6 things you may not have known about Rembrandt
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is considered the most important painter in Dutch history and is at the centre of the cultural heritage of Amsterdam, the pride and joy of Dutch art. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has an extensive collection of his paintings, which you can discover in person or remotely via Google Street View!
Some little-known facts about Rembrandt
Here are a few facts about Rembrandt and his life that are a lot less famous than his larger-than-life talent that has stood the test of time:
1. Rembrandt spent more than a third of his life in Leiden
Although in artistic terms, Amsterdam is deemed the city of Rembrandt, the painter spent the first 25 years of his life in Leiden. Rembrandt was born there in 1606 and attended a local Latin school before enrolling at Leiden University at the tender age of 14, though he abandoned his academic studies in favour of painting. His father was a miller and his mother was a baker’s daughter and they led a comfortable life.
Rembrandt showed an artistic streak from an early age and studied with local painter Jacob Swanenborgh for three years, before realising he would have to move his life to Amsterdam if he wanted to pursue painting full-time. So he went to Amsterdam to study with Pieter Lastman. After six months, he moved back to Leiden and set up his own business in 1624 or 1625, but by 1631 he would be back in Amsterdam.
There were not enough prospects to make a living as an artist in Leiden compared to Amsterdam, the home of the Dutch Golden Age. So, he made the decision to settle in Amsterdam, where he became a member of the painter’s guild and practised as a professional portrait painter, with great success.
The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt
2. Rembrandt never went abroad
Rembrandt never travelled outside the Netherlands, then known as the Dutch Republic, and during his lifetime, few of his paintings did either. His prints were spread around Europe, though, and he garnered his reputation based on the prints alone, initially. During this time, it was typical for a student of painting to travel to Italy as part of their training, but Rembrandt remained in the Dutch Republic.
Whatever he lacked in a geographical sense of adventure, he made up for in obvious talent, which reached heights that had not been seen before in his native country. His biographer Arnold Houbraken wrote in the 1718 biography that “Rembrandt did not want to conform to anyone else’s rules."
3. He would not have made it big-time if it weren't for the timing of the Dutch Golden Age
In many European countries at the time, painters and composers were often employed by the Catholic church, but when Rembrandt came of age around the time of the Reformation, the reformed church did not act as a patron of the arts, therefore being in a capital city of business was of the utmost importance. Private wealthy merchants were Rembrandt's bread and butter, and thanks to the economic boom in the early years of Rembrandt's career, rich patrons were many and business could flow along with ease.
Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild (1662) by Rembrandt
4. Rembrandt was notoriously irresponsible with money and ended up bankrupt
In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh and moved into a house on Nieuwe Doelenstraat, an affluent neighbourhood of the Dutch Golden Age, with a view over the River Amstel. They soon moved to an even grander house on the modern-day Jodenbreestraat, next to where Rembrandt worked.
The house was well beyond his budget – he seemed to spend more money than he could possibly earn and was thought to have made some very unwise investments, a pattern that would haunt him again and again throughout his life. He lived there from 1639 until he went bankrupt in 1656. This house still stands today: it is now the Rembrandt House Museum, which is very popular with visitors.
Rembrandt hired a nurse, Geertje Dircx, for his son Titus and began having an affair with her after Saskia passed away. In 1662, living in abject poverty and desperately hard-up for money, Rembrandt sold Saskia’s grave.
He soon started seeing yet another woman, Hendrickje Stoffels, and he was eventually sued by Geertje Dircx for a breach of promise – a common law which no longer exists, where a man’s proposal of marriage to a woman had legal implications – apparently he had made a promise to marry Geertje, but was now breaking it by going with another woman. This put Rembrandt even further out of pocket.
It is possible that Rembrandt’s eccentricities, the unwillingness to follow rules, his quick spending habits and his unwed relationships may have caused a rift between himself and the polite society of Amsterdam, and may have jeopardised many potential commissions. Some patrons were undeterred, however, and although Rembrandt struggled financially later in life, he continued to paint throughout his life, right into his 60s.
Landscape by Rembrandt (ca. 1638)
5. Rembrandt faced personal tragedy throughout his life
Rembrandt’s wife Saskia died, aged only 29, from either tuberculosis or the plague, a year after giving birth to the couple’s son, Titus. She died the same year Rembrandt's famous masterpiece The Night Watch was completed. Titus was the only child of theirs to have survived, out of a total of four children.
In her will, Saskia allowed Rembrandt to use their son Titus’ inheritance on the condition that he refrained from getting married. He kept this promise and never re-married.
His lover Hendrickje Stoffels died in 1663. They had been in a relationship for at least 16 years and had a daughter, Cornelia, together, but were destined never to marry due to Saskia's financial settlement. While Cornelia survived into adulthood, Rembrandt's son Titus died at the age of just 27, in 1668, leaving behind a baby daughter.
Despite the tragedies, the 1660s were some of his most productive years, and his artistic output shows how buoyantly creative he was, in spite of all odds. Rembrandt died in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave near the Westerkerk.
6. Rembrandt painted more self-portraits than any other artist before him
Cultural commentators have posed the question: did Rembrandt invent the selfie? No artist before Rembrandt had painted so many self-portraits – around 80 in total, making up a 10th of his total output. His self-portraits convey many moods and show the ravages of time and how they affected his appearance. They are intimate and revealing, but were also thought to have been intended to be sold, rather than kept for posterity.
Rembrandt is also noted as the first ever artist to have used a palette knife to apply oil paint straight to canvas. This can be seen in his rich, paint-heavy “The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis” and many others.
His brilliance doesn't end there: Rembrandt was an artist of many firsts. He charted new terrain in portraiture, landscapes and narrative painting and also showed great skill as a printmaker. He used dramatic chiaroscuro, playing with light and shadow, reaching new levels of realism both technically and psychologically. He was also an art collector, dealer and teacher.
Rembrandt, one of Europe's most prized artists
Rembrandt has been revered in his lifetime and ever since. Even Van Gogh was in awe: "Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt "magician". That's no easy occupation."
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