Rembrandt`s work and life

Rembrandt (Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn) (1606-69), Dutch painter, etcher, and draughtsman, his country’s greatest artist, came into the world on July 15, 1607, being the fifth and youngest son of Hermon Gerritzoon van Rijn, a prosperous miller who possessed a mill, several fields, and other property. The parents were ambitious for their youngest son and sent him to school “to learn the Latin tongue to prepare himself for the Academy of Leyden, so that in the fulness of time he might serve the city and the Republic with his knowledge” (Benesch 8). The boy, however, did not take kindly to book-learning, but was for ever drawing and designing.

At school Rembrandt is said to have been one of the idle pupils who “during their writing lessons, when they ought to be writing, scrawl figures of vessels and animals all over the margins of their books” (Benesch 9). He was at the University in 1620, but it soon became clear to his father that it was unprofitable for Rembrandt to continue his studies there. His aptitude for art was unmistakable, and accordingly he was apprenticed first to Jacob van Swanenburch, and afterwards to Pieter Lastman, of Amsterdam, a fashionable portrait-painter of the day (Benesch 9).

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Six months were enough to satiate this earnest young student with the smooth and flattering trivialities of a fashionable merchant of likenesses, and in 1624 he returned to Leyden to study and practice painting by himself” (Hind 11). One of the earliest of his known and dated pictures is “St. Paul in Prison,” painted in 1627, and now at Stuttgart. This picture shows the precise rendering of detail characteristic of his early style, but also anticipates the light effect of his later work by the way in which the light is concentrated on the head of the apostle.

That the painter had already attracted some attention is clear from the fact that in the following year Gerard Dou, a promising boy of fifteen, was placed with him as a pupil. About 1631 Rembrandt removed from Leyden to Amsterdam, an important step taken no doubt owing to the increasing number of portrait commissions he received from the rich merchants of this flourishing city (Hind 11). He had also made some reputation for himself as an etcher, and in 1632 Hendrik van Uylenburg, who had previously published some of his etchings, commissioned Rembrandt to paint a portrait of Saskia van Uylenburg, a young cousin of the print-seller.

The acquaintance thus begun soon ripened into love, and the form and face of this dainty little patrician, an orphan who had lost both her parents, suddenly becomes the prevailing theme both in the painted and etched work of Rembrandt. The attraction was mutual, and though her relatives disapproved of the attachment, considering the painter not good enough for a well-dowered young lady of quality, yet love won the day, and Rembrandt and Saskia were married in 1634 (Hind 13).

The veiled hostility shown by his bride’s relations led the painter to relieve his feelings by painting a series of pictures illustrating the life of Samson, in which Saskia is the Delilah, the artist Samson, and the Philistines, of course, are his wife’s relatives. These paintings not only express the artist’s defiance of family pride, but also his attitude towards the world at large, and his recurring amazement at his having won for himself so sweet a maid. The joyous picture of himself with Saskia on his knee, shows Rembrandt at the zenith of his happiness.

Still popular as a painter, his portraits were sought after, he had a crowd of pupils, and a charming wife who brought him a moderate fortune. The young couple felt that the world was their own, and behaved like children in their utter disregard of the value of money. Rembrandt kept on buying new jewels and fine stuffs with which to deck his beloved and paint her in a new guise: he bought the works of other artists and beautiful objects of all kinds, wishing to create a fairy world around a fairy wife. But soon all this luxurious beauty was overshadowed by sorrow.

Two children died one after the other, and in 1642 Saskia herself died after giving birth to the boy Titus (Hind 14). Rembrandt had had his fun and now came the time to pay. Already money was beginning to be scarce, and his popularity as a portrait-painter was beginning to wane. In the year Saskia died Rembrandt had completed his great picture the “Sortie or Night Watch”, which though to-day the most popular of all his works and universally ranked among his greatest achievements, almost destroyed the contemporary reputation of the painter and began thadecline of his fortunes which ended in his bankruptcy (Hind 15).

The subject of the “The Night Watch” is explicitly stated in an inscription on the back of an old copy of it in water-colour which is in a private collection in Holland: “The young Laird of Purmerlandt (Frans Banning Cocq) in his capacity as Captain gives to his Lieutenant, the Laird of Vlaerdingen, the command to march out his burgher-company. ” This amply justifies the more correct title of The Sortie,” but the purpose and hour of this “going out” of a company of civic militia are not easy to define.

In the eighteenth century it was assumed to be a nocturnal watch turning out on its rounds by artificial light, hence the French name for the picture “Ronde de Nuit,” which has been anglicised as “The Night Watch. ” But as Prof. Baldwin Brown of Edinburgh University justly pointed out, the time is “certainly the day and not the night. The shadow of the captain’s outstretched hand and arm is thrown by the sun upon the yellow dress of the second in command, and it is easy to see by the relative positions of object and shadow that the sun is still pretty high in the heavens. (Hind 86-88)

Before we too hastily condemn those who condemned this splendid picture, we must put ourselves in their position. To see what Captain Banning Coeq and his friends expected we should turn back and look at Hals’ portrait group of the Guild of Archers. They expected to be painted like that, and Rembrandt painted them like this! In point of fact, Rembrandt did not paint them, he painted the scene. Hals shows a collection of individual officers, each of whom is clearly seen and recognisable.

Rembrandt shows a patrol many of whose members are lost in shadow and unable to be identified. As a picture Rembrandt’s work has splendid qualities of drama, lighting, and movement which we cannot find in the Hals; but Captain Banning Cocq and his friends did not want to see these qualities, they wanted to see themselves. Rembrandt had painted a great picture, but he had dealt a heavy blow to human vanity, and his contemporaries could not forgive him (Hind 87). It must be admitted that Rembrandt was wilful and wayward.

He would go his own way, and he was only justified by the greatness of his genius. He was, as Dr. Muther has said, “The first artist who, in the modern sense, did not execute commissions, but expressed his own thoughts. The emotions which moved his inmost being were the only things which he expressed on canvas. He does not seem to think that anyone is listening to him, but only speaks with himself; he is anxious, not to be understood by others, but only to express his moods and feelings” (Muther 117).

An interesting example of the liberties Rembrandt took with his nominal subject will be found in the Wallace Collection. The picture now known as “The Centurion Cornelius” used to be called “The Unmerciful Servant,” and commentators explained that the figure in the turban and red robe was Christ, and enlarged on the displeasure shown in his face and the guilt and fear of the Unrighteous Servant, whom they took to be the central of the three figures to the right. Then a mezzotint by James Ward, published in 1800, was discovered, and in this reproduction the correct title was given.

The red-robed figure proved to be Cornelius, in no way “displeased,” while the remaining three figures are “two of his household servants, and a devout soldier of them that waited on him continually” (Acts x. 7). This widely-spread error shows how easy it is to misread pictures if they are approached with preconceived ideas. The misunderstanding, of course, has been brought about by Rembrandt’s fondness for oriental splendour, which led him to put a Roman centurion in Asiatic costume!

It is not “correct” in the way that Alma-Tadema’s classical scenes are; but real greatness in art does not depend on accuracy of antiquarian details — however praiseworthy this may be — but on largeness of conception, noble design, and splendid colour (Scallen 251). Overwhelmed by his domestic sorrows — he lost his old mother two years before Saskia died — neglected by his former patrons, Rembrandt turned to nature for consolation. He wandered about the countryside recording all he saw.

Practically all his landscapes were painted between 1640 and 1652. Many of his most beautiful landscape etchings were also executed during this period. The most famous of them all, “The Three Trees”, was done in 1643 (Wetering 289). It shows a view of Amsterdam from a slight eminence outside the town, and a storm-cloud and its shadow are used to intensify the brilliance of the light and the dramatic aspect of his mood of nature. This is landscape in the grand style; but its homelier, more intimate note appealed equally to the artist.

A lovely example of the picturesque corner portrayed for its own intrinsic beauty is the etching executed in 1645 known as “Six’s Bridge”. Tradition relates that this plate was etched against time for a wager at the country house of Rembrandt’s most loyal friend, Jan Six, while the servant was fetching the mustard, that had been forgotten for a meal, from a neighbouring village (Wetering 290). Even while Saskia was alive Rembrandt was in want of ready money, and when on his mother’s death in 1640 he inherited a half-share of a mill, he hastened to have it transferred to his brother Wilhelm and his nephew.

Though he lost money by the transaction he probably gained his end in keeping all the mill in the family instead of a share going to his creditors. Then in 1647 he became involved in lawsuits with Saskia’s family, who objected to Rembrandt’s connection with his servant Hendrickje Stoffels, and wished to prevent Rembrandt from being trustee for his and Saskia’s son Titus. These lawsuits, which lasted till after 1653, and ended in Saskia’s relatives obtaining the trusteeship but not the custody of Titus, greatly contributed to Rembrandt’s difficulties (Ludwig 226-228).

His marriage with Hendrickje Stoffels, a woman of humble birth, was another cause of offence to aristocratic patrons; all the same, it was a wise action. This devoted woman mothered Titus with loving and unremitting care; she made great efforts to stem the tide of ill-fortune, and when the crash came and Rembrandt was made bankrupt in 1656, she loyally shared her husband’s troubles and used her wits to rebuild their fortunes. As soon as Titus was old enough she combined with him in keeping an old curiosity shop, starting, one imagines, with some relics of the treasures Rembrandt had amassed for Saskia (Wetering 207- 208).

Money, or the want of it, however, was not a thing which could profoundly trouble a philosophic dreamer like Rembrandt. If he had it, he spent it royally; if he had it not, he went without. Only a year after his bankruptcy he achieved one of the world’s masterpieces of portraiture, “The Artist’s Son Titus”, in the Wallace Collection. If you look at the Pellicorne portraits, also in the Wallace Collection, you will obtain a fair idea of Rembrandt’s ordinary professional style in 1632-4, when his painting was still popular.

But how thin and shallow these early portraits seem beside this haunting and passionate portrait of the son he loved so dearly (Scallen 288). Turning to the “Titus” after these early works, we see how far Rembrandt has travelled. Three or four years later he painted the wonderful “Portrait of Francoise van Wasserhoven,” in the National Gallery, one of the most reverent, sympathetic, and intimate studies of old age ever painted (Scallen 289).

Throughout his life Rembrandt was a keen student of human nature, and no painter has ever penetrated further than he did into the inner lives of the men and women he painted. His wonderful insight into character made him the greatest psychologist in portraiture the world has yet seen, and since he searched faces above all for the marks of life’s experience which they bore, old people — who had had the longest experience -were inevitably subjects peculiarly dear to him and subjects which he interpreted with consummate mastery.

His own face he painted over and over again, and if we study the sequence of his self-portraiture from early manhood to ripe old age, we see not only the gradual development of his technical powers but also the steady advance made by Rembrandt in expressing with poignant intensity the thoughts and emotions of humanity” (Hind 94). Gradually among the discerning few the outstanding excellence of Rembrandt’s portraiture was again acknowledged, and in 1661 he received a commission for another official portrait group.

He was asked to paint a portrait group of five officials of the Cloth-makers’ Company, and staging them on the dais on which they presided over a meeting, Rembrandt produced the wonder-work known as “The Syndics. ” Avoiding the dangers of “The Sortie” Rembrandt places all five figures in a clear light and yet gives them the unity of a scene taken from life (Hind 94-95). This fresh artistic triumph was dearly paid for by more domestic misfortunes. Soon after this work was completed, Hendrickje the loyal helpmate died. Titus, now grown up, married his cousin, and after less than a year of married life he also died.

Now, indeed, Rembrandt was alone in the world, and though a posthumous daughter to Titus was born in 1669, the artist, now in his sixty-third year, was too worn out to struggle much longer against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. ” He lived long enough to see his little granddaughter Titia christened after her father, and then crushed by the accumulated sorrows of a lifetime passed to his long rest on October 4, 1669. To all appearance the illness and death of the greatest man Holland ever produced passed unnoticed, and only the bare fact of his burial in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam, is attested by an official entry (Hind 118).