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Rembrandt: Master of Light and Shadow


"Those keen and steady eyes, that we know so well from Rembrandt's self-portraits, must have been able to look straight into the human heart."
Ernst H. Gombrich

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, is the greatest Dutch, infact the greatest 17th century European artist known.

Recognized as 'the painter of light', the artist produced numerous self-portraits throughout his life, used unique artistic techniques and was a master of light and shadow.



Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn (1696-1669)

1606 Born 15th of July in Leiden, the eighth of nine children.

1613-1620 All his brothers were raised as craftsmen, whereas Rembrandt was sent to the school for Latin and later enrolled in the Philosophical Faculty of Leiden University to study Classics.

1622-1624 Founds own studio. Executes history paintings, physiognomical studies, numerous self-portraits and also engravings and etchings.

1628 Constantijn Huygens, the highly educated secretary of the governor, comes to Leiden and develops great interest in Rembrandt and his art.

1635 Rembrandt's father dies.

1631 Rembrandt moves to Amsterdam, where he lives by the art dealer, Uylenburgh and becomes recognized as a successful portrait painter.

1632 Thanks to Huygens, Prince Frederick acquires a number of paintings and commisions the Passion cycle.

1634 Rembrandt marries Saskia van Uylenburgh, niece of the art-dealer Ulyenburgh. He becomes a member of the Guild of St. Luke, so that he may train pupils. He had eight pupils working in his studio, many famous such as Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

1635 Rembrandt's first son dies only a few months after his birth.

1636 Rembrandt starts an encyclopaedic collection of exotic items, scientific and historical objects, and animals and plants. In the following years, he paints a series of Saskia's portraits and The Prodigal Son in the Tavern.

1640 Thier first daughter named Cornelia, dies as well after a short while. Rembrandts mother dies a month later.

1641 Their son Titus is born.

1642 After the completion of The Night Watch, Saskia dies. This causes a great trauma in Rembrandts life. Geertge Dircx and Hendrickje Stoffels move in with him in order to support him. Rembrandt works on his most famous etching The Guilder Print. His graphic works become well-recognized and are often copied.

1649 Geertge takes Rembrandt to court accusing him with an unfulfilled promise of marriage, which Hendrickje testifies against. Geertge is sentenced to several years in prison.

1653 Although Rembrandt received several commisions, he had financial diffuculties and was forced to borrow money.

1654 Rembrandt has a daughter named Cornelius from Hendrickje. Hendrickje is accused of immoral realtions with Rembrandt before the Amsterdam Council of the Reformed Church.

1656 Rembrandt is declared bankrupt.

1657-1958 Rembrandt's house and collections are auctioned, but still he cannot gather enough money to pay his debts. He moves into the Roozengracht where he leads an isolated life.

1660 Titus and Hendrickje employ Rembrandt in their art shop. He continues to keep pupils occupied and executes commisions.

1668 Titus marries Magdalena van Loo, but dies a few months later.

1669 Rembrandt lives with daughter in law and has his first granddaughter. He dies on October 4, without completing the painting Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple.

Bockemühl, Michael : Rembrandt The Mystery of the Revealed Form, Köln: Taschen, 2000, p.102

His father was a miller who wanted him to have a learned profession, but Rembrandt left the University of Leiden to study painting. [1] During the 1620's, Rembrandt studied art with the painter Jacob van Swanenburgh. He set up a studio in Leiden and collaborated with Jan Lievens. In the 1630's he moved from his native city, Leiden, to

Amsterdam where he became highly recognized and received many commisions for portraits and religous scenes. In 1632 he painted his first group portrait; The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp(Mauritshuis, The Hague). [2] This was one of Rembrandt's first major public commissions in Amsterdam. It depicts the regents of the Guild of Surgeons gathered for a dissection and lecture.

Such group portraits were a genre unique to Holland and was a promising income for an artist where neither church nor royalty acted as patrons of art. Rembrandt's paintings were more than just simple commemorative portraits. There was an interesting arrangement of the figures, in this case pyramidal, which created a natural scene. [3]

Rembrandt lived in the 'Golden Era' of Holland, which was a peak period in terms of culture, science, trade and politics. He was very fond of the Italien Renaissance art and quite unusually, non-European artists. Influences of Rubens, with the spiralling compositions and chiaroscuro (the use of strong contrast between light and dark) inspired by Caravaggio are evident in his paintings, which he skillfully assimilated into his paintings. [4]

Rembrandt revolutionized the conventional technique; instead of using fine, thin brushstrokes, he prefered chunky, thick brushstrokes, which were only properly comprehensible from a distance. This created an unfinished look. So instead of an imitation of the form, he created a suggestion of it. [5]

Waldemar Konusczak, meticulously describes the essence of Rembrandt: "He worked in complex layers, building up a picture from the back to the front with delicate glazes that allowed light actually to permeate his backgrounds and reflect off the white underpainting, and generously applied bodycolors which mimicked the effect of solid bodies in space. Never before had a painter taken such a purely sensuous interest and delight in the physical qualities of his medium, nor granted it a greater measure of independence from the image." [6]

Rembrandt lived a wealthy life. In 1634, he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, whom he used as a model for many of his paintings. In 1636, Rembrandt began to paint with a more calm feeling adding warmth in color. But within the next couple of years, he went through a difficult stage, during which three of his four newly born children and wife died. [7]

The Night Watch (1642) is attributed as one of Rembrandt's most inventive works, unfortunately it was cut down on all sides in 1715, so that it could fit into the Town Hall. It is neither a night scene nor does it depict soldiers mounting a watch. The painting was commisisoned as a group portrait of a militia company. But what is so extraordinary about the painting, is the fashion he integrated the portraits. Each individual is occupied with their own particular duty. He created a dynamic and exciting atmosphere with light and shades, a great variety of poses and facial expressions within a complex spatial design. [8]

Although Rembrandt never went to Italy, unlike many other artists, there was an influence of classical Italy in his paintings. For example in his landscape paintings, for which he used his imagination rather than recording a specific location and included ancient ruins and hills instead of depicting the flat landscape of Holland. [9]

Rembrandt lived a comfortable life, unlike many other artists, he bought several paintings of other artists. In the 1640's and 1650's, he had fewer commissions and sometimes exceeded in his spendings causing bankruptcy, but this did not effect his artistic production. During the last period of his life, Rembrandt did not give as much importance to the baroque drama and superficial details, but more to the spiritual expression. He was no longer interested in allegorical and mythological subjects.

Rembrandt, produced approximately 600 paintings, 300 etchings, and 1,400 drawings. [10] Within these works are more than 60 self-portraits. These self-portraits were not only portrayals of himself in various stages of his life, but were also a means of studying facial expressions and exploring different artistic techniques. [11] It was also a record of a lifetimes changing attitudes. His early studies of self-portraits cannot be considered as objective representation, since he used them as examples for his later Bibilical and historical paintings and a way of elaborating on chiaroscuro. One-third of Rembrandt's production were Biblical subjects, which was not usual for Protestant Holland in the 17th century, for church patronage was nonexistent and religious art was not regarded as important. He, in a way, continued the baroque style, dramatizing and emphasizing light and shadow.

For Rembrandt, drawing and etching were just as important as painting. In his early drawings, he used black or red chalk, later used pen and ink on paper combined with brushwork. Rembrandt's etchings were also highly recognized and he was considered as one of the masters of the technique. He used strokes of lines creating extraordinary effects, again emphasizing light and shadow. Jan Six (1647), Three Trees (1643) and the 100 Guilder Print are among his most well known etchings. [12]

The uniqueness that lies in Rembrandt's art, is its unfinished quality. It leaves it to the observer to reveal the painting and discover the features within the layers, therefore leading the observer to a never-ending experience...

[4] Honour, Hugh and Felming, John : A World History of Art, London: Laurence King Publishing, 1995, s. 556
[6] Konusczak, Waldemar: Techniques of the World's Great Painters, Book Sales, 1993
[8] Honour, Hugh and Felming, John : A World History of Art, London: Laurence King Publishing, 1995, s. 557
[11] Bonafoux, Pascal : Rembrandt Substance and Shadow, London: Thames and Hudson, 1992, p.102





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