There are a plethora of myths concerning Rembrandt,
as there are about many famous painters. Moviemakers
and novel writers who elaborate upon reality for dramatic
effect often foster these fictional accounts. The fact that
Holland, Rembrandt's homeland, had a preponderance of
artists and very few writers, means much was painted and
very little was written. Therefore, we have very few facts
about the famous painters that made up the Golden Era of
Dutch Painting during the mid-seventeenth century.
Unlike Van Gogh, who wrote his brother a prodigious
amount of letters over the years, only seven letters have
been found from Rembrandt - and all to the same man
about an art project. But time and research are our friends,
and if nothing else, we are learning what facts are not true.
To understand what is truly remarkable about the works of Rembrandt, and his contemporaries, it is necessary to understand the events in their homeland at the time. The Netherlands means, The Low Lands. They consisted of 17 provinces that had been under the domination of Catholic Spain. The seven northern provinces fought and won their independence and formed The United Provinces of the Netherlands, the Dutch nation. Holland was the richest and best known of these seven provinces, so most people called the new republic - Holland. While the remaining ten southern provinces remained Catholic and dominated by Spain, The United Provinces were Protestant, democratic, egalitarian, and tolerant of other religions. They were the first to openly welcome the Jewish people exiled from Spain and Portugal. It quickly became the richest country in the world, due to its access to the waterways, shipping, and the good fortunes of The Dutch East Indian Company and their domination of world trade.
Amsterdam was the most important town of the Dutch Republic and its citizens enjoyed freedom, prosperity, education, and an appreciation of art. No longer financed by the royals and the church - artists were free to paint other subject matter, patronized by everyday citizens. These citizens, flush with money, commissioned family portraits. Merchant groups commissioned group portraits to hang in their headquarters. The cities commissioned murals to be hung in their city halls. Holland took Art into an entirely new direction. There were literally thousands of artists. Almost every household had original art upon its walls. Art became dominated by realism in the seventeenth century, which was later called the Baroque Period. Catholic countries were influenced by Italian art and drama, Dutch art mirrored nature. Dutch artists were extremely productive painting their world around them.
Rembrandt was the master of these paintings. And although he did die penniless, it was not for lack of respect as a painter - it was his lack of talent with handling money. His paintings were in demand up until his death. Rembrandt was born in Leiden, twenty-five miles south of Amsterdam, on July 15th, 1606. He attended Latin school until he was fourteen and his artistic talent was recognized early. From one of his teachers, he learned the style of chiaroscuro, the device of using light and shadow for dramatic affect. It was a skill that he perfected beyond all others. Moving to Amsterdam permanently when he was 25 years old, he remained there the rest of his life. It is believed he never traveled. His full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van rijn (which literally means Rembrandt - son of Harmen, who lived on the Rhine River). His father Harmen, was a prosperous malt-miller who supplied malt to the local beer industry and had a mill on the Rhine. Rembrandt was the eighth of nine children, of whom only four survived into adulthood. He was the most talented of the four surviving boys, and the only one that became an artist.
In Amsterdam, Rembrandt quickly became well known and respected for portrait painting. He married Saskia, the niece of a well-to-do art dealer. Saskia entered the marriage with a considerable dowry.The couple bought a wonderful four story, fashionable house, where Rembrandt remained for twenty years, and where he painted his most famous paintings. The house is open for viewing today and is wonderful to experience. Saskia had borne a son, Titas, after three failed pregnancies. The pregnancies did irreparable harm to her health, and she died when the infant was only nine months old. In possibly the most famous of his paintings, The Night Watch, the face of the small girl glowing in white, is the face of Saskia. Rembrandt was working on the painting when Saskia passed away. Rembrandt raised his son with the help of household help - first
Geertje, with whom he had an affair. She was then replaced with the younger Hendrickje when she came to work at the house. Hendrickje and Rembrandt lived in a common law marriage - unable to marry because of a stipulation in Siskia's will. If Rembrandt remarried he would have to forfeit the money from her dowery. He could not afford to do this so they lived together and raised Titas and had a daughter of their own. Years before his death, Rembrandt declared bankruptcy and had to sell the wonderful house, his paintings, and his enormous collection of artifacts, which had contributed to his debt. Hendrickje and Titas had preceded him in death. Titas was only twenty-seven and had an infant daughter, Titia. All three are buried in a cemetery of a local church, the Westerkerk. It is not known which grave is Rembrandt's. He died in 1669, at the age of sixty- three, owning only his paints. But what a wonderful legacy he left all of us. The fact that he painted so many self-portraits was not ego alone. It was an opportunity for ruthless observation of reality, plus portraits of artists were in demand. Today, the lucky Amsterdam visitor can visit the Rijksmuseum, the home of Rembrandt's works. Standing in front of the 16 foot by 14 foot Night Watch is worth the trip. Only a five-minute walk away is the Van Gogh Museum. Van Gogh was another resident of Amsterdam. Visiting the Rijksmuseum in 1885, Vincent sat transfixed in front of Rembrandt's painting, The Jewish Bride and said, "Do you know that I would give ten years of my life if I could sit here before this picture a fortnight, with nothing but a crust of dry bread for food." This past summer, many of Rembrandt's paintings were absent from the Rijksmuseum as it is being refurbished. Luckily, when passing through London on the way home, the National Gallery, was presenting Dutch Portraits, The Age of Rembrandt and Frans Hals. This wonderful presentation, plus the impressive Rembrandt Room that the gallery has upstairs, added yet more to a comprehension of his wonderful legacy. I agree with Van Gogh, if one stands in front of these magnificent paintings and looks - really looks - it is a mesmerizing experience. Touring Rembrandt's home in Amsterdam and standing in his studio is awe-inspiring. As the light reflects from the canal and streams through the large windows, one can almost feel the artist and his students at work in this room. The house has an almost complete collection of Rembrandt's extraordinary etchings and his pressroom as well. Dutch artists, Rembrandt being perhaps the greatest, had a profound effect upon future art. Two hundred years later, the Impressionists were inspired by their innovations. The Dutch painters were truly ahead of their time.