Dutch painter and etcher Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born 15 July 1606. His contributions to art came during a period of great wealth and cultural achievement that historians call the Dutch Golden Age which was very different to the Baroque style that dominated Europe, he was extremely prolific and innovative. As a boy he attended Latin school and was enrolled at the University of Leiden, although according to a contemporary he had a greater inclination towards painting and was soon apprenticed to a Leiden history painter, Jacob van Swanenburgh, with whom he spent three years. After a brief but important apprenticeship of six months with the famous painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden in 1624 or 1625, which he shared with friend and colleague Jan Lievens. In 1627, Rembrandt began to accept students, among them Gerrit Dou. In 1629, Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Dutch mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens, who procured commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646.
The Polish Rider
In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, then rapidly expanding as the new business capital of the Netherlands, and began work as a professional portrait artist with great success. Throughout his career the themes of portraiture, landscape and narrative painting were his primary subjects and he produced over 600 paintings, nearly 400 etchings and 2,000 drawings including a number of biblical works, including The Raising of the Cross, Joseph Telling His Dreams and The Stoning of Saint Stephen, he was especially praised by his contemporaries, who extolled him as a masterly interpreter of biblical stories for his skill in representing emotions and attention to detail.During Rembrandt’s Leiden period (1625–1631) his Paintings were rather small, but rich in details (for example, in costumes and jewelry). Religious and allegorical themes were favored. In 1626 Rembrandt produced his first etchings, the wide dissemination of which would largely account for his international fame In 1629 he completed Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver and The Artist in His Studio, works that evidence his interest in the handling of light and variety of paint application, and constitute the first major progress in his development as a painter.
Between 1632 and 1636 Rembrandt painted dramatic biblical and mythological scenes in high contrast and of large format (The Blinding of Samson, 1636, Belshazzar’s Feast, c. 1635 Danaë, 1636), seeking to emulate the baroque style of Rubens. With the occasional help of assistants in his workshop, he painted numerous portrait commissions both small (Jacob de Gheyn III) and large (Portrait of the Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, 1633, Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, By the late 1630s Rembrandt had produced a few paintings and many etchings of landscapes. Often these landscapes highlighted natural drama, featuring uprooted trees and ominous skies (Cottages before a Stormy Sky, and The Three Trees. From 1640 his work became less exuberant and more sober in tone, possibly reflecting personal tragedy. Biblical scenes were now derived more often from the New Testament than the Old Testament, as had been the case before. In 1642 he painted The Night Watch and in the decade following the Night Watch, Rembrandt’s paintings varied greatly in size, subject, and style. The previous tendency to create dramatic effects primarily by strong contrasts of light and shadow gave way to the use of frontal lighting and larger and more saturated areas of color.
However these graphic works of natural drama eventually made way for quiet Dutch rural scenes and by the 1650s, Rembrandt’s style changed again. Colors became richer and brush strokes more pronounced. With these changes, Rembrandt distanced himself from earlier work and current fashion, which increasingly inclined toward fine, detailed works. In later years biblical themes were still depicted often, but emphasis shifted from dramatic group scenes to intimate portrait-like figures (James the Apostle, 1661). In his last years, Rembrandt painted his most deeply reflective self-portraits, and several moving images of both men and women in love, in life, and before God.Although he achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for twenty years he taught many important Dutch painters. Rembrandt’s greatest creative triumphs are exemplified especially in his portraits of his contemporaries, self-portraits and illustrations of scenes from the Bible. His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity. In his paintings and prints he exhibited knowledge of classical iconography, which he molded to fit the requirements of his own experience; thus, the depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Rembrandt sadly passed away on 4th October 1669) but his legacy lives on in the form of many wonderful paintings and because of his empathy for the human condition, he is also sometimes referred to as “one of the great prophets of civilization.”