Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669)

A brief overview of the paintings of 17th century Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn at the Rijksmuseum

The Night Watch (1642) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

Rembrandt van Rijn was born in Leiden as the son of a miller. He started taking painting lessons at the age of 14, and at 19 he established himself as an independent artist. He moved to Amsterdam at the age of 25. His many pupils included Ferdinand Bol, Govert Flinck and Carel Fabritius. As time went on, the light-dark contrast became more emphatic in Rembrandt’s work, while his brushstrokes grew looser and compositions more dramatic. In addition to portraits, he painted many historical scenes and created etchings and drawings. Rembrandt married Saskia Uylenburgh in 1634. They had a son, Titus, in 1641, and Saskia died the following year. Rembrandt fathered a daughter by Hendrickje Stoffels in 1654. He had amassed mountains of debt and was forced to sell his house and property. He died in 1669, and lies buried in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk church.

Self Portrait (Around 1628 - Around 1629) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

Face to face with Rembrandt

Rembrandt portrayed himself in countless paintings, etchings and drawings throughout his life. He likely used his self-portraits to practice the depiction of the human face and its emotions, and we can see him in many moods and guises. The work here is not only one of the highlights of Rembrandt’s early oeuvre, but it is also one of his first self-portraits. The emphasis is on the dramatic effects of light and dark in the face. During this period he experimented with light and shadow in the portrayal of facial expressions. His matchless technique makes the young painter’s experiments as fascinating as they are varied. 

Musicerend gezelschap (1626) by Rijn, Rembrandt vanRijksmuseum

While many seventeenth-century artists specialized in a particular type of subject, Rembrandt tried his hand at all imaginable genres. He painted portraits, landscapes, scenes from everyday life, historical events, literary events and scenes from the Bible, along with an occasional still life. The precise subject of this 1626 painting is unclear. We see a company of four people singing and making music.

The artist clearly enjoyed executing the patterns of the colourful and exotic fabrics. This painting reveals that Rembrandt was already showing a special interest in unusual and oriental garments, an interest that continued throughout his working life.

In 1631, Rembrandt left Leiden to try his luck in Amsterdam, the largest and most prosperous city in the Dutch Republic. He soon made name for himself, resulting in a number of commissions from the city and from private citizens, while also attracting many pupils and followers. In 1639, Rembrandt was able to buy this stately merchant’s house in Sint Antoniesbreestraat (present-day Jodenbreestraat) where he lived and worked until 1656. Nowadays, the building is home to the Rembrandt House museum.

Still Life with Peacocks (ca. 1639) by Rijn, Rembrandt vanRijksmuseum

Illusionist jokes

This painting is regarded as Rembrandt’s only painted still life, and the interplay of light and dark are typical of his work. When this painting is strategically hung or placed, it is easy to imagine that - for a brief moment - the viewer might think he is looking through a real window at actual birds thanks to the three-dimensional effect and convincing rendering of the life-sized peahens. Artists at the time enjoyed incorporating optical illusions in their work to demonstrate their skill. 

The Syndics (1662) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

An (un)guarded moment

The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild assessed the quality of the cloth that was traded in Amsterdam. They commissioned Rembrandt to paint a group portrait in 1661. Many painters, including Rembrandt, found it difficult to portray a group of people around a table without sacrificing dynamism. X-rays of the painting reveal that Rembrandt made quite a few changes while working on it. For example, he changed the posture of the man rising from his chair no less than three times. The painting was to be hung high on a wall, so Rembrandt depicted the table such that it would be seen from the right perspective with the painting hanging above eye level. The Syndics also look down on the viewer from an appropriate height. Rembrandt took an otherwise dull subject – six men dressed in black behind a table – and turned it into an event: the men look up from their work as if they have been disturbed by an unexpected guest. This is a reference to alertness and attentiveness, two character traits required of a Syndic of the Drapers’ Guild.

Isaac and Rebecca, known as 'The Jewish Bride' (Around 1665 - Around 1669) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

This painting became known as ‘the Jewish Bride’ in the early 19th century when someone interpreted it as a depiction of a Jewish father bestowing a necklace upon his daughter on her wedding day. It is unknown whether the man and woman were indeed Jewish, but the name ‘Jewish Bride’ has become so ingrained through the years, that it will likely be associated with this painting forever. But what does the painting in fact depict? Many suggestions have been made through the years, but none seems truly satisfactory. One thing is certain: it is a brilliant depiction of love between two people: she timid, he protective and authoritative.

Hands are important in Rembrandt’s work; no hand gesture is without meaning, not even in Rembrandt’s portraits. The hands are the key element in this painting: with her left hand, the girl lightly touches the man’s right, which he has placed above her heart in a timeless gesture of love and fidelity.

Rembrandt used glowing colours in this painting. The paint itself shows the fabric structure of the garments. Rembrandt even used a palette knife to apply the gold on the man’s sleeve in thick stripes that reflect light.

The Stone Bridge (Around 1638) by Rembrandt Harmensz van RijnRijksmuseum

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