Brief Biography of a Famous and Influential Artist 9: Rembrandt

Rembrandt's Self Portrait

REMBRANDT (1606-1669)

Born: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn on July 15, 1606 in Leiden, Dutch Republic (current-day Netherlands)

Died: October 6, 1669 [age 63] in Amsterdam, Dutch Republic (current-day Netherlands)

Most Notable Works: The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Danae, Jacob de Gheyn III, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, Belshazzar’s Feast, and Night Watch

Rembrandt was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European history and the most important in Dutch history. His contributions to art came in a period that historians call the Dutch Golden Age.

”]Rembrandt was the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (father) and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck (mother). His family was quite well-to-do; his father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter. As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting; he was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the famous painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens.

Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for twenty years he taught many important Dutch painters. Rembrandt’s greatest creative triumphs are exemplified especially in his portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits and illustrations of scenes from the Bible. His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.

In his life, Rembrandt also completed several of his own self-portraits, including a 1630 etching of himself wearing a cap with eyes spread wide open and a 1661 portrait of himself as an aging man with grayish white curls. Portraits were an important component of Rembrandt’s career.

The period in which Rembrandt painted included particular attention to special events from history and from

Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast

contemporary life. In Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1634), he depicts a violent sea in a traditional Bible scene. In The Abduction of Europa (1632), he vividly portrays a Phoenician woman being abducted from a forested beach. Although a two-dimensional landscape or scene is static (like a still-life), Rembrandt manages to convey motion and action.

In Night Watch (1642), the artist captures a portrait of the armed militia in Amsterdam, but the faces of the guards are lit up as if it is not really depicting night. This painting also shows several qualities hallmarking his style. First, Rembrandt has a keen grasp of depth. On the canvas, there are several rows of people between the foreground and the background. Another aspect of his talent for realism is in the details. The observer can observe up close or far away the intricate details of human faces, clothing, tools, animals, drapery, and inanimate objects. The whole piece demonstrates a purposeful composition and a sense of balance between the figures.

Rembrandt's Night Watch Painting

Rembrandt also painted during a time when the Netherlands was breaking from the European tradition of painting on commission. Wilkins et al note that the Netherlands included a free market for artists to sell their own self-selected projects. The Rembrandt style was copied by many artists that came later, and some works attributed to him have also since been credited to a different artist. Rembrandt is remembered as a forerunner of the art movement called Romanticism.

In his paintings and prints he exhibited knowledge of classical iconography, which he molded to fit the requirements of his own experience; thus, the depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Because of his empathy for the human condition, he has been called “one of the great prophets of civilization.”


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