Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) is one of the geniuses who built a new path in visual arts during the 17th century and created a new vision of the role and place of art in life.
He was born in Leiden in the distant 1606 year, on the territory of the newly established and booming Dutch Republic, a federation of seven districts liberated from the Spaniards after the 80-year War of Independence.
The historical moment when Rembrandt came in the world is very interesting.
The independent Dutch Republic was obsessed by a spirit of creation and a desire to bring into life everything new and advanced that has existed in the world. Amsterdam became one of the most flourishing ports in the world. Shipping and trade were developing quickly. New neighbourhoods emerged in cities, new roads were built, and many administrative and private buildings. At a local level, industrial and technical revolution took place; modern production technologies, new modes of transport and trade were introduced.
For the small Netherlands, the 17th century was a great period known in history as a golden age in its development. During this time the foundations of its greatness and its recognised role in the world in the coming centuries were laid.
Sometimes it is not known whether the visual arts follow the technological development, adopting new techniques of depiction of reality, or with the way of interpreting and recreating reality, the art itself is a prerequisite for the turbulent progress of some nation.
In the 17th century, Dutch art underwent a tremendous change.
As part of the Flemish school, the Dutch visual art undoubtedly has its great personalities so far. Globally recognized names are those of the artists Jan van Eyck, Jheronimus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel de Oude, Pieter Brueghel de Jonge, Jan Brueghel de Oude, Peter Paul Rubens. They created pearls of painting, magnificent and mysterious reflections of reality. Their works brighten the halls of the world’s best galleries and inspire generations of artists and art lovers.
The undisputed big name in the Dutch painting in the 17th century, however, is Rembrandt.
Rembrandt is a genius, a pioneer in visual art. In his short and turbulent sixty-three years’ life he created his own art school, trained many young students, introduced new techniques of work and left great artistic works.
He worked with incredible wingspan, giving all the best from himself, did not save his efforts and money, invested everything in its art. His students were so inspired by his style of painting and so strictly followed his artistic manner that modern art historians introduce the term “rembrandism” into art. This is a school of artists who use Rembrandt’s painting style.
In the 17th century, the Dutch painting school radically changed its meaning, and the religious functions of art were replaced by civil ones.
This is a period of complete transformation of the Dutch society. Religious ecstasy gave way to motivation for technical and economic development. The art did not stay away from the changes. From contractors to orders for religious purposes, artists become creators with their own voice, they created paintings for public use and works of personal importance.
In the 17th century in the Dutch school the genres landscape and portrait paintings dominated. The artists increasingly turned face to reality. An incredible number of portraits were painted – it is estimated that in a century in the Netherlands over one million portraits were painted! Both individual, family and group portraits were painted. Group portraits left memory of the lifestyle and self-esteem of various society groups – doctors, merchants, bankers, guardians of public order, etc.
Less and less paintings with religious and mythological story lines were created. They were replaced by canvases of historical themes, commissioned for the decorating of various administrative buildings.
Landscapes, family and individual portraits became part of the interiors of rich citizens. Group portraits representing the standard of various society groups and historical paintings found application in buildings with public functions. With such works the revived Dutch nation affirmed its self-esteem, rethought its place in the world and its role in it.
At that time, many artists worked in the Netherlands, but few names remain in the art history.
It is Rembrandt’s name that remains to shine in the history of world fine art as the recognised emblem of painting of the revived Dutch nation during its golden age.
Why is Rembrandt glorious?
Rembrandt is of modest origin – he is son of a miller from Leiden, with a big family. His father was wealthy for his time. Seeing that his son was talented, he has enrolled him in the the University of Leiden. Rembrandt interrupted his training and became a private student of the local artist Jakob van Svanenburg, about whom a little is known. Later he went to Amsterdam and trained briefly with the artist Pieter Lastman, who was known to have travelled in Italy and to have learned from the art of Italian Renaissance masters.
Very quickly Rembrandt realised his strength and his gift, and began to work independently at the age of nineteen years. Together with his friend Jan Lievens, he opened an artistic atelier in Amsterdam and began to train his first students in visual art. There Rembrandt became a member of the local Artists Guild.
During the first years of his creative life Rembrandt painted mainly portraits of contemporaries, canvases with religious and mythological storyline. During this time, he created his first graphic works, which also bear the recognisable characteristics of his unique talent.
Among his first works a strong impression make his allegories – small paintings of philosophical character.
The young Rembrandt painted five allegories on the five senses depicting eyesight, hearing, touching, taste and smell. So far, four of them have been found, except for his allegory of taste. In these early paintings his talent to work with colours can be seen, and here still the range is very cheerful, full-coloured. His ability to understand and depict human emotions and states can be also observed. In his allegories we feel almost physically the people emotions – curiosity, patience, suffering, compassion, ridicule, fear… A whole range of emotional states is recreated with a tremendous talent. Rembrandt is an incredible psychologist; this is one of his distinctive qualities as an artist. His allegorical works are unique, and their value will increase over time.
Rembrandt has tendency to analyses and rethinking life and societal values. He has a natural, very modern interest in science and technical inventions. He is definitely a very talented and wide-minded person, with modern thinking, up to date even in our days.
One of my favourite works is “The Philosopher in Meditation” – a work with exceptional artistic value and philosophical depth. It is also known under the name “Tobit and Anna”, characters from the Old Testament.
In a cosy little niche, under a spiralling wooden staircase, the blind Tobit is meditating. He sits in front of a large window through which the sun’s rays are entering, which he feels but does not see. At the bottom of the room there is a fireplace, and his wife Anna is stoking the fire.
Tobit and Anna are among the favourite Rembrandt’s characters from the Old Testament. This is a very small picture, with the technique “oil on canvas” and sizes only 28 x 34 cm. It hides an incredible philosophical charge. The picture asks a lot of questions – about the meaning of knowledge, about seeing, about warmth and light, about family cosiness and the meaning of togetherness… Eternal questions that will be asked always and whose answers people will always look for.
This painting was painted in 1632 year, when Rembrandt was only twenty-six years old! Incredible depth of thought and maturity of artistic interpretation for such a young man.
Here we can observe his development as an artist and the changing way of painting. The colours become muted, in the typical black, brown, red, gold and yellow, which prevail in its later creative period. Its ability to work with light is also unique, emphasising the way how the sun rays penetrate a room and illuminate objects and people.
We can also see another typical Rembrandt artistic technique – the drama-like arrangement of space. The interiors in his paintings and the structure of the portraits have a strong dramatic power. On each of them strong theatrical, opera or movie scenes can be created. Some contemporary art critics even claim that Rembrandt has a kind of cinematographic thinking.
Throughout his life Rembrandt reflected life in all variety of manifestations – from joy to sadness, from birth to death, from riches to poverty, from pride to humiliation…
In his early years, Rembrandt loved to walk around the outskirts of Leiden and Amsterdam and created powerful and impressing graphic images of the saw. Despite the turbulent development of the cities, his pictures show how life was different in the outskirts. The reality there seemed sad. Abandoned mills, old village huts, beggars. Even in Amsterdam’s richest years, Rembrandt liked to walk in the streets of the poorer neighbourhoods, to communicate with ordinary people and to paint… His graphics are impressing reflections of the reality.
He also bought an expensive and modern printing technique, and printed engravings of the reality in hundreds of copies. That made his art very popular. With fame surely envy and misunderstanding came…
Typical for many of the Rembrandt’s graphics and engravings are their multi layer structure and their complex composition. It is amazing in what small area he could depict complex and context rich mythological and religious scenes.
Rembrandt also made a lot of graphic full stature portraits to his poor contemporaries – poor people, old people, beggars, vagrants. Probably he puzzled his colleagues, who were focused on finding bigger commissions and in the fulfilment of well-paid orders.
While many artists of this time used graphic sketches as a prelude to painting, the graphics and engravings of Rembrandt are in themselves completed works, with their own meaning and value.
His graphical techniques are incredibly powerful! His drawing style is tender and delicate in some places – in drawing faces and in the space around the people; but at the same time it could also look confident and dense – in the clothes, in the depiction of the gestures, the movements and postures of the body.
In the Rembrandt’s graphics is evident the incredible goodness of this original artist, disobeying of any canon. Often his goodness is mixed with a sad ridicule. In The Holy Family, for example, the Holy Mother is nursing her holy baby, tenderly holding him and watching him with great affection, while during that time the Holy Father is reading a book. Rembrandt paints even the most famous and used story lines with so much affection, with such mastery. Its graphics can hardly be forgotten.
Rembrandt had a tough life and three great loves, each of which left him devastated in a different way.
His life went through great wealth and fame as one of the most famous and sought after Dutch artists, but ended in poverty and loneliness. In his youth he lived in a wasteful manner. He got a great inheritance from his beloved first wife Saskia, made a very good profit, built a wonderful home in Amsterdam, bought a printing press, invested a lot of money in painting and other valuables that has used for interiors in his paintings and for his model clothes. He lived as a true god, with delight and brilliance … After his wife’s death, afflicted with grief and at great expense, Rembrandt bankrupted.
The creditors sold all of his property, almost all valuable items and his own paintings are sold to repay his duties. They say his creditors weren’t too harsh on him… He’s thanking them with a group portrait.
Rembrandt outlived all his loved ones, except for his last child. There are different versions of where he was buried, but according to the most popular he was laid in a grave for the poor, like Mozart. Sad is the fate of the great geniuses… They often die alone and misunderstood. The future values them more than the present.
Like other great artists, Rembrandt loved to look at himself and paint himself. He left about ninety self-portraits, from his early youth to the last year of his life. Here comes he to us from his portraits – he looks impatient, mocking, challenging, thoughtful, confident, calm. There is no shadow of regret or doubt in his eyes.
A great artist and a man dedicated to great art. A man who I feel my friend and contemporary. He is great, like life itself!