Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in the city of Leiden in the Dutch Republic on 15 July 1606, and like most great painters into a well-to-do family for contrary to the popular myth of the starving artist rarely can such indulgences be pursued when poverty casts its shadow and hunger looms.
His father, a Miller, was prosperous enough to send his son to Leiden University but the young Rembrandt’s heart was already set on a career as an artist and he was soon apprenticed to the painter Jacob van Swanerburg with whom he was to remain for three years learning the rudiments of his craft.
But eager to make his own way in early 1624, aged just 21, he left to establish his own studio and soon began enrolling students.
It was struggle at first establishing himself as an artist and financially insecure reliant as he was on student admissions and the prompt payment of fees.
His fortunes improved however, when he made the acquaintance of the career diplomat and royal courtier Constantijn Huygens who impressed with Rembrandt’s work used his connections to earn the young artist valuable commissions.
In 1631, he moved to Amsterdam where he stayed with the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburg who with many wealthy clients was able to open even more doors for the upwardly mobile Rembrandt.
In 1634, he married Uylenburg’s cousin Saskia, a union which as the daughter of the former Mayor of Leeuwarden effectively secured his financial future.
Making the most of his higher-profile and increasing popularity he began to focus on the more lucrative art of portraiture – the commissions began to roll in.
It was as if he lived a charmed life.
But of course there is rarely such a thing and his later years would be beset with problems including being sued for breach-of-promise by an ex-lover, seeing his common-law wife convicted as a whore, and being forced to sell his family home and valuable art collection just to ward off bankruptcy.
When he needed friends there were few there for him but then the realism of his art reflected a blunt spoken manner that made him a difficult man to like for where honesty in art permits a certain forbearance honesty of opinion rarely does.
But truth in painting which became his leitmotif, the dirt under his fingernails the brand motif – Rembrandt – did not despite his plain speaking reflect his dealings with people, and certainly his business affairs were not always as transparent as they might have been.
He also had a high opinion of himself not only of his abilities but his standing in the world represented perhaps in the some 90 times he chose to depict himself in different poses and throughout the various stages of his life.
Why he chose to do this remains debatable – was it simply ego, an existential treatment of the human condition, or a bitter representation of the ageing process?
But then Rembrandt loved art – he painted, he drew, he etched, he taught it, bought it, and collected it but such were the rough edges, the often harsh brushwork and thick dollops of paint it could almost appear that he did not.
Rembrandt never just painted, he attacked a project with a force unparalleled in the Baroque period which set him apart from other artists.
Appreciative of the nocturne he used darkness shaded by light not light as the magic lantern of all redemption and eternity, and he did so with an unflinching eye.
His refusal to treat art merely as honey for the eyes as led some since to accuse him of preferring the ugly and the profane to the serene and the beautiful, that painting should be a work of the imagination not an adjunct to the photographic process.
But it was exactly this, the delicate touch amongst all the frenzy, the eye for detail that saw Rembrandt respected, admired, and popular as an artist throughout his life even during the hard times – and it was what made him the Master of all Dutch Masters.
Syndics of the Drapers Guild
The Night Watch
Saskia van Uylenburg
The Prodigal Son in a Tavern
Landscape with a Mill
The Jewish Bride
The Abduction of Europa
Girl in a Picture Frame
Christ and His Disciples
Man in Armour
A Military Man
Man in a Golden Helmet (Disputed)