13 November, 2018

Rembrandt - The Master of Light and Darkness?

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is considered one of the greatest Dutch painters of his age and an important figure among European Art.

Renowned for his portraits, paintings of biblical scenes and etchings, he was able to use shadow and light to dramatically increase the potency of his works and create a new dynamic for viewing artworks.

How? Within the same artwork, you can see pockets of light and areas of deep darkness that culminate into a truly vivid artwork.

Early Life

Rembrandt was born to a miller in the Dutch city of Leiden in 1606. Raised in a comfortable background, he was able to attend Latin school and when he turned 14, he was already at the University of Leiden. 

It was quite unusual for the son of a miller to be at University but that lifestyle did not suit Rembrandt and he left to start an apprenticeship as a painter.

Splitting his career between Leiden and Amsterdam, Rembrandt studied under two masters who each played a significant part on the emerging painter's career. 

Leiden Period

One of Rembrandt's earliest mentors was Jacob van Swanenburgh. Staying with him for about three years, he was able to learn the basics of painting. 

What's interesting about Swanenburgh was his specialisation in Hell and the Underworld. The way he was able to paint elements like fire but capture the light reflecting off objects influenced Rembrandt in his future artworks.

In 1624, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam to begin a new apprenticeship with Pieter Lastman. After the end of that apprenticeship, the now master painter Rembrandt moved back to Leiden and set up a workshop with Jan Lievens.

Amsterdam Period

Rembrandt was on the move again and in 1631, finally settled in Amsterdam as a portrait painter. After making a name for himself, he was able to secure his first major commission, 'The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp' (1632).

Whilst living in Amsterdam, Rembrandt became the tenant of an art dealer called Hendrick van Uylenburgh. It was this relationship where Rembrandt met and married Hendrick's cousin, Saskia in 1634.

Rembrandt's career was prospering and reached new levels where he started painting mythological works, religious works and portraits. This new fame and wealth motivated Rembrandt to live a comfortable life and spend lavishly on art, antiquities, weapons and more for his paintings.

The Decline of Rembrandt and Family Tragedies

Two years after marrying Saskia, they had a son called Rumbartus but he died after two weeks. This was a similar story for their next two children.

In the 1650s, Amsterdam went through an economic hit and this came at a time when Rembrandt was building an extravagant home and ended up declaring bankruptcy 6 years later. A lot of his works were sold for significantly low money and he moved to a poorer part of Amsterdam as he sought to kickstart his career again. 

In 1641, his fourth child called Titus was born. However, Saskia was overcoming illness and passed away. She left her fortune to her husband and son.

Trivia - Rembrandt struck a relationship with his son's nurse and later, their housekeeper.

Famous Works by Rembrandt

There are countless works by Rembrandt which are renowned. He was a creative that found inspiration anywhere and everywhere, it's illustrated in the various sketchbooks he kept. Passers-by, streets, lanes, houses, fields and more. 

This inspiration, combined with an ability to work with a variety of materials and techniques, helped him to achieve a remarkable composition. In particular, an uncanny ability to capture deep emotions within his subjects but in a natural and realistic way. It his firm belief that emotions superceded other aspects of life. 

The Night Watch (1642)

Commissioned by the leader of the civic guard of Amsterdam, this painting is Rembrandt's largest and measures at 379.5cm high and 453.5cm wide.

Rembrandt was asked to create a group portrait of Amsterdam’s civic guard to be placed in their meeting halls. Rembrandt chose to capture them moving out which at the time was unconventional.

You can see the captain and his lieutenant front and centre with the captain ordering his lieutenant to move the men out. You can see Rembrandt's masterful use of light as it shows an almost illuminated girl holding a chicken. 

This painting can be found in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour and attracts 2m people a year.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Only 25 when he painted this, Rembrandt was able to achieve a full transition from Leiden to Amsterdam with this piece. 

It was commissioned by the Guild of Amsterdam Surgeons for an anatomy lesson given by Dr Nicolaes Tulp,

Rembrandt depicted Dr. Nicolaes Tulp holding the forearm of a corpse to demonstrate the inner workings of a muscle whilst the surgeons around him wonder at different things in amazement.

This painting is located in the Mauritshuis, Netherlands.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

Part of the famous Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist in 1990 where an estimated $500m worth of art was stolen, this is one of Rembrandt’s most dramatic images.

Measuring 5 feet high and over 4 feet wide, there are so many talking points. First of all, the setting is a violent storm striking the boat with dark clouds swarming in the sky. You can see that the mainsail is in half while Jesus and his disciples are frantically trying to stay afloat, vomiting or holding the boat together.

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar (1659)

This painting was completed around 10 years before his death and also in the midst of financial ruin.

Rembrandt is said to have painted over 100 portraits. 'Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar' is considered one of his best as it shows a fantastic journey of self-exploration. Not only for its depth and clarity but the expression of Rembrandt in the midst of turmoil.

This painting is located in the National Gallery of Art East Building.

The Three Trees (1643)

Quite a phenomenal etching, The Three Trees is one of Rembrandt's largest etched landscape. Using the countryside of Amsterdam as a setting, he achieved varying levels of light, darkness, tones and depth of lines to capture nature at its finest. 

You can pinpoint a couple fishing, an artist sketching on the hill and another couple hidden in bushes.

Majestically drawn, Rembrandt is commended as drawing one of the deepest representations of our natural world ever seen!

Final Words

Rembrandt's mastery of light and composition earned him the mantle of one of the most celebrated European artists in history.

His ability to capture human emotions, to the extent they are life-like, is alive in all the paintings he created.

You can even see this in the self-portraits he completed during his most turbulent times.

After Rembrandt died, his legacy evolved as he became regarded as a romantic and also a misunderstood genius.

The house he purchased during the highs of his career is today known as the Rembrandt House Museum where you can view an array of his paintings. 

What's your favourite painting? Hit the share button and let us know!

Artist Spotlight: Rembrandt
Artist Spotlight: Rembrandt
Artist Spotlight: Rembrandt
Artist Spotlight: Rembrandt
Artist Spotlight: Rembrandt