Rembrandt—The Master of Paintings and Prints 

 The very name, Rembrandt, evokes near-reverent thoughts and emotions. Whether his Night Watch (“Nacht Wacht”) masterpiece displayed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, or his amazing prints, like the Christ Healing the Sick (“The Hundred Guilder Print”,) Prodigal Son or the Descent from the Cross, it is apparent to everyone that Rembrandt not only captured the events in a scene, but he also captured the emotions and meaning behind the scene. 

 The enormous Rijksmuseum masterpiece is commonly (and mistakenly) known in English as The Night Watch, though Rembrandt never gave it a name, because it was simply a commissioned group portrait. The Rijksmuseum uses the lengthy name “Civic Guardsmen of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, known as the ‘Night Watch’”. 

 While contemporaries were content merely to describe the appearance of people and things, Rembrandt indefatigably pursued the investigation of inner feeling, the most subtle movements of the human soul. His deft touch impacted everyone and set him apart from all others, then and now. His ability to animate two-dimensional images brought a life-force energy forward. He created scenes with which anyone—rich or poor, educated or uneducated, experienced or inexperienced, trained or untrained—could instantly relate. Communication is a process where someone puts forward an expression and another receives the message. When a person views a Rembrandt, they can put themselves into the image and receive what Rembrandt was communicating. The longer the look, the deeper the communication. The viewer was, and is, an integral part of his art as he set up a narrative interplay. 

Descent from the Cross, 1633

Descent from the Cross, 1633 

His artistry went far beyond the academic rules and traditions. His art was as pleasurable in the 1600s as in the 2000s, and it is equally relevant. A critical element was the sheer diversity of the themes he explored that ultimately reflected humankind’s texture and complexity. Among those themes were: portraits and self-portraits, landscapes, beggars and peasants, the Bible, Jews, fast sketches and night pieces. He was not only good at each of these, he was amazing and he forever changed the history of art. He is to this day the standard by which great artists can be measured for both paintings and etchings. 

Who was Rembrandt? 

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter (nee van Zuytbrouck.) He began life in 1606. It should be noted that one of the Dutch naming protocols at the time, particularly for those without a surname, was to give them a first name, followed by their father’s name. In Dutch, “zoon” (pronounced exactly like the English “zone”) means “son” and “dochter” means “daughter” (the “ch” in Dutch is pronounced like a throat-clearing guttural “g”.) “Zoon” is abbreviated “z.” (“dochter” is abbreviated “dr.”,) which explains why Rembrandt is typically referred to as “Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn.” Rembrandt was Harmen’s son, who in turn was Gerrit’s son. Rembrandt’s mother, was Willem’s daughter. The surname “van Rijn” means “from the Rhine”, as in the river. In Dutch, “van” means “of” or “from”. In terms of pronunciation, the “ij” is its own diphthong letter, which is pronounced by sliding from the “a” in “apple” to the “y” in “yes.” It is typed as a “y” except each upper segment is capped with a dot. Most people speaking English simply substitute the “ij” for a “y”, pronouncing his last name van Ryn.) 

While his father was a miller (Dutch windmills were thriving) and his mother was the daughter of a long line of successful bakers, Rembrandt took a different path than his older trained-craftsmen brothers. Young Rembrandt, like most children of the day, attended elementary school at age six, then moved to a Latin School for education in biblical and classic studies. By age 14 he enrolled in the hometown (and world-famous) University of Leiden, though his stay was briefer than most. Upon determining that his interest lay in painting, he became an apprentice to artistic painters—first in Leiden, then briefly in relatively-nearby Amsterdam. 

Rembrandt’s mother

Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck, Rembrandt’s mother 

Rembrandt’s father

Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, Rembrandt’s father 

The Dutch Golden Age 

The Gouden Eeuw (Dutch “Golden Age”) was marked by supremacy in commerce, military power, science, intellectualism and art. The phenomenon of the Golden Age was known as the “Dutch Miracle,” where a very small and somewhat fragmented nation dominated entirely by a world power, Spain, quickly cast off its shackles and turned into a global bastion. Architectural design also blossomed because there was so much money, and so many people who wanted to spend that money—often on architecture and art. 

Trade was massive during this time. In 1602, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC (“United East India Company”, known outside Holland as the Dutch East India Company) was established. It was the first-ever multinational corporation, financed by shares that established the first modern stock exchange. For more than two hundred years, the VOC kept its Asian trade monopoly. This firm was the world’s largest commercial enterprise of the 17th century. Spices were imported in bulk to satisfy unending demand, which brought huge profits. This was mostly due to the high prices of those goods sold, caused by the efforts and risks involved on the supply side, and the seemingly insatiable market on the demand side. To finance the growing trade within the region, the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, the precursor to, if not the first true national central bank. The Dutch empire stretched from Holland to South Africa, South America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Of course, New York began as New Amsterdam in the early 1600s. The creation of a large, powerful and prosperous merchant class contributed to the overall growth of the nation and its empire. 

In the area of science, the Dutch excelled on two levels. Willem van Oranje (“William of Orange”) was so grateful to the city of Leiden for their unrelenting efforts in fighting Spain that he established Leiden University in the latter part of the 16th century, which almost immediately blossomed into the world-class university that it still is—a gathering spot for the best minds in the world. Combined with the intellectual freedom largely created by the rejection of the Roman Catholic Church, an atmosphere was created that drew people from all over Europe into an environment of scientific discovery. Astronomy was highlighted, as was physics. The development of optics led to far better telescopes and microscopes—thereby allowing for the study of microbiology. 

The perpetual battle against the sea propelled Dutch hydrology engineers to the top of that discipline— a position that has never been relinquished. 

Among those who migrated to Holland was René Descartes, who lived there from 1628-1649. Thomas Hobbes and John Lock, among many others, also found fertile intellectual soil in Holland. 

When combined with the Dutch leadership in printing, the entire atmosphere of the nation was electric. 

On the art front, there are three artists whose names are locked in history with the Golden Age: Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. Note that the Dutch did not contribute in the same manner to literature, music, dance, or sculpture. People often associate Ludwig van Beethoven with Holland, due to his very Dutch name. Indeed, he had a grandfather from southern Holland (now part of Belgium), Lodewijk (the Dutch name from which “Ludwig” was derived in German) van Beethoven, though he moved to Bonn, Germany when he was 20 years old. So Ludwig was born in Germany to a German-born father, but kept his Dutch name, of course. 

The effects of the Golden Age were astounding, not least because the Dutch had a transformation of their national identity. From that point forward, Holland has always had a level of influence that is out of proportion with its size. 

The Dutch contributed monumentally to the art world, but almost entirely in oil painting and etching. 

Rembrandt Begins His Professional Life 

1n 1625 Rembrandt moved back from Amsterdam to Leiden where he developed and perfected his legendary use of light and consequently, darkness. At the same time, remarkably, he also produced his first etching—a vastly different artform bearing almost no relationship with the talents required in painting, excepting of course, basic rules of composition. Unlike his painting skills, his etching skills were self-taught. As with his paintings though, light and darkness were hallmarks of his etchings. He created light in his etchings with a lack of darkness, which he in turn created through his painterly, denser cross-hatching or added ink. 

Three of Rembrandt’s first works showing his emerging signature style: The Spectacles-pedlar (Sight), The Operation (Touch), and The Three Singers (Hearing) all completed in 1624/25 

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1626), Rembrandt

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (c. 1626)

He once again moved to Amsterdam in 1631, which by then was reaping the financial rewards of the Dutch Golden Age. All the new-found wealth resulted in high demand for commissioned art—particularly portraits. At first, he stayed at the home of art dealer, Henrick Gerritsz. van Uylenburgh, who happened also to be the cousin of Saskia van Uylenburgh, whom Rembrandt married in 1634. 

A plethora of painters lived and worked in Holland at the time, mainly due to the desire of the Dutch to expend disposable cash through art and real-estate purchases. In Dutch “schilders” could refer equally to house painters as artists, and they, together formed collective “clearing-houses” in various cities to control supply and demand. These “guilds” set rules that had to be followed in order to be allowed to sell art. Among other rules, artists who moved into another city had to serve an apprenticeship in their new location prior to being admitted into the guild. Alternatively, they could marry a citizen of the new city. Rembrandt became a member of the Amsterdam Guild of St. Luke in 1634, the same year he married Saskia and after he worked in van Uylenburgh’s studio for a period of several years. Which alternative took precedence is not known. What is known, is that the guild exercised great control of its members and membership as they proclaimed: 

“that everyone who falls under the arts or the Guild of Saint Luke, namely painters, sellers of art, glass makers, embroiderers and sellers thereof, bookbinders and sellers thereof, sculptors, engravers and figure cutters, tapestry workers, compass makers, potters, coffin makers, including all others who work with pencil, brush or with paint, will not be allowed to exercise their profession in this city, unless they first become citizens and burghers of this city, and will have paid the guild in full.” 

The Guild exerted its control over the painting marketplace in terms of what could be sold and by whom. It was not until much later, in 1658, during a major sale of Rembrandt’s prints, that control was exerted over the sale of prints in general. Up to that point they had a far freer attitude toward prints, which allowed Rembrandt to do as he pleased, without the oversight of the guild. 

Rembrandt’s Downward Spiral 

Rembrandt’s personal life went into a downward spiral in several respects. Three newborn children died in successive infancies. The fourth, Titus, lived—but then Saskia herself died one year later, in 1642 at age 30. Child mortality rates in Holland, like the rest of the world at the time, were abysmal. Without unnecessarily minimizing the impact of the loss of a child, it was not unusual or uncommon. Yet the death of Saskia was entirely unexpected and had a profound impact on the artist. 

On the financial side, Rembrandt suffered cash flow and balance sheet issues for most of his adult life, perhaps made worse by his personal trials. He had a reputation for overspending on his art acquisitions, including innumerable props he desired to use in his future work. Rembrandt declared bankruptcy in 1656, despite his healthy income levels. He was an artist who made a good living during his lifetime, but his expenses simply overshot his income. 

For hundreds of years in the past, and to the present time, scholars regularly debate Rembrandt’s painting output during various periods of his life. Whether his ebbs and flows were caused by his personal issues or the recalibration of his artistic methods is unclear. What is clear is that it is not possible to simply count each work as though it is equal. Rembrandt’s output by count was distinctly lower in the 1643 and 1644 years, but he also just finished his gargantuan Night Watch painting in 1642. 

Debates rage regarding which works, or which parts of works, were done by the direct hand of the master and which were done by underlings or students. High-end computers have been brought to bear in an attempt of ascertaining authenticity. Roughly 300 paintings and slightly fewer etchings were done, and the output of each can be seen in the following charts: 

Rembrandt clearly had a huge downturn in his work-output—both in 1649 with one work, and later, in 1664, without any. Of course, the one work attributed to 1649 was the colloquially-named “Hundred Guilder Print”, which is alternatively called, Christ with the Sick around Him, Receiving Little Children, or Christ Preaching. Irrespective of the name, the work is a stunning masterpiece. 

Hundred Guilder Print” (1634) 

On the one hand, Rembrandt created a landmark masterful work. On the other hand, he only created that one. Ultimately, no one knows for sure why he declined so much during those periods. It is simple to understand why his output dropped in the last few years of life, including the time when his beloved son, Titus, died one year before Rembrandt himself died. 

Rembrandt’s name, hundreds of years after his death, is synonymous with greatness, and is included in the shortest list of history’s greatest artists. 

Rembrandt and Religion 

As a general rule, the Dutch have always been opinionated and iconoclastic. When Protestantism began in the 16th century, Holland quickly became a very segregated society, where religious beliefs were closely held and formed a strong societal pillar. The people in the southern part of the nation were often Catholic and the rest were usually Protestant—overwhelmingly Calvinist. 

Among the Calvinist beliefs and practices was a wholesale rejection of icons prevalent in Catholicism. Calvinist churches were very plain and religious art was anathema, particularly anything depicting Jesus, which was a radical departure from Dutch Catholic churches, where icons, gold and art were seemingly everywhere. 

Dutch calvinist church layout

A Dutch Calvinist Church—very plainly decorated to be utilitarian 

Catholic Church layout

A Dutch Catholic Church—very ornately decorated in the Catholic tradition 

Similarly, Dutch royalty, the House of Orange, has typically been distinctly understated in comparison with other monarchies, such as the British monarchy, through the ages. The Dutch monarch has a crown available, but it is never used, even when they formally become kings or queens. In fact, monarchs are inaugurated, not coronated. In Holland, it is not unusual for common citizens to see the King or Queen shopping in a store. Excessive spending by the royals is frowned upon, as it would be perceived as out-of-character ostentatiousness in a society that prides itself on commonality. The level of monarchal normalcy is precisely what has endeared them to the Dutch people. 

The royal ranks were not in the business of acquiring massive collections of art, nor was the now-predominant church, so a great impact in the art world was felt when the Catholic Church went into decline in Holland, having seen most of its Dutch members defect. New religious artwork was really not needed. 

What was very different from other countries was the rapid emergence of a Dutch middle-class. Holland had become a major player in international trading. Their sailing ships were large and fast, and the Dutch cultivated relationships with far-flung nations in such a way that Holland became extremely prosperous during the Dutch Golden Age, roughly encompassing the 17th century—just in time for artists like Rembrandt. Dutch homes were awash in paintings—some were very good. Portraits were in great demand, as were common life scenes and landscapes. 

Rembrandt was, of course, Calvinist. His clientele could not include the Dutch Protestant church and did not include the House of Orange, so he had to find other patrons. Due to the burgeoning mercantile-based middle class, there were always people who could buy his art. In terms of his religious views, he was Calvinist, but always found ways of placating the Catholic church and the Jewish community. He often painted Jewish scenes and some of his Christian themes were extremely Catholic in terms of underlying theology. 

Rembrandt and Emotion 

Rembrandt chose to illustrate religious scenes in the common Dutch tradition in which biblical representations merged into the everyday lives of his 17th century contemporaries. No one prior to, or since, has been able to reach such a deep level of empathy and compassion towards the representation of humanity. Rembrandt shows that he abandoned all academic styles in giving us a more realistic and simple approach to the human figure, which he depicted with a new figurative language, an eye for the detail and pure artistic and technical genius in the etching techniques. 

Rembrandt had an amazing capacity to represent even the most dogmatic subjects and bring them close to the viewers with an emotional and revolutionary intensity. This is the reason why students and casual observers throughout the past 400 years felt and feel so close to his work, as he gives people the opportunity to experience the subjects in a private and intimate way, sharing the same feelings of those represented in the stories. The subjects become much more than simple images as everyone can recognize the events and feelings of everyday life as a mirror of all humanity. 

The emotions depicted are human emotions that are not transitory, nor specific to a certain country, race, ethnicity or social status. They are human. They were not unique to the 17th century because they are fundamental traits of being human, so people throughout the past 400 years looked, and continue to look, at a Rembrandt work and understand. They can place themselves into the narrative as active participants as they witness history not through sentimentalized scenes like so many of Rembrandt’s predecessors and contemporaries created, but through simple, raw emotions. Truth. 

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  February 6, 2020