Thursday, September 12, 2013

Rembrandt (1606-1669)

His life
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606 into a prosperous middle-class family. Because they lived in an unusually tolerant Holland, his Dutch Reformed father had been able to marry his Roman Catholic mother. While Christian, Rembrandt never participated in either tradition.

Typical for his gender, class, and times, Rembrandt went to Latin school and started at the university in Leiden. His interest and talent in painting soon became clear, however, and he was allowed to quit school and become an apprentice to master painters in 1620. By 1624 he had opened his own studio and in 1627 started teaching his own students.

His big break came in 1629 when a Dutch courtier discovered his talent and began to send commissions his way from others in The Hague.

In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam: Holland's bustling new capital of finance and trade. In 1634 he married a woman named Saskia, joined the local guild of painters, and involved himself in municipal politics.

By 1639 he and his wife bought a new house for themselves in a fashionable neighborhood. Their spending easily kept pace with his increasingly impressive earnings.

At the same time, they experienced their share of tragedy. Their first son died two months after his birth (1635), their first daughter died just three weeks after hers (1638), and their second daughter died after living only a month (1640). Rembrandt could rejoice that Saskia's last child, born in 1641, survived infancy only to lose his wife to tuberculosis in 1642.

After the death of his wife, Rembrandt hired a woman named Geertje to nurse his son. She eventually became his lover. In 1647 Rembrandt hired another woman, Hendrickje, as housekeeper but soon fell in love with her. Geertje move out, sued him for alimony, and won. He later filed to have her committed and won. Following her release after five years of confinement, she sued him again and again he counter-sued. Their mutual hostility only ended with her death in 1656.

In 1656 Rembrandt had to declare bankruptcy. He had enjoyed collecting paintings, sculptures, Japanese antiquities, baubles, and rocks, but these were sold at auction to pay his debts. Two years later he lost his house. He moved, with his true love Hendrickje, their little daughter, and his teenaged son Titus, into a smaller rental.

Hendrickje and Titus opened an art gallery from which they sold Rembrandt's paintings. They also legally became his employers to protect him from his creditors. Freed from serious financial distractions and now socially marginal, his creativity markedly improved.

In 1663 the Black Death hit Amsterdam. It killed thousands including Hendrickje. His son Titus died in 1668. Rembrandt died on October 4, 1669, in Amsterdam.

His work
Rembrandt's decision to paint portraits met with great success following the unveiling of his group portrait Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp in 1634. His portrait painting spanned decades and included dozens of himself, several of his wife Saskia, one of Jan Six (ca 1654), and The Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (1662). He finished his most famous group portrait, The Shooting Company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq (also called The Night Watch), in 1642.

Painting scenes from the Bible was important to Rembrandt and he did it throughout his adult life. An early example is Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630). The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) demonstrates his skill using the Baroque style. To deepen the meaningfulness of his illustrations from the Bible, Rembrandt made friends with Jews, frequented their neighborhood, and visited their synagogues. He then expressed the reality he saw in paintings such as The Woman Taken in Adultery (1644), Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law (1659), The Jewish Bride (1665), and Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1669).

Rembrandt drew and painted people with sympathetic imagination. With great pathos he portrays Bathsheba (1654), made pregnant by David the king, just after she reads a letter from David telling her that her honorable husband Uriah has just died in battle.

In addition to painting biblical scenes, Rembrandt also depicted classical themes. In The Abduction of Europa (1632) he portrays the myth of European origins. In Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) he again sympathetically evokes the sense that we are all fragile mysteries.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.