The seventeenth century was a period of great splendour for Holland. Known as its Golden Age, Dutch commerce, science and art all reached their apex and thereby dominated the world. And Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters in history, was its apogee.
Born in Leiden in 1606, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn belonged to a middle-class family. He adored painting as a child and at the age of fourteen abandoned his studies to become apprenticed first to a well-known painter of the city and then to Pieter Lastman, whose studio was located in Amsterdam, the country’s new cultural capital.
During the seventeenth century, Europe was galvanised by Caravaggio’s revolutionary artistic style. By means of the clever use of light he managed to produce immensely realistic and dramatic paintings. Rembrandt learnt of his work and of the importance of light and shade during his apprenticeship.
At the beginning of his career, his paintings mainly featured biblical subjects, which were in vogue at the time. His talent soon acquired its due reputation and the artist started receiving commissions from some of the country’s most important individuals.
Around 1631, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the daughter of a rich family from Leeuwarden. This became Rembrandt’s most successful period: the country’s wealthier classes chased after him almost to grab a portrait, and his early masterpieces, such as The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, and the magnificent The Night Watch, soon followed.
Rembrandt’s technique was distinctive not only on account of the knowing use of chiaroscuro and the great attention paid to detail, but also, and indeed above all, for the ability to convey the subject’s state of mind, which created a strong feeling of empathy in anyone admiring his paintings.
Rembrandt’s tragic and unstoppable decline began as soon as he reached the height of his success. Three children died in infancy, to be followed by his wife, and overspending led to financial ruin.
During this period Rembrandt abandoned his recognised style in favour of one which appeared less well-prepared. Quite possibly opinion of the time was not yet ready for this new Rembrandt, and he slid into obscurity.
After being forced to sell his personal effects, house and paintings, he died a pauper at the age of 63.
Every stage of his life is witnessed in almost eighty self-portraits, starting as a young, talented artist hungry for success and ending at a point where even his brush could not hide the signs of a wretched destiny.
His last masterpieces came to be recognised as exceptional in later centuries. Nowadays Rembrandt is regarded quite simply as one of the greatest artists of all time.
Leiden, December 2017