Rembrandt van Rijn is the most-known and was the most important artist active during the Dutch Golden Age. His unrivaled skills as a painter, printmaker, and draftsman are well recognized, as are events in his life. Born in Leiden and the son of a miller, Rembrandt began his artistic exercise in his home and moved to Amsterdam for a fleeting time to study with the history painter Pieter Lastman. Rembrandt then became an autonomous master in Leiden about 1625. By the time he relocated to Amsterdam in the early 1630s, his reputation as an artist and teacher was well established. At first Rembrandt succeeded in Amsterdam, as success in his personal and professional lives hurled him to the position of the city’s most important portrait and history painter during the 1630s and 1640s. During these years he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, bought a big house (today the Rembrandt House Museum), and oversaw a large workshop with many students. Rembrandt’s good lucky eventually abandoned him, and as his career advanced, his financial circumstances worsened. Declaring a form of bankruptcy in 1656, Rembrandt died in Amsterdam on October 4, 1669. He was buried four days later in a rented grave within the city’s Westerkerk (West Church).
REMBRANDT ON KRNN, 7/15: A multifaceted artist, talented in mediums of painting, drawing, and etching, renowned for his empathy for the human condition, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on this date in 1606. You are invited to listen as we “paint” a Rembrandt birthday playlist on Crosscurrents, 7/15 at 8 am.
He left no journals. No autobiographies. No letters aside from the occasional plea for patronage. His most considerable modern biography, no more than a few paragraphs in all, reveals little beyond the human capacity for understatement. “He was moved toward the art of painting and drawing,” the text reads. “It was clearly evident that he would one day become an exceptional painter.” The total of his known painterly philosophy amounts to six words: to produce die meeste ende die natureelste beweechlickheyt—or “the greatest and most natural movement”—a phrase whose precise meaning remains hotly contested to this day. In the annals of art history, there are those whose stories remain shrouded by the passage of time. And then there is Rembrandt.
Never has such fame yielded so little historical record. Some four centuries on, this ambiguity has lent itself to a crowd of narratives about the immortal painter of The Night Watch (1642). Buried in an unmarked grave in 1669 “without a friend or a guilder, or even a good piece of herring,” as art historian Seymour Slive once wrote, Rembrandt’s body was not yet cold in the ground before his resurrection was underway. According to art critic Sylvia Hochfield, by the middle of the 18th century, “the ultimate outsider was becoming the ultimate misunderstood genius.” By the 19th century, Rembrandt was branded a rabble-rouser, a Romantic, a democratizer of the arts and society. In the 20th century, he had almost vaporized—reduced to a kind of ghostly spirit looming over a body of work deemed increasingly impossible to distinguish from that of his pupils.
What has appeared over time is a inconsistent composite: Rembrandt the sage; the lout; the populist; the snob. To accept any one label over another is, in a sense, to miss the point. For as with Rembrandt’s remarkable oeuvre, the truth is found not in parsing the artist’s various characteristics, but in learning to embrace the multiform whole.