“Rembrandt’s world and his humanity are all his own. No other master poses so clearly the problem of the relationship between Man and the world, between the creative artist and his period, between style and subject – I mean the exact relationship between a definition that is right for a particular group and that which will serve for an individual.” Henri Focillon.
Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born in Leiden, the son of a successful miller. After seven years at Latin school, Rembrandt entered Leiden University in 1620 but dropped out almost immediately. Over the next four years he was apprenticed to a number of painters, of whom Pieter Lastman was probably the most influential. Rembrandt learnt the dramatic use of lighting from Lastman and picked up his interest in religious themes. By 1625 Rembrandt set himself up as an independent painter in Leiden. Three years later he found his first pupil in Gerard Dou who remained with him until the early Thirties. Rembrandt concentrated mainly on figurative subjects during these early years, including the first of a number of self-portraits. In 1631 he settled in Amsterdam and received his first commissioned portrait depicting Nicolaes Ruts, a wealthy Amsterdam merchant.
Amongst the 50 or so paintings he produced over the next two years, the ‘Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp’ (1632) probably stands out as one of his most impressive. Prince Frederick Henry of Orange commissioned Rembrandt to produce five paintings depicting scenes from the Passion and the resulting works including the ‘Blinding of Samson’ (1636) were highly commended. By the Forties, after painting one of his most dramatic and celebrated works, ‘The Night Watch’ (1642), tragedy struck, for his beloved wife of eight years, Saskia, died in 1642. His style became less exuberant and far more introspective afterwards. He produced very few portraits, instead concentrating on religious scenes and landscapes. He eventually met a woman, 20 years his junior, Hendrickje Stoffels, who took Saskia’s place as a model for many of his portrayals. Financial difficulties hit Rembrandt hard, however, in 1656. He was forced to request the liquidation of his property to avoid being declared bankrupt. By 1660 Rembrandt and his family were forced to move to a much smaller house in Rosengracht.
In the last decade of his life, painting as an employee of his son Titus’s and Hendrickje’s art firm (set up to protect him from creditors), Rembrandt was highly prolific and produced some of his most masterful works, among them, ‘The Sampling Officers of the Cloth-Makers’ Guild’ or ‘The Syndics’ (1662) and ‘The Conspiracy of Julius Civilis: The Oath’ (1661-1662). Up until his death he continued to paint self-portraits and through these one can see a dignified man who had been faced with considerable hardship in his life but remained strong-willed.
Rembrandt is generally seen as one of the finest Dutch painters. As well as being a master of technique, particularly in his use of light and shade, he was admired for the emotional depth he conveyed in his work. Although he concentrated on his religious works and portraits, he was also a skilled artist working in still-life, etching and draughtsmanship. His reputation was considerable in his lifetime but it has grown enormously since his death. His works now sell for huge sums and are exhibited widely.