Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch painter and printmaker. He was one of the greatest painters in European history. His most famous works include a group portrait called The Night Watch and his numerous self-portraits. Because he painted himself as honestly as possible, his self-portraits as a whole create a unique and intimate autobiography.
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in what is now the Netherlands. Even in school, he was interested in painting. He was an apprentice to two successful painters before he started his own workshop where he taught students of his own. Rembrandt’s first important work was painted for the court of The Hague. The prince noticed his painting and began to commission portraits from Rembrandt. The artist used this success to move his business to the growing city of Amsterdam where he had great success as a portrait painter. Important people used to visit his studio to see how the great artist worked and to purchase pieces for their own collections.
Rembrandt met his wife, Saskia, in Amsterdam. They married and made a home in Broadway, the Jewish quarter. He often asked his Jewish neighbors to model for him when he painted scenes from the Bible. Rembrandt also placed himself, his friends, and his family into these historic paintings. Some historians think of these cameos as “a kind of diary, an account of moments in his own life.” Some important qualities of Rembrandt’s paintings are his use of high contrast light and shadow called chiaroscuro, the informality of his subjects, and a deeply felt compassion for mankind regardless of wealth and age.
Rembrandt and his wife suffered several personal tragedies including the deaths of three children. Only their fourth child, Titus, survived to adulthood. Saskia herself died soon after her son’s birth. Rembrandt’s drawings of his wife on her death bed are among his most moving work.
Rembrandt made an excellent living as a painter, but he didn’t manage his money well. He lived beyond his means, bought expensive art, prints, and rarities. To pay his debts, he was forced to sell these treasures and his own paintings. A list of those sales gave historians an idea of how Rembrandt lived. His collections include master drawings, busts from the Roman Empire, and suits of Japanese armor. After the sale, Rembrandt moved to a more modest home and started an art dealership with his son.
Rembrandt died in 1669.
In his lifetime, Rembrandt created more than seventy self-portraits. Some show the artist posing in historical costumes or making faces at himself. His oil paintings trace his maturation from an uncertain young man, to a very successful portrait painter, to his troubled but powerful old age. As a whole, the self-portraits give a remarkably clear picture of the man, his appearance and his psychology, as revealed by his richly aged face. In a letter, Rembrandt explained what he hoped to achieve through his art, “The greatest and most natural emotion.”
Rembrandt’s work can be seen today in museums in America, England, France, Germany, Russia, Sweden, and, of course, the Netherlands. The most important collection is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. His home in Amsterdam was also preserved as the Rembrandt House Museum.
OMG, the SELFIES, you guys! When “selfie” was declared the 2013 word of the year, I read several so-so jokes about Rembrandt’s being the original. Whatevs, I didn’t appreciate that at first. After even the slightest scrutiny though, I see what the jokesters were saying. If you take a second to see past the change in fashion, you will recognize Rembrandt as a contemporary. His painting are so fresh. His drawings are so clear. His observations of himself are so beautifully honest. You can see the man. You can feel who he is. Despite the hundreds of years that separate us. That is mastery.
Portrait of Rembrandt at top drawn by yours truly, Rama Hughes. Etching and oil painting by the master himself.