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Rembrandt Biography Essay

Life

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in Leiden, the Netherlands. He was the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck. 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. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students, among them Gerrit Dou.

In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (a famous Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646.

At the end of 1631, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began to practice as a professional portraitist for the first time, with great success. He initially stayed with an art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburg, and in 1634, married Hendrick's cousin, Saskia van Uylenburg. Saskia came from a good family: her father had been lawyer and burgemeester (mayor) of Leeuwarden. When Saskia, as the youngest daughter, became an orphan, she lived with an older sister in Het Bildt. They were married in the local church of St. Annaparochie without the presence of his relatives. In the same year, Rembrandt became a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters. He also acquired a number of students, among them Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

In 1635 Rembrandt and Saskia moved into their own house, renting in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat. In 1639, they moved to a prominent house (now the Rembrandt House Museum) in the Jodenbreestraat in what was becoming the Jewish quarter; the mortgage to finance the 13,000 guilder purchase would be a primary cause for later financial difficulties. It was there that Rembrandt frequently sought his Jewish neighbors to model for his Old Testament scenes. Although they were by now affluent, the couple suffered several personal setbacks; their son Rumbartus died two months after his birth in 1635 and their daughter Cornelia died at just 3 weeks of age in 1638. In 1640, they had a second daughter, also named Cornelia, who died after living barely over a month. Only their fourth child, Titus, who was born in 1641, survived into adulthood. Saskia died in 1642 soon after Titus's birth, probably from tuberculosis. Rembrandt's drawings of her on her sick and death bed are among his most moving works.

During Saskia's illness, Geertje Dircx was hired as Titus' caretaker and nurse and probably also became Rembrandt's lover. She would later charge Rembrandt with breach of promise and was awarded alimony of 200 guilders a year. Rembrandt worked to have her committed for twelve years to an asylum or poorhouse (called a "bridewell") at Gouda, after learning Geertje had pawned jewelry that had once belonged to Saskia, and which Rembrandt had given her.

In the late 1640s Rembrandt began a relationship with the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels, who had initially been his maid. In 1654 they had a daughter, Cornelia, bringing Hendrickje a summons from the Reformed church to answer the charge "that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter". She admitted this and was banned from receiving communion. Rembrandt was not summoned to appear for the Church council because he was not a member of the Reformed church. The two were considered legally wed under common law, but Rembrandt had not married Henrickje, so as not to lose access to a trust set up for Titus in his mother's will.

Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art (including bidding up his own work), prints (often used in his paintings) and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. The sale list survives and gives us a good insight into his collections, which apart from Old Master paintings and drawings included busts of the Roman Emperors, suits of Japanese armour among many objects from Asia, and collections of natural history and minerals; the prices realized in the sales in 1657 and 1658 were disappointing. He also had to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660. The authorities and his creditors were generally accommodating to him, except for the Amsterdam painters' guild, who introduced a new rule that no one in Rembrandt's circumstances could trade as a painter. To get round this, Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art-dealers in 1660, with Rembrandt as an employee.

In 1661 he (or rather the new business) was contracted to complete work for the newly built city hall, but only after Govert Flinck, the artist previously commissioned, died without beginning to paint. The resulting work, The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis, was rejected and returned to the painter; the surviving fragment is only a fraction of the whole work. It was around this time that Rembrandt took on his last apprentice, Aert de Gelder. In 1662 he was still fulfilling major commissions for portraits and other works. When Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany visited Amsterdam in 1667, he visited Rembrandt at his house.

Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje, who died in 1663, and Titus, who died in 1668, leaving a baby daughter. Rembrandt died within a year of his son, on October 4, 1669 in Amsterdam, and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk.

Rembrandt van Rijn, in full Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Rembrandt originally spelled Rembrant, (born July 15, 1606, Leiden, Netherlands—died October 4, 1669, Amsterdam), Dutch Baroquepainter and printmaker, one of the greatest storytellers in the history of art, possessing an exceptional ability to render people in their various moods and dramatic guises. Rembrandt is also known as a painter of light and shade and as an artist who favoured an uncompromising realism that would lead some critics to claim that he preferred ugliness to beauty.

Early in his career and for some time, Rembrandt painted mainly portraits. Although he continued to paint—and etch and, occasionally, draw—portraits throughout his career, he did so less frequently over time. Roughly one-tenth of his painted and etched oeuvre consists of studies of his own face as well as more-formal self-portraits, a fact that has led to much speculation.

The core of Rembrandt’s oeuvre, however, consists of biblical and—to a much lesser extent—historical, mythological, and allegorical “history pieces,” all of which he painted, etched, or sketched in pen and ink or chalk. Seen over his whole career, the changes in Rembrandt’s style are remarkable. His approach to composition and his rendering of space and light—like his handling of contour, form, and colour, his brushwork, and (in his drawings and etchings) his treatment of line and tone—are subject to gradual (or sometimes abrupt) transformation, even within a single work. The painting known as Night Watch (1640/42) was clearly a turning point in his stylistic development. These changes are not the result of an involuntary evolution; rather they should be seen as documenting a conscious search in pictorial and narrative respects, sometimes in discussion, as it were, with his great predecessors.

Rembrandt quickly achieved renown among Dutch art lovers and an art-buying public for his history paintings and etchings, as well as his portraits and self-portraits. His unusual etchings brought him international fame during his lifetime, and his drawings, which in fact were done as practice exercises or as studies for other works, were also collected by contemporary art lovers.

According to the myth that evolved after his death, Rembrandt died poor and misunderstood. It is true that by the end of his life his realism had been supplanted by Classicism and had become unfashionable in Holland. Nevertheless, his international reputation among connoisseurs and collectors only continued to rise. Certain artists in 18th-century Germany and Venice even adopted his style. He was venerated during the Romantic era and was considered a forerunner of the Romantic movement; from that point he was regarded as one of the greatest figures in art history. In the Netherlands itself, his fortunes have once again risen, and he has become a symbol of both greatness and Dutch-ness.

Early years

Rembrandt was the fourth of 6 surviving children out of 10. Unlike many painters of his time, he did not come from a family of artists or craftsmen; his father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn (1568–1630), was a miller. His mother, Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck (1568–1640), came from a family of bakers.

The first name Rembrandt was—and still is—extremely rare. It is akin to more common Dutch first names such as Remmert, Gerbrand, and IJsbrand. The way Rembrandt inscribed his name on his work evolved significantly. As a young man, he signed his work only with the monogram RH (Rembrant Harmenszoon, “son of Harmen”); from 1626/27, with RHL; and in 1632, with RHL van Rijn (the L in the monogram presumably standing for Leidensis, “from Leiden,” the town in which he was born). At age 26 he began to sign his work with his first name only, Rembrant (ending only with a -t); from early 1633 onward until his death, he spelled his name Rembrandt (with -dt) and signed his works that way. It has been suggested that he began using his first name as his signature because he considered himself the equal of the great artists of the 15th and 16th centuries; Michelangelo (Michelangelo Buonarroti), Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), and Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) were also generally known by their first names.

Like most Dutch children of his day, Rembrandt attended elementary school (c. 1612–16), after which, from roughly 1616 to 1620, he attended the Latin School in Leiden, where biblical studies and classics were the main subjects taught. The school’s emphasis on oratory skills may have contributed to his ability to “stage” the figures in scenes depicted in his history paintings, drawings, and etchings. It is not clear whether Rembrandt completed his course of study at the Latin School. His first biographer, Jan Janszoon Orlers (1570–1646), provided a laudatory half-page biography of Rembrandt within his Beschrijvinge der stadt Leyden (1641; “Description of the Town of Leiden”). There Orlers wrote that Rembrandt was taken out of school prematurely and, at his own request, was sent to be trained as a painter. The fact that Rembrandt was enrolled in Leiden University on May 20, 1620, does not necessarily contradict this. Whether for tax reasons or simply because they had attended the Latin School, it was not unusual for Leiden boys to be registered as students without being expected to attend any lectures. The extent of Rembrandt’s intellectual development and any possible influence this might have had on his work remain matters of speculation.

From approximately 1620 to 1624/25, Rembrandt trained as an artist. As was quite common in his time, he had two masters in succession. Rembrandt’s first master was the Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571–1638), with whom, according to Orlers, he remained for about three years. Van Swanenburgh must have taught him the basic skills and imparted the knowledge necessary for the profession. He was a specialist in architectural pieces and in scenes of hell and the underworld, which called for skill in painting fire and its reflections on the surrounding objects. In Rembrandt’s time this skill was considered distinct and demanding. It may well be that Rembrandt’s early exposure to this kind of pictorial problem underlies his lasting interest in the effects of light.

Rembrandt’s second teacher, Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), lived in Amsterdam. According to Orlers, Rembrandt stayed with him for six months. Working with Lastman, who was well known at that time as a history painter, must have helped Rembrandt gain the knowledge and skill necessary to master that genre. History painting involved placing various figures from biblical, historical, mythological, or allegorical scenes in complex settings. In the 17th-century hierarchy of the various genres, history painting held the highest position, because it required a complete command of all subjects, from landscape to architecture, from still life to drapery, from animals to, above all, the human figure, in a wide range of postures, expressions, and costumes. One Rembrandt biographer, Arnold Houbraken (1660–1719), mentions another Amsterdam history painter, Jakob Pynas (c. 1585–1650), as one of Rembrandt’s teachers. (In 1718 Houbraken wrote the most extensive early biography and characterization of Rembrandt as an artist, although it was mixed with spurious anecdotes.)

On the basis of stylistic arguments, one could speculate on the impact that Jan Lievens (1607–74) may have had on Rembrandt during his training. Lievens, one year younger than Rembrandt and originally a child prodigy, was already a full-fledged artist by the time Rembrandt must have decided to become a painter. Although scholars know for certain only that Rembrandt and Lievens worked closely together for some years after Rembrandt had returned to Leiden about 1625, following his training with Lastman, the contacts between these two Leiden boys may have begun earlier. However, no trace of Rembrandt’s student exercises has survived.

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