Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Biography

(Leiden 1606 to Amsterdam 1669)

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, 1659

Rembrandt Self Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar, 1659


Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was a 17th Century Dutch artist known for his oil paintings, drawings and etchings. His interests in ancient sculpture, Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings, Far Eastern art and contemporary Dutch works helped lead to his success, in which he had an assortment of antiquities such as weapons and armory that he used as props for his compositions. He was also known as a master of the period of artistic style called Baroque. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and etchers in European history, and the greatest in Dutch.

Rembrandt’s artistic contributions came in a period of great wealth and culture known to historians as the Dutch Golden Age. He is known for being an extremely prolific and innovative artist, largely adapting the technique known as chiaroscuro. This is an art form that, in eneral, has come to mean the interplay of light and shadow on a surface. With this distinct style, he made great use of the arrangement and treatment of light and dark parts of his pictorial works to create mood and character.

As a well-known Baroque-style painter, he mastered this technique that uses exaggerated motion and easily interpreted detail to produce drama and tension in his artwork. Baroque artistry began in Italy and spread through Europe in the early 1600s, and was heavily promoted by the Roman Catholic Church.

There is debate, however, whether Rembrandt’s particular style of painting was influenced by the well-known Italian Painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571 to 1610). Caravaggio was also an innovator in chiaroscuro with his use of shadow and light, and also for his use of dramatic lighting in his artworks that had a formative influence on the Baroque school of painting. Rembrandt saw Caravaggio’s paintings during a time when they were on display in Amsterdam.

Having achieved recognition for his artistry by the early age of 22, Rembrandt was already known as a great painter. Beginning in 1629, he had pupils studying under him, of which two of those later became well-known Dutch Golden Age artists as well. One was Gerrit Dou (1613 to 1675), and the other was Isaac de Jouderville (1612 to 1645), who later traveled with Rembrandt to Amsterdam in 1631.

Rembrandt enjoyed painting historical, mythological and religious works, which were in great demand. Also notable were his subject matters that were often dramatic and lively, and more fluid as opposed to the rigid formality of his contemporaries. His immediate family were often models in his paintings.

The Blinding of Samson, 1636, Rembrandt

The Blinding of Samson, 1636

Among the many works of this kind is his masterpiece The Blinding of Samson that he painted in 1636. He also liked to produce etchings that he began doing at around the age of 20. He was interested in its technique and effects, and over his lifetime created more than 300 pictures.

But it was his portrait paintings that often earned him much notoriety and attention. He especially loved to paint portraits of his family and friends, of wealthy patrons and many of himself. His artwork, mainly his paintings, were so compelling that some of the most renowned artists in history were influenced by them, including Goya, Whistler, Chagall and Picasso.

Rembrandt Self-portrait, 1629

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1629, (Germanisches National Museum, Nuremberg)

While Rembrandt was a successful artist at a very young age and remained so throughout his life, his personal life was marked with tragedies and financial hardships. He survived the death of his wife and several children, and he often blew his money by spending more than he could afford and by making bad business deals. These resulted in him moving in and out of his parents’ home throughout much of his life when he otherwise could have afforded not to, and to file for bankruptcy on two occasions.

Rembrandt's Early Years

Rembrandt was born in Leiden, Holland, on July 15, 1606 as the ninth of 10 children born to Harmen Gerritzsoon van Rijn, a wealthy and prosperous miller, and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck, the daughter of a baker. At that time, Holland was considered one of the principal artistic and intellectual centers of Europe.

Study of Old Man, 1630-31; Portrait of Rembrandt’s Father Harmen Gerritzsoon van Rijn;  Mauritshuis Collection, Netherlands

Study of Old Man, 1630-31; Portrait of Rembrandt’s Father Harmen Gerritzsoon van Rijn; Mauritshuis Collection, Netherlands

Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother

Portrait of Rembrandt’s Mother, Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck, 1630-35, Mauritshuis Collection, Netherlands

As a child, Rembrandt’s family understood the importance of education, and having seen the potential their son had in art at a young age, they sent him to learn art at the Latin School. There Rembrandt received a thorough understanding of classical and biblical stories that later influenced his works.

In his early teens, Rembrandt enrolled in the art program at the University of Leiden. In 1624, he left to pursue fine art, apprenticing under history-painter Jan Pynas, and later, for six months, under the famous artist Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. Included in his studies, he learned historical veracity, rhetorical gestures and textual accuracy.

By 1628, he was already becoming a sensational artist with a pair of etchings that he created of an old woman that many believed to be his mother, and with a few self portraits. While still only in his teens, Rembrandt was able to open a studio in Leiden with his friend and fellow apprentice, Jan Lievens, who also studied under Lastman.

Toward the end of 1628, Rembrandt had pretty much mastered everything he had been taught. He had become a highly regarded artist by the young age of 22, and soon after took on his first pupils. There is question about why Rembrandt had pupils. Some suggest he taught for the enjoyment since his family was financially comfortable and he lacked for nothing, and others say it was for the money due to his bad business practices since it was a substantial source of income for him.

In 1629 by the age of 23, Rembrandt was so popular that Netherlands Ambassador Sir Robert Kerr (1578 to 1654), who later became the first Earl of Ancrum, gave several of his paintings to King Charles I. This included the portrait An Old Woman, which he painted that same year.

An Old Woman (1629; The Artist’s Mother: Royal Collection, Presented to King Charles I) by Rembrandt

An Old Woman (1629; The Artist’s Mother: Royal Collection, Presented to King Charles I)

Rembrandt's Mid Years

In 1631, Constantijn Huygens (1596 to 1687), a secretary to the Stadholder Frederick Henry, visited Rembrandt’s Leiden studio and commissioned him to paint for the royal court in The Hague. By the end of that year, Rembrandt once again returned to Amsterdam after accepting a commission from a well-known physician in the city. He became an Amsterdam citizen, and later joined the local Guild of St. Luke’s, which was a union that the state required membership to in order for an artist to take on apprentices or to sell paintings to the public.

Portrait of Rembrandt's Mother Seated at a Table

Portrait of Rembrandt's Mother Seated at a Table, 1631; Art Institute of Chicago

While in Amsterdam, Rembrandt took up residence with Hendrik van Uylenburg, a successful art dealer at the time. There he had met the landlord’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh (1612 to 1642), the daughter of a well-known layer and later the major of Leeuwarden, Friesland. Three years later they married and she was often the model of his paintings, drawings and etchings.

Rembrandt with his Wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1636; Art Institute of Chicago

Rembrandt with his Wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, 1636

All three lived in Hendrik’s house, and by living there, it enhanced Rembrandt’s career and income by introducing him to wealthy patrons who often commissioned portraits, such as Nicolaes Ruts’ portrait that he did in 1631. The many portraits furthered the refinement of his skills in other renditions as well, as seen in The Blinding of Samson, which he created in 1636.

Rembrandt's Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, 1631

Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts, 1631; Frick Collection, New York

Finally at the age of 33, Rembrandt moved into his own home in Amsterdam, which was a town- house that he purchased in 1639. There he lived for many years and produced many works that are still extremely popular today. He enjoyed great commercial success during this time.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, Germany)

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, Germany)

Rembrandt's Personal Life

Unfortunately, despite how in demand he was in his public career during his lifetime, his family life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641 his wife Saskia gave birth to four children, and only one, Titus, survived. The next year in 1642, she died at the age of 30.

After Saskia’s death, Rembrandt hired a widow named Geertje Dircx (1610 to 1656) as a wet nurse to care for his young son. She later became his common-law wife and the model for some of his artwork. But the relationship ended in disaster.

Dircx insisted on an actual marriage as his common-law wife, but to do so would mean that Rembrandt would lose an inheritance from his dead wife Saskia. So she ended up suing him for breach of contract and won a maintenance allowance of 200 guilders a year for the rest of her life, provided she remained Titus’s only heiress and sold none of Rembrandt’s possessions.

However, when it came time to sign the legal paperwork for the agreement, Dircx reportedly refused and wanted more money and possessions. For this action, Rembrandt had her imprisoned in 1650 at the women’s house of corrections in Gouda. She was sentenced to 12 years, but after becoming ill, she only served five and died a year after her release in 1656.

During this time, Rembrandt was involved in a new affair that he had with Hendrickje Stoffel (1626 to 1663), his new house keeper that he hired in 1649. She eventually became his second common-law wife and was the model for many of his portraits as well. The couple had a child that died as an infant, but their second child, a daughter named Cornelia, survived. In this year, he produced no dated work.

Despite Rembrandt’s financial success as an artist, teacher and art dealer, his overindulgent lifestyle forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. Examples of this was his 1649 breach-of-promise to Dircx when he was court-ordered to pay her 200 guilders annually, and another was in 1650 when he himself was detained at the Gouda house of Corrections for men for bad-business dealings.

In 1656, in an attempt to save his inheritance, Rembrandt transferred the title of his house to his son’s name, and his property was liquidated and his goods auctioned. Then he invested in cargo, but during transport it was lost at sea, including two of his paintings. In 1658, Rembrandt rented a house in the Rozengracht area of Amsterdam, an area where other artists lived. There he, Hendrickje, Titus and Cornelia lived together. In that year, Rembrandt painted himself seated in state like a monarch, and the self portrait was the last etching he ever did.

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1658

Rembrandt self-portrait, 1658; The Frick Collection

In 1660, his Amsterdam townhouse became a financial burden and he was forced to sell it. Centuries later in 1911, the Dutch made Rembrandt’s house into a museum, as a shrine and an example of 17th Century Dutch architecture.

Again Rembrandt had to declare bankruptcy due to his bad financial practices that year, and again lost his home and possessions. Now in his 50s, Rembrandt was forced to move back in with his family who were living in a small cottage on the outskirts of Amsterdam. There he continued to paint.

In December of that same year in 1660, Hendrickje and his son Titus took financial control over the remainder of Rembrandt’s assets. They put them in their names in trade for Rembrandt’s paintings, graphic art, engravings and other artworks. Rembrandt continued to paint and have pupils, but had no control over business matters, and Titus became the sole heir. That year, Rembrandt painted himself as the apostle Paul as a form of protest.

Rembrandt's Later Years

The disappointment from the loss of his wealth, the sale of his house and the auction of his possessions affected Rembrandt’s work. The nature of what he painted changed to a more tragic subject matter. But despite this, his artistry increased and some of his greatest paintings came from this time period. Examples are Bathsheba that he painted in 1654, and The Jewish Bride painted in 1665.

Bathsheba at Her Bath by Rembrandt

Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654; Louvre, Paris

The Jewish Bride (Portrait of Two Figures from the Old Testament); 1667

The Jewish Bride (Portrait of Two Figures from the Old Testament), 1667; Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Later in Rembrandt’s life, his personal sorrows continued. Most of the wealth that he had spent years gaining was lost, and his common-law wife, Hendrickje Stoffels, died from the plague in 1663. Then in 1668 his beloved son Titus died at only 27 years old. However, these problems in no way affected Rembrandt’s work, and, if anything, his artistry increased.

A year before his wife’s death, he painted The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (1662), and received some major commissions from wealthy families.

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, 1662; Rembrandt

The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, 1662; Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Within a year of his son Titus’s death, Rembrandt painted three self portraits. On October 4, 1669, Rembrandt died in Amsterdam. He was buried in the Westerkerk four days later in an unmarked grave. His actual cause of death is not listed in his biographies, but there is one reference that he died of temperal arthritis. After his death, Painter Christiaen Dusart was appointed guardian of Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia van Rijn, and hailed Rembrandt as “the miracle of our age.”


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