Rembrandt: Prodigy of light and shadow

Dutch painter of the 17th century Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is best known for his 1642 work “The Night Watch” and his many self-portraits.

The Baroque painter deviated from the accepted style of his day in order to further his ambition of becoming the greatest storyteller in art. He focused on never-before-seen episodes that evoked strong emotions in viewers. He also shied away from idealization and worked relentlessly to test out new painting and etching methods, light and shadow effects, and methods of inviting the audience into his work. In spite of his personal and professional difficulties in his latter life, Rembrandt is still one of the few painters who is known just by his first name. There are about 290 autograph etchings within Rembrandt’s 329 oil paintings. Only 21 of the surviving drawings have his signature.

Rembrandt’s early life

rembrandt young 1627
Young Rembrandt, 1627.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), son of a miller, was born on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, the Netherlands. Three of Rembrandt’s younger siblings died as infants, making him the second youngest of 10 children. The natives of Leiden, Harmen Gerritsz (1567/68-1630) and Neeltgen Willemsdr van Zuytbrouck (c. 1568-1640), were his parents. Rembrandt’s father was a prosperous middle-class citizen.

The Harmen Gerritsz family had owned their malt mill for four generations. The name “de Rijn” was given to the repurposed mill because of its riverside position on the Rhine. This is why Harmen Gerritsz was referred to as Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn from the turn of the 17th century forward. There was a modest cottage at Weddesteeg 25 where Rembrandt and his family resided, just across from the mill. Leiden, after Amsterdam, was the biggest city in the Dutch Republic in the 17th century.

At first glance, Rembrandt looked destined for a more academic career. Rembrandt, unlike his brothers, was not given any kind of business education, but rather was sent to the Latin school at Leiden. He attended this school where he was also taught how to paint supposedly around 1613. Perhaps he had shown more promise intellectually than his siblings, or perhaps his parents had higher expectations for him. Rembrandt probably possessed a rudimentary understanding of Greek, arithmetic, geography, and calligraphy because of his time spent at Latin school, where he also acquired Latin and rhetoric.

On May 16, 1620, around the age of 14, his parents enrolled Rembrandt as a student at Leiden University. His early admission should not be seen as evidence of his precocious intelligence. It’s likely that Rembrandt’s parents registered him in school only to guarantee him a spot; Rembrandt never really attended classes. New evidence suggests that he maintained his matriculation status until at least 1622.

Apprenticeship with Van Swanenburg and Lastman

By which time he was already fluent in Latin, he quickly understood that academic life was not for him. Instead, he went to study under the painter Jacob van Swanenburgh because he was fascinated by the arts. Swanenburgh was famous with his cityscape and hell depictions. Van Swanenburg was the son of Isaac Claesz van Swanenburg, the most well-known painter in Leiden during the second half of the 16th century (1537–1614). While living and working in Venice, Rome, and Naples, Isaacsz van Swanenburg finished his own schooling.

In 1621, when Rembrandt was 15 years old, he started an apprenticeship with Van Swanenburg. About three years passed while he was working under Van Swanenburg’s tutelage. No examples of his work during his apprenticeship are still around. It was common practice to teach apprentices to draw in perspective by having them sketch out complex models of various items. The greatest problem for any artist, however, was to sketch “from the head” rather than from life. This included making up characters or whole settings in a picture.

Following his likely completion of an apprenticeship with Van Swanenburg in 1624, Rembrandt spent the winter of 1624/1625 in Amsterdam, working in the studio of Pieter Lastman (1583-1633) for another six months. Lastman was the most important historical painter in the Dutch Republic. This was Rembrandt’s first chance to spend any extended time in Amsterdam. Six months into his time at Lastman, though, Rembrandt was ready to go out on his own. This indicates that he started training with him at a very high level of ability.

Earlier works: Rembrandt’s first studio in Leiden

The Stoning of St. Stephanus
The Stoning of Saint Stephen, 1625.

When he was only 18 years old in 1625 Rembrandt founded his first private studio in his birthplace of Leiden, where his early paintings such as The Stoning of Saint Stephanus (Lyon) and other etchings from 1625/26 came from. Initially, Rembrandt marked his early works with the monogram ‘RHL’, for Rembrandt, son of Harmens, of Leiden. He linked up with Jan Lievens, also a student in Lastman’s class but a year younger and already an experienced artist. They exchanged models, props, subjects and experimental approaches.

There, he focused on refining his skills and veering away from too academic approaches. He eventually began accepting a larger number of pupils as word of his rising success spread.

Rembrandt’s first signed and dated works—one is dated 1625 and five are dated 1626—leave little doubt that the miller’s son went way beyond the simple mastery of Lastman’s technique. He took up the painting style of Pieter Lastman—like his vivid palette. To achieve this, he appropriated themes, compositions and painting methods from other painters. His primary specialty was biblical history painting. It was plainly crucial to Rembrandt that he recounted the tales in a fresh manner, providing a new meaning to older compositions.

Rembrandt The Music Party WGA19249 2
The Music Party, 1626.

The Music Party“, for example, displays four extravagantly dressed figures, three of whom compose music – a topic that Lastman never showed. Two of the four main characters genuinely wear oriental robes. The painting inside the painting shows the fleeing of Lot and his family from the city of Sodom. By this is expressed the ephemeral existence and the futility of pleasures and worldly riches. Some of these sequences may be identified as brothel scenes. Rembrandt’s scenario also had an erotic undertone. However, Rembrandt was the only one who outfitted his figures in authentic attire from the Middle East. Perhaps Rembrandt was meditating here on events with the envoy from Persia who had visited the Dutch Republic between February 1626 and March of the following year.

The up-and-coming painter eventually threw up Lastman’s bright colors in favor of delicate light and shadow direction. Despite the Calvinist restriction on pictures, Rembrandt and Lievens also used typical Catholic symbols in their works for their denominational, heterogeneous clientele, a priest figure or a Christian scholar such as St. Hieronymus (possibly selected because of the respected Albrecht Dürer). For study reasons, Rembrandt also painted the heads of usually elderly men, so-called tronie, sharing the models with Lievens and Rembrandt. The persistent quest for fresh compositional solutions is also shown by the fact that he constructed more than a quarter of the Leiden works on canvases that had previously been painted.

Due to his youthful spirit, Lievens breathes only that which is magnificent and lofty. He is not content with equaling the true scale of objects and figures in his paintings, but depicts them larger than life. By contrast, Rembrandt, wrapped up in his own art, loves to devote himself to a small painting and present an effect of concentration which one would seek in vain in the largest pieces of other artists.

Constantijn Huygens in his diary, c. 1629
rembrandt 1637
1637, Belshazzar’s Feast, Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 – 1669.

Both artists were given significant commissions by the governor’s court in The Hague thanks to the efforts of Constantijn Huygens, the art-loving secretary to Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange. Five paintings currently thought to belong to Rembrandt are included in the 1632 inventory. In addition to the famous “Presentation in the Temple,” another masterpiece by this artist is a 1632 portrait of Amalia von Solms, the governor’s wife and the most important sitter the artist ever had. Rembrandt was commissioned to create a series of Passion paintings between 1632 and 1646. When Huygens visited the governor’s court in The Hague in the winter of 1631, he might have introduced the two painters to the Flemish master Anthony van Dyck.

After these early accomplishments, Rembrandt was in high demand as a teacher. Gerard Dou, just 15 years old, was the first master pupil to enter the studio of a painter six years his senior in 1628. Once the year 1632 passed, Dou was able to cash in as the highly compensated leader of the Leiden School of Fine Painting. One of the pioneering pupils was Isaac de Jouderville. Jan van Vliet, a graphic artist, collaborated with Rembrandt.

Rembrandt’s portraits

Towards the end of 1631 or early 1632, Rembrandt relocated to Amsterdam, the biggest and most competitive art market in Northern Europe. Amsterdam was the center of worldwide commerce for the Republic of the United Netherlands. At first, Rembrandt was neither a citizen nor a member of the Painters’ Guild, so he had to stay with art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh. Nonetheless, Rembrandt had lent the trader a substantial amount of 1,000 guilders sometime prior to June 20, 1631. That Rembrandt did well at Leiden may be inferred from this.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp
Rembrandt’s group portrait, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632.

Prior to 1634, he painted mostly portraits, such as “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632, The Hague, Mauritshuis) for the Amsterdam painters’ guild. This piece was inspired by Rembrandt’s visit to the public section of the mugger Adriaen Adriaensz. Also known as Aris ‘t Kint, who was hanged for attacking a guy who was attempting to take his coat. It’s Rembrandt’s first attempt at a full-size historical painting or group portrait.

During this productive time, he established himself as a master on his own in Amsterdam and painted about half of all his portraits. Rembrandt became the city’s most in-demand portraitist due to his uncanny ability to delve deep into his subjects’ minds while also expertly rendering their robes (which often had velvet, fur trim, lace collars, or ruffs). The monogram “RHL” on early prints was now replaced by “Rembrandt”.

Between 1631 and 1633, the artist maintained a residence near Uylenburgh, worked out of his Leiden studio on a regular basis, and made occasional trips to The Hague and Rotterdam. Portraits of Amsterdam businessmen, the governor’s wife Princess Amalia von Solms, and the former royal chaplain and highly renowned head of the Remonstrant religion movement Preacher Johannes Wtenbogaert (1633) were painted by Rembrandt during these years. In 1633, Rembrandt made Amsterdam his permanent home and immediately joined Uylenburgh’s business.

His marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh

Saskia van Uylenburgh
Saskia van Uylenburgh by Rembrandt.

Rembrandt married Saskia Uylenburgh after he became a citizen of Amsterdam in 1634 and was accepted into the Guild of Saint Luke (1612–1642). Marrying Saskia van Uylenburgh, the niece of the art dealer who had taken Rembrandt in as a boarder, in 1634 catapulted him to the forefront of the creative world. Saskia made it possible for Rembrandt to mingle with the affluent, which led to an uptick in commissions.

While Rembrandt’s career as an artist was thriving, he experienced a series of devastating tragedies. Two of his infant children passed away. Rembrandt and his wife had just moved into a nice home in the Jewish district, and they now had their third child, but sadly, the child was not expected to live very long either. Titus, the only son of the couple’s four children, made it to maturity.

After their marriage, the couple had moved out of Uylenburgh’s home and into leased quarters in 1635, with Govaert Flinck running the workshop in Uylenburgh’s absence until 1644. On January 5, 1639, Rembrandt bought the museum that would later bear his name and be located on the Sint Antoniesbreestraat.

Loans were the primary source of funding for this purchase, and the fact that Rembrandt was one of the “most renowned painters of the century” according to city historian Jan Jansz Orlers helped him get them. Rembrandt stuffed the home with paintings and oddities for both personal enjoyment and potential buyers.

As an example, he bought a number of copies of Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut cycle “The Life of the Virgin” at auction in March 1637, together with a number of shells, drawings, and prints from the estate of painter Jan Bassé. A painting by Peter Paul Rubens titled “Hero and Leander” was purchased by Rembrandt on October 8, 1637, for the sum of 424 guilders (he resold it at a profit in 1644). There were dozens of up-and-coming artists looking for him to work with and learn from.

In June of 1642, at the age of 29, Saskia passed away. The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s most renowned painting, was finished that year. It was also in the 1640s that Rembrandt began focusing on landscapes as a subject for both his paintings and his etchings. Their fourth child, Titus, had a long and healthy life despite losing his mother Saskia, As long as he did not remarry, Rembrandt was given the “usufruct [enjoyment]” of her money.

Rembrandt’s first mistress was Titus’ nanny, Geertje Dircx. So, Rembrandt never worked alone. Rembrandt’s kid was now being cared for by Geertje Dircx, his lover since 1643, and the artist’s prolific output was not interrupted by this union. In 1649, the painter’s new lover was interned, leaving Rembrandt in solitude again. However, Rembrandt soon made his young nursemaid Hendrickje Stoffels his partner. In little time at all, she was one of his top muses. Cornelia, their daughter, was born from this marriage, although the Church frowned upon it since the parents weren’t married.

Rembrandt’s bankruptcy

Rembrandt became bankrupt in 1656 and had to sell several of the pieces in his collection that he had become especially close to because of the financial crisis. The sale included his home. His son put him under guardianship shortly thereafter.

The artist’s financial condition worsened drastically beginning in 1653, when he had to borrow the 8,470 guilders necessary to complete the installation of the home he had purchased in 1639. Because of her alleged “harlotry with the painter Rembrandt,” Hendrickje Stoffels was barred from taking communion on June 25, 1654, and her daughter Cornelia was born to an unwed mother.

Rembrandt sold his artworks between December 1655 and January 1656 to settle his obligations. On February 1, 1658, the home was repossessed after Rembrandt filed for honorable bankruptcy the previous year. Only four etchings were produced by 1664, so it’s safe to assume that Rembrandt lost his printing machine as a consequence.

The once-famous artist received a contract to decorate Amsterdam’s brand-new municipal hall in 1660. In his signature late manner, he painted the “Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis.” After a few years, his picture was replaced with a similar one by Govert Flinck, which hung in the town hall instead.

Tragedy after tragedy

Hendrickje and Titus established an art gallery together, from which Rembrandt’s debtors were barred. But the death of the painter’s lover Hendrickje to the plague in 1663 was another tragic loss. In 1668, his son Titus passed away.

The classic work The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt was completed that year. After witnessing the birth of his granddaughter Titia, Rembrandt passed away in Amsterdam on October 4, 1669, having lived a life of extreme obscurity. The Rembrandt family line ended with Titia’s death since she had no children.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn Return of the Prodigal Son
The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669, by Rembrandt

A year before his death in 1668, the Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici paid a visit to the “renowned painter” Rembrandt, whose paintings were not comprehended by most of his contemporaries.

Rembrandt passed away in a squalid Amsterdam slum in 1669, and he probably died of grief. Beyond the boundaries of the republic, his reputation as a printmaker in the 17th century spread far and wide. After his death, the later German and French painters and art theorists of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries recognized Rembrandt’s talent and gave him a meteoric rise to the highest international rank.

Rembrandt’s style

Rembrandt developed a signature style characterized by the use of the chiaroscuro style’s dark and bright areas. In 1631, when recognition of his abilities grew, he uprooted and settled in Amsterdam. In little time at all, the artist was inundated with requests for commissioned portraits and historical depictions. He painted the Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Nicolaes Tulp as early as 1632. The bourgeoisie was instantly drawn in by the lesson’s grand presentation and the heroization of the doctor and the notables who received it.

Rembrandt’s works took on more of a Baroque style when he wedded Saskia van Uylenburgh; this is notably true of his religious and historical compositions, where the use of vivid colors and dramatic close-ups of action became hallmarks. He was often compared to Rubens, but he distinguished himself by his use of chiaroscuro, which highlights the figures’ facial expressions and emotional states.

Rembrandt maintained his career as a painter with his other lover, Geertje Dircx, mostly by creating self-portraitslandscapes, and biblical works. His paintings from this period have a classical leaning. Artistically, Rembrandt explored other mediums outside painting, including sketching and etching (Hundred Guilder PrintThe Three TreesThe Little Grave). To this day, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s use of chiaroscuro is regarded as one of the most innovative and influential in the history of art. In addition to being a painter, draftsman, and engraver, he is best known as the creator of Night Watch.

Rembrandt’s Night Watch

Rembrandts Night Watch
Rembrandt’s Night Watch

But although Rembrandt was badly affected by the deaths of his wife and three of his four children, the painter went on to have a successful career. Rembrandt painted The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, also known as The Night Watch, in 1642, the year after the loss of his wife. Rembrandt was tasked with painting a group portrait of the city guard, and he achieved a sense of movement and emotion befitting Baroque art with his composition and use of light and shadow. The scene is so dim that it seems like nighttime, even though it really takes place during the day.

Rembrandt’s self-portraits

Rembrandts self portrait
Rembrandt self-portrait, 1660

After gaining experience and insight, Rembrandt matured as an artist and achieved a level of skill in a manner distinct from the Baroque (Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, 1661). He kept up the prolific output of self-portraits he’d started in the first place, constantly stressing the intensity of the stare (Self-Portrait at the Easel, 1660).

Rembrandt was a gifted artist who had a significant impact on the visual culture of his day. As time went on, his grand compositions with baroque tendencies gave way to more somber and modest pieces, but he never lost sight of his central concern: the expression of human emotions. Using masterful chiaroscuro techniques, he amplified the emotional resonance of the portrayed moments. Artists as diverse as Goya, Delacroix, Picasso, and many more owe much to him as a master.

Students and pupils of Rembrandt

About half a dozen of Rembrandt’s pupils are well-known today; several went on to establish themselves as successful artists in their own right, such as the painter and art critic Samuel van Hoogstraten, one of his most important students.

Rembrandt used his pupils as a way to spread out the huge fixed expenditures involved with maintaining a big home and a constantly expanding art collection. Constantijn van Renesse was one of the many amateurs, or “dilettanti,” who made up the bulk of his students.

In addition to the 2 to 2500 guilders he earned through his own labor, Rembrandt received 100 guilders per year from each of the “almost innumerable noble children” who visited his home in Amsterdam for instruction and teaching, according to Joachim von Sandrart, who lived in the city from 1637 to 1645. Rembrandt is known to receive grinding tools and copper pieces from one of his apprentices.

  1. Gerard Dou (1613–1675; pupil February 1628) – the first pupil of Rembrandt at the age of 15.
  2. Isaac de Jouderville (1613–1674; student 1629).
  3. Govert Flinck (student around 1635/36): When Rembrandt set up his own business, Flinck rose to become workshop manager.
  4. Ferdinand Bol (student around 1636–1641).
  5. Branded van den Eeckhout (student around 1635–1638/39).
  6. Carel Fabritius (pupil 1641).
  7. Bernhard Keil (pupil 1642–1644)
  8. Samuel van Hoogstraten (student 1642/43–1646/47).
  9. Christoph Paudiss (1630–1666; student in the second half of the 1640s).
  10. Nicolaes Maes (pupil c. 1650–1653)
  11. Gottfried Kneller (1646–1723; student 1660s)
  12. Arent de Gelder (1645–1727; student around 1661–1662/63)

Which artists were influenced and inspired by Rembrandt?

  • Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione
  • Jonathan Richardson
  • William Hogarth
  • Thomas Hudson
  • Joseph Wright of Derby
  • Alan Ramsay
  • Sir Henry Raeburn
  • Sir Thomas Lawrence
  • Francisco de Goya
  • Eugène Delacroix
  • Adolf von Menzel
  • Honore Daumier
  • Rodolphe Bresdin
  • Edouard Manet
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Georges Seurat, invented pointillism
  • Anders Zorn
  • Max Liebermann
  • Lovis Corinth
  • Max Slevogt
  • Käthe Kollwitz
  • Max Beckman
  • Pablo Picasso
  • A. R. Penck
  • Gerhard Altenbourg
  • Arnulf Rainer
  • Horst Jansen
  • Marlene Dumas
  • William Kentridge


15 July 1606: Birth of Rembrandt

Born in Leiden to a family of some wealth, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn had a stellar education. However, Rembrandt rapidly realized that he was not suited for academic life and instead focused on his painting. He studied under Jacob van Swanenburgh, Pieter Lastman, and Jan Lievens, gaining skills in historical painting, drawing, and engraving.

The day of Rembrandt van Rijn’s birth remains a mystery. Jan Jansz Orlers, a bookseller and the mayor of Leiden, records Rembrandt’s birth on July 15, 1606 in his “Description of the City of Leiden” (1641). Two sources, however, state Rembrandt’s age. The first one, dated July 10, 1634, states that Rembrandt was 26 years old at the time. The second piece of evidence explains that Rembrandt was 46 years old on September 16, 1653. If he did, in fact, arrive into this world on July 15th, then his birth year is 1607 and not 1606.

1632: Rembrandt realizes “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp”

After just a year of living in Amsterdam, Rembrandt was given a significant commission. He was commissioned to make a group portrait, depicting Dr. Tulp offering an anatomy lesson to seven notables. The dissection of the body of a convicted man took place in the same year.

To this end, Rembrandt portrayed each man’s eyes to convey a look of intense inquiry and focus, which served to highlight the men’s status. Dark and light are used to great effect in this piece, giving the sense of motion and a real-life setting, both of which were goals of the artist.

22 June 1634: Rembrandt marries Saskia van Uylenburg

Rembrandt married the niece of his art dealer, with whom he had settled in 1631. Although he was already well-known, Rembrandt’s fame grew when he became friendly with the Dutch aristocracy, which led to an increase in requests for his services. There are a number of paintings in which he depicted his wife in elaborate costumes and props.

1642: Rembrandt realizes “The Night Watch”

Rembrandt painted “The Night Watch” (1642) after “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632). The use of chiaroscuro highlighted key elements of the image and gave the impression of motion. This painting went down in history as one of the artist’s most important pieces since it so accurately captured the era’s predominant Baroque aesthetic.

June 14, 1642: Rembrandt loses his wife, Saskia

Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburg, passed away at the young age of 29 due to an illness. Three infant children had already been lost to the couple since their marriage in 1634. The fourth child, named Titus, was a healthy newborn when his mother Saskia passed away before he turned one.

The artist was devastated, but he couldn’t afford to stop working to pay off the mortgage on his Jewish Quarter home. When he needed help around the home, he recruited Geertje Dircx and eventually married her but their relationship quickly deteriorated. Hendrickje Stoffels, who cared for Rembrandt’s kid, became his new romantic lover.

1656: Rembrandt, bankrupt

The Supreme Court ruled that Rembrandt was bankrupt, and his possessions and paintings were liquidated. His income as a painter and instructor was significant, but he still had to take out loans to pay for the purchase of his Amsterdam home and maintain his current standard of living.

He was unable to stop the counting and auctioning off of his belongings. Everything of value in his art collection was auctioned. After that, the artist and his family moved out of the home and into a flat on Rozengracht since commissions had dried up. Rembrandt’s guardians, Hendrickje and her son Titus, opened a tiny art gallery there so that he could have a chance at survival.

1663: Death of Hendrickje

The epidemic took the life of Rembrandt’s friend and model. Cornelia, their daughter, was only nine years old at the time. After the death of his first wife Saskia in 1642, the artist was once again a widower.

1668: Death of Titus

Titus had recently married Magdalena van Loo, the niece of Saskia’s sister Hiskia, then Rembrandt tragically lost his son Titus. Titia, their daughter, was born into this relationship but never saw her father Titus, and the next year she lost her mother as well.

October 4, 1669: Rembrandt died

At the age of 63, the Dutch painter passed away. Titus, his son, had died a little over a year before. Only his daughter Cornelia and granddaughter Titia remained in his biological family. Baroque and chiaroscuro predominated in the magnificent collection of works that Rembrandt, one of the finest painters of all time, left behind.

The artist painted, drew, and engraved an abundance of portraits, self-portraits, biblical subjects, and historical scenes. The Night Watch (1642) is still considered one of his most important works.

By Hrothsige Frithowulf

Hrothsige works at Malevus as a history writer. His areas of historical interest include the ancient world and early Europe, as well as the history of modern culture.