Youre here: Home » eDigg Biographies » Biographies N-S » Rembrandt


» Biography Home

» Biographies A-F

» Biographies G-M

» Biographies N-S

» Biographies T-Z


      A heretic in art Rembrandt was to many of his Dutch contemporaries; to us, he is the master, supreme alike in genius and accomplishment. Because, as time went on, he broke completely from tradition and in his work gave full play to his originality, his pictures were looked at askance; because he chose to live his own life, indifferent to accepted conventions, he himself was misunderstood. It was his cruel fate to enjoy prosperity and popularity in his earlier years, only to meet with neglect in his old age. But this he felt probably less than other men; he was not a courtier, with Velasquez, nor vowed to worldly success, with Rubens. His pleasure and his reward, he found in his work. So long as easel and canvas, brushes and paints were left to him, he demanded no greater happiness.

      In Leyden, a town already made famous by another master, Lucas van Leyden, Rembrandt was born in 1606; though this date has been disputed, some authorities suggesting 1607, others, 1608. His family were respectable, if not distinguished, burghers, his father, Harmen Gerritszoon, being a miller by trade, his mother, Neeltjen Willems of Zuitbroeck, the daughter of a baker. Not until early in the seventeenth century did permanent surnames become common among Dutchmen; hitherto children had been given their father's, in addition to their own Christian name; Rembrandt for many years was known as Rembrandt Harmenzoon, or the son of Harmen. But the miller, to be in the growing fashion, had called himself Van Ryn—of the Rhine—and thus, later on, Rembrandt also signed himself. Harmen was well-to-do; he owned houses in Leyden, and beyond the walls, gardens, and fields, and the mill where Rembrandt, because he once drew a mill, was supposed to have been born. But there was no reason for Neeltjen to move from a comfortable house in town into such rustic quarters, and it is more likely that Rembrandt's birthplace was the house pointed out in the Nordeinde Street. A commercial career had been chosen for his four older brothers. But Harmen, his means allowing the luxury, decided to make of his fifth son a man of letters and learning, and Rembrandt was sent to the University of Leyden. That letters, however, had small charm for him, was clear from the first. Better than his books he loved the engravings of Swanenburch, better still, the pictures of Lucas van Leyden, which he could look at to his heart's content on gala days, when the Town Hall, where they hung, was thrown open to the public. His hours of study were less profitable than his hours of recreation when he rambled in the country, through his father's estate, and, sometimes as far as the sea, a sketch-book, the chances are, for sole companion. Certainly, by the time he was fifteen, so strong were the proofs of his indifference to the classics and his love for art, that his father, sacrificing his own ambitions, allowed Rembrandt to leave the university for the studio of Van Swanenburch. From this day forth, his life's history is told in the single word—work; his indeed was the genius of industry.

      Van Swanenburch had studied in Italy; but his own painting, to judge by the few examples still in existence, was entirely commonplace. Three years were more than enough to be passed under his tuition. At the end of the third, Rembrandt went to Amsterdam, and there entered the studio of Lastman. His second master also had studied in Italy, and also was a painter of mediocre talent, popular in his own times—the Apelles of the day, he was called—but remembered now chiefly because of his relations to his pupil. From the first, Rembrandt, even if obliged to paint the stock subjects of the day, was determined to treat them in his own way, and not to follow set forms that happened to be adopted in the schools. He used real men and women for models, and painted them as he saw them, not as he was bidden to look at them through his teacher's spectacles. In six months he had learned at least one thing, that Lastman had nothing more to teach him. The man of genius must ever be his own master, though he remain the hard-working student all his days. Back to Leyden and to his father's house, Rembrandt had not returned to lead a life of idleness. He worked tremendously in these early years. Even needed models he found in the members of his family; he has made the face of his mother as familiar as that of a friend; his own, with the heavy features, the thick, bushy hair, the small intelligent eyes, between them the vertical line, fast deepening on the fine forehead, he drew and etched and painted, again and again. More elaborate compositions he also undertook. As in his maturity, it was to the Bible he turned for suggestions: Saint Paul in prison, Samson and Delilah, the Presentation in the Temple—these were the themes then in vogue which he preferred, rendering them with the realism which distinguished his later, more famous Samsons and Abrahams and Christs, making them the motive for a fine arrangement of color, for a striking study of light and shadow. A pleasant picture one can fancy of his life at this period; he was with his own people, for whom his love was tender; busy with brush, pencil, and etching-needle; he was strengthening his powers of observation, developing and perfecting his style, occasionally producing work that won for him renown in Leyden; and, gradually, he gathered round him a small group of earnest fellow-workers, chief among them Lievens, Gerard Dou, and Van Vliet, the last two, though but slightly his juniors, looking up to him as master. These were the years of his true apprenticeship.

Marie De Medici at the House of Rubens.

      Leyden, however, was not the best place for a young painter who had his fortunes to make. It was essentially a university town; interest was concentrated upon letters; art was but of secondary consideration. It was different in Amsterdam, the great commercial centre of Holland. There, all was life and activity and progress; there, was money to be spent, and the liberal patron willing to lavish it upon the artist. Holland just then was in the first flush of prosperity and patriotism, following upon her virtual independence from Spain. Not a citizen but glowed with self-respect at the thought of the victory he had, in one way or another, helped to win; the state, as represented by the good burghers, was supreme in every man's mind. It was natural that individuals and corporations alike should seek to immortalize their greatness by means of the painter's art, which, in Holland, had long since ceased to be a monopoly of the church. Hence the age became essentially one of portrait-painting. Many were the painters whose portraits had already achieved distinction. De Keyser was busy in Amsterdam; a far greater genius, Franz Hals, but fifteen years Rembrandt's senior, was creating his masterpieces in The Hague and Harlem. It was as inevitable that Rembrandt should turn to portraiture, as that he should find commissions less numerous in Leyden than in Amsterdam. Often in the latter town his services were required; so often, indeed, that at last, about 1631, when he was just twenty-five, he settled there permanently and set up a studio of his own.

      Success was his from the start. Sitter after sitter sought him out in his house on the Bloemgracht; the most distinguished men in the town hastened to patronize him. His work was liked by the burghers whom he painted, its strength was felt by artists, whose canvases soon showed its influence. Admirers crowded to his studio. He had not been in Amsterdam a twelvemonth when, before he was yet twenty-six, he was entrusted with an order of more than usual importance. This was the portrait of Dr. Tulp and his class of surgeons: the famous "Lesson in Anatomy" now in the Gallery at The Hague. The subject at the time was very popular. Many artists, De Keyser among others, had already, in painting prominent surgeons, placed them around the subject they were dissecting; indeed, this was the arrangement insisted upon by the surgeons themselves, and, as there seems to have been no limit to their vanity, "Lessons in Anatomy" were almost as plentiful in Holland as "Madonnas" in Umbria. Rembrandt in his composition was simply adhering to accepted tradition. It is true that he instilled life into a group hitherto, on other painters' canvases, stiff and perfunctory; but, though the picture was a wonderful production for a man of his years, it is not to be ranked with his greatest work.

      Commissions now poured in still faster. It was at this time he painted several of his best known portraits: the "Master Shipbuilder and his Wife," at present in Buckingham Palace; that simply marvellous old woman at the National Gallery in London, made familiar to everyone by countless photographs and other reproductions; the man in ruff and woman in coif at the Brunswick Museum; and a score of others scarce less important. With increasing popularity, he was able to command his own prices, so that only a part of his time was it necessary for him to devote to the portraits which were his chief source of income. During the leisure he reserved, he painted biblical subjects, ever his delight, and made etchings and drawings, today the most prized treasures in the world's great galleries. As in Leyden, he drew about him students; a few, notably Ferdinand Bol and Christophe Paudiss, destined, in their turn, to gain name and fame. Indifferent to social claims and honors—an indifference the burghers, his patrons, found it hard to forgive, his one amusement was in collecting pictures and engravings, old stuffs and jewels, and every kind of bric-à-brac, until his house in Amsterdam was a veritable museum. This amusement later was to cost him dear.

      Four years after the "Lesson in Anatomy" was painted, when he was at the height of prosperity, in 1634, he married Saskia van Uylenborch, the Saskia of so many an etching and picture. She was of a good Frisian family, and brought with her a dowry of no mean proportions. Rembrandt's marriage made small changes in his way of living. Into the society, so ready to receive him, he never went, not even now that he had a wife to introduce. It bored him, and he was no toady to waste his time fawning upon possible patrons. "When I desire to rest my spirit, I do not seek honors, but liberty," was his explanation. The companionship of artists he always welcomed; sometimes he visited the humbler burghers, whose ways were as simple as his own; sometimes he sought the humblest classes of all, because of their picturesqueness, and his contemporaries took him to task for his perverted taste for low company. The truth is that always he devoted himself solely and wholly to his art; the only difference, once he was married, was that, when he sat at his easel all day or over his copperplate, and sketchbook all evening, Saskia was with him. She shared all his interests, all his ambitions; she had no will but his. During his working hours, she was his model, obedient to his call. She never tired of posing for him, nor he of painting her now simply as Saskia, now as Delilah feasting with Samson, as Susanna surprised by the Elders, as the Jewish Betrothed at her toilet. Sometimes he represented her alone, sometimes with himself at her side; once, in the famous Dresden portrait, on his knee, as if to proclaim the love they bore for one another. And he, who could render faithfully the ways of the beggar, the austere black of the burgher, for himself and Saskia found no masquerading too gay or extravagant. In inventing costumes for their own portraits, he gave his exuberant fancy free play: in gorgeous embroidered robes, waving plumes, and priceless gems they arrayed themselves, until even the resources of his collection were exhausted: the same rich mantle, the same jewels appear, and reappear in picture after picture.

      Rembrandt's short married years were happy, though not without their sorrows. Of Saskia's five children, four died in infancy; the fifth, Titus, was not a year old when, in 1642, the end came for Saskia, and Rembrandt, who had just reached his thirty-seventh year, was left in his great house alone with an infant son and his pupils. Her confidence in him is shown by her will, in which the inheritance of Titus is left in the father's charge, though already Rembrandt's affairs must have given signs of coming complications.

      Much of his best work remained to be done, but after Saskia's death his worldly fortunes and his popularity never again touched such high-water mark. The reason for this is not far to seek. During all these years, Rembrandt's powers had matured, his methods broadened, and his individuality strengthened. With each new canvas, his originality became more conspicuous. It was not only that the world of nature, and not imagination, supplied his models. Many of the Dutch painters now were no less realists than he. It was not only that he solved certain problems of chiaro oscuro, there were men, like Lievens, who were as eager as he in the study of light and shadow. But Rembrandt brought to his every experiment an independence that startled the average man. He painted well because he saw well. If no one else saw things as he did, the loss was theirs. But he paid for his keener vision; because he did not paint like other artists, his methods were mistrusted. To be misunderstood is the penalty of genius. The picture which, of all his work, is now the most famous, marks the turn in the tide of his affairs. Shortly before Saskia's death, he had been commissioned to paint a portrait group of Banning Cock and the military company which he commanded. These portrait groups of the military corporations rivalled in popularity the "Lessons in Anatomy." Each member, or officer, paid to be included in the composition, and, as a rule, a stiff, formal picture, with each individual posed as for a photograph, was the result. Rembrandt, apparently, was in nowise restricted when he undertook the work for Banning Cock, and so, instead of the stupid, hackneyed arrangement, he made of the portrait of the company a picture of armed men marching forth to beating of drums and waving of banners, "The Night Watch," as it must ever be known—more accurately, "The Sortie of the Company of Banning Cock"—now in the Ryks Museum of Amsterdam. With the men for whom it was painted, it proved a failure. The grouping, the arrangement displeased them. Many of the company were left in deep shadow, which was not the privilege for which they had agreed to pay good money. Rembrandt was not the man to compromise. After this many burghers, who cared much for themselves and their own faces, and not in the least for art, were afraid to entrust their portraits to him lest their importance might be sacrificed to the painter's effects. Certain it is that six years later, in 1648, when the independence of Holland was formally recognized at the Congress of Westphalia, though Terburg and Van der Heist celebrated the event on canvas, Rembrandt's services were not secured. Good friends were left to him—men of intelligence who appreciated his strong individuality and the great originality of his work. Banning Cock himself was not among the discontented. A few leading citizens, like Dr. Tulp and the Burgomeister Six, were ever his devoted patrons. Artists still gathered about him; pupils still crowded to his studio; Nicolas Maes, De Gelder, Kneller among them. Many of his finest portraits—those of Hendrickje Stoffels, of his son, of himself in his old age, of the Burgomeister Six, above all, his masterpiece, "The Syndics of the Guild of Clothmakers," now in Amsterdam; many of his finest etchings, the little landscapes, the famous "Hundred Guilder Print," "Christ Healing the Sick," belong to this later period. There was no falling off, but rather an increase, in his powers, despite the clouds that darkened his years of middle age.

      Of these clouds, the darkest was due to his financial troubles. Rembrandt had made large sums of money; Saskia's dowry had been by no means small. But he also spent lavishly. He had absolutely no business capacity. Once he was accused of miserliness; that he would at times lunch on dry bread and a herring served as reproach against him; there was a story current that his pupils would drop bits of paper painted to look like money in order to see him stoop to pick them up. Both charges are too foolish to answer seriously. When he was at work, it mattered little to him what he ate, so that he was not disturbed; who would not stoop to pick up coins apparently scattered on the floor? The money he devoted to his collection is sufficient to show how small a fancy he had for hoarding; upon it a princely fortune had been squandered. To his own people in Leyden, when times were hard, he had not been slow to hold out a generous hand. It was because he was not enough of a miser, because he gave too little heed to business matters, that difficulties at length overwhelmed him. It is too sad a story to tell in detail. Perhaps the beginning was when he bought a house for which he had not the ready money to pay, and borrowed a large sum for the purpose. More and more involved became his affairs. In time his creditors grew clamorous, and at length the blow fell when, in 1657, he was declared bankrupt. The collection of years, the embroidered mantles and draperies, the jewels with which Saskia had been so gayly decked, the plumes and furs and gorgeous robes in which he himself had masqueraded, the armor and plate, the engravings and pictures which had filled his house—all were sold. He, the master, had, at the age of fifty-one, to begin life anew as if he were still but the apprentice.

      In the midst of his troubles and losses, Hendrickje Stoffels, whose portrait hangs in the Louvre, was the friend who cheered and comforted him. She had been his servant; afterward she lived with him as his wife, though legally they were not married. To Titus, as to her own children, she was ever a tender mother, and Titus, in return, seems to have loved her no less well. In the end, they together took Rembrandt's business interests into their own hands, the son, probably, using his inheritance in the enterprise. Renting a house in their own name, they became his print and picture dealers.

      But as time went on, Rembrandt's work brought lower and lower prices, and he, himself, the last two years of his life, was almost forgotten. Though he still lived in Amsterdam, the town from which he had so seldom journeyed, and then never far, he had fallen into such obscurity, that report now established him in Stockholm as painter to the King of Sweden, now in Hull, or Yarmouth. In his own family nothing but sorrow was in store for him. Hendrickje died, probably about 1664, and he was once more alone; and next he lost Titus, who then had been married but a few short months.

      Fortunately for Rembrandt, he did not long survive them. In 1669, at the age of sixty-two, his release came. He was buried in the West Church, quietly and simply. Thirteen florins his funeral cost, and even this small expense had to be met by his daughter-in-law. When an inventory of his possessions was taken, these were found to consist of nothing but his own wardrobe and his painter's tools.

      But better than a mere fortune, his work he left as an heirloom for all time; his drawings, not the least among them without the stamp of his genius; his prints, still unsurpassed, though it was he who first developed the possibilities of etching; his pictures, "painted with light," as Fromentin has said. His subjects he may have borrowed from the fashions and traditions of the time; certain mannerisms of technique and arrangement his pupils may have copied. But for all that, his work belongs to no special school or group; like all the world's great masterpieces, whether produced in Spain by a Velasquez, in Venice by a Titian, in England by a Whistler, it stands alone and supreme.

Privacy Policy
Copyright © 1999-2008 All rights reserved.