frederick, a stadholder of the Dutch Republic, was a significant client.
But this success did not deter him from his relentless search for authentic humanity in his work. It is not surprising that many see him as the Shakespeare of the canvas. Both masters – Shakespeare and Rembrandt – look humanity in the face. With compassion, they examine all ways in which human beings are self-deluded. How they want us to see them. And how we see them. Malvolio in Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ wants us to see him as an upright defender of Puritan morals. But what the audience sees is that he is a fool. The more so because he cannot see it himself.
Jan Six, a friend of Rembrandt, is not humiliated by the painter. He is no fool, but he is not as much the sophisticated, man-about-town as he would like us to think him to be. The painter shows the mask and the reality behind the mask.
The status range both artists use – from King (godlike and human) to pauper – is similar in its breadth. Rembrandt had a collection of vagabond etchings by Callot. He drew street beggars with a tender, truthful eye. Nevermore so than when he super-imposed his own face on one such etching, Self Portrait as a Beggar. Shakespeare was as faithful in his depiction of the dispossessed. The bard elevated human delusion and defects of character to the level of tragedy. This was not Rembrandt’s way. He was not a tragedian. Though he had plenty of reasons to be one.
He married Saskia, cousin to Hendrick van Uylenburgh, in 1634. The latter was an art dealer and another of Rembrandt’s patrons. Rembrandt’s new family had more than its fair share of tragedies to deal with. They lost a son (Rumbartus) and two daughters all within weeks of their respective births. Only Titus, born in 1641, survived into adulthood. But Saskia died of Tuberculosis not long after his birth. Titus lived into adulthood and was following in his father’s footsteps. The plague took him away before his father. And despite his professional success, Rembrandt died a pauper. Like Mozart a century and a half later, he ended in a common grave.
Yet, he was not a chronicler of tragedy. Schama is on point about this in his biography. “Whatever the cruelty of his many disappointments,” he says, “Rembrandt’s is not a face wishing harm on a world that has betrayed him.” While he had challenges, he kept propelling himself forward and did not become bitter.
He had resources on which to draw. He was always drawing and sketching, carrying a pencil and pad wherever he went. This was a salve for him. When he suffered setbacks, he could fall back on the quieter consolations of his etching.
Walks along the water’s edge gave him the chance to make art from the landscapes around Amsterdam. Being Rembrandt, these were far from simple pieces. His imagination was replete with all sides of the human experience. In ‘Three Trees’, there are the usual ingredients: a flock of birds, a sudden shower, the trees themselves, various clouds, and the city skyline. And hidden in a dense thicket, lurk a pair of entwined lovers, easy to miss.
In his etching of pleasure boating, there is already much to talk about. Puritanical types were making a fuss about the pleasure boat business. About how licentious it had become. What is hidden by the tree stump to the left foreground is almost surplus to requirements, then. Rembrandt the etcher has other ideas. He has placed another couple at rustic play. That is sly work.
He could be signaling to the high-minded. You can bang on all you like about the iniquities of pleasure boat licentiousness. But those you would denigrate are finding ways to get their needs met. In plain sight.
Unsurprisingly, Rembrandt’s critics are quick to point out a truism of his work. He preferred raw nature over the classical ideal. “From the beginning, Rembrandt was powerfully drawn to ruin – the poetry of imperfection,” Schama writes.
Here is another link between Rembrandt and the English Bard. Neither went abroad but in both cases abroad came to them. Shakespeare wrote about political shenanigans at the far edges of the Roman Empire. The painter was at home painting events that took place far away from his home patch. But he was a ferocious collector of the exotics: books, shells, machinery, and jewellery. He wanted to understand how the world worked.
There are aspects of the way Rembrandt worked that set him well apart. Not only from his contemporaries but also from artists of all ages. He could make drama out of the mundane and he could find exquisite detail in the dramatic.
In Belshazzar’s Feast, the imposing figure of Belshazzar has a tiny crescent moon earing in his right ear. With all the fuss going on in the picture, it would be easy to miss this slender detail.
In another portrait, he plays with the restrictions of the two-dimensional format. He has the sitter subject entwine the fingers of her left hand around the painting’s frame. He was himself a Carravaggist and would have seen Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’. In that painting, the elbow of one of those at the supper table appears to break through the canvas. This subverts the restrictions of the genre in a trice.
He pushed the envelope too in his scriptural renditions. Preachers had said that it was impossible to create Protestant divine visions. Such things had always been the exclusive purview of the Catholic confessionary. But he managed it, for instance in Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem.
The political and religious atmosphere of the times forged Rembrandt’s character. For the whole of his life, the Dutch Republic had been at war with the Spanish Crown. The Dutch had sought to keep religious independence from the Catholic Crown. Yet within the Republic, there were also divisions. Some were also unsympathetic to Protestantism. To the strict Calvinism of the Reformants.
Rembrandt picked his way through this minefield. His mother had been a Catholic whereas his father was a member of the Dutch Reformed Church. Scripture was politics in the region. His mentor, though not his actual teacher, Peter Paul Rubens, was a Catholic. While he aspired to be Rubens, Rembrandt remained a Protestant. He was the Protestant Rubens that the Dutch Republic had craved.
But he was so much more than a product of his socio-religious upbringing. His humane artistry transcended his time and circumstances.
That said, he was no saint, as is often the case with artistic geniuses. The scandal referred to at the start of this biography was his own making. While his wife Saskia was dying, he took Titus’ wet-nurse, Geertje Dircx, into his bed. But he bored of her, preferring the younger maid, Hendrickje Stoffels instead.
Geertje did not make life easy for Rembrandt, claiming he had breached a promise of marriage. The promise played a key part in his seduction. They traded blows. Rembrandt managed to get her committed to a house of correction. This was punishment for Geertje having pawned Saskia’s jewellery. She was in this prison for five years. With incredible tenacity, she continued her suit after her release. The court listed her as one of the painter’s seven creditors, an outcome that led to his bankruptcy.
How did Rembrandt respond? He got down to work. Attempted to paint himself out of a corner. He did not achieve this in a financial sense. But beautiful work followed these great reversals, including the Frick self-portrait. You could say he ended his life as a bankrupted king. Like Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’?
- “Rembrandt’s Eyes,” by Simon Schama (1999, Allen Lane).
- “An Introduction to Rembrandt,” by Kenneth Clark (1978, Harper Collins).
Images on this page
- rembrandt-frick-self-portrait: rgElkn0Mx7Hgnw at Google Arts & Culture | public domain
- rembrandt-harmensz-van-rijn-142: The Yorck Project (2002) | public domain
- rembrandt-the-night-watch: Rembrandt | public domain
- rembrandt-the-three-trees: Metropolitan Museum of Art | public domain
- rembrandt-belsazar: www.nationalgallery.org.uk | public domain
- rembrandt-jeremiah: 4gE-j88Uz3znNw at Google Arts & Culture | public domain
- rembrandt-frick-self-portrait-close-up: rgElkn0Mx7Hgnw at Google Arts & Culture | public domain