Biography of Dutch Portrait Artist, Biblical History Painter.

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Portrait of Jan Six (detail) (1654)
The Six Collection, Amsterdam.
See the Art of Rembrandt.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)


Supreme Portrait Painter
Painting Methods
Greatest Paintings
The Art of Rembrandt

Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter by Rembrandt
Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter
(1654) Louvre. One of Rembrandt's
greatest religious paintings.
This sublime piece of Biblical art
depicts a story from the 2nd book
of Samuel (11:2-27). The Jewish King
David covets Bathsheba, the wife of his
neighbour Uriah the Hittite. It shows
Bathsheba holding David's summons
to the palace, while her maid washes
her in preparation for her meeting.

Supreme Portrait Painter

Regarded by art critics as one of Europe's greatest Old Masters, and the most important of all Dutch Realist artists, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was the supreme portraitist, and a wonderful exponent of Dutch Realism as influenced by the wider strains of Baroque painting. In particular, he is especially famous for his Biblical art, as well as his printmaking (notably etching). His paintings exemplify the dark manner of Dutch Baroque art - a style inspired by Caravaggio, and are typically characterized by luxuriant brushwork, rich colour and a mastery of chiaroscuro (treatment of light and shade).

His portraiture - especially his self-portraits - reflect an unique ability to penetrate the human character, and his overall work constitutes a vivid record of contemporary life in Amsterdam. Less superficially dramatic than his contemporary Rubens, Rembrandt's paintings reflect the restrained emotions and devout spirit of Calvinist Holland and the new Protestant Reformation art. He was a master of all the painting genres, including landscape, history and genre painting, as well as portraiture.

The Night Watch (1642) (detail)
Now in the Rijksmuseum, it depicts
a company of militiamen moving out,
led by Captain Cocq ( in red sash) and
his lieutenant, Van Ruytenburch.
Influenced by Caravaggism,
Rembrandt's dramatic setting of the
scene breathed new life into the
militia portrait, and is one of the
great examples of Baroque art
from the Republic of Holland.

Portrait of Agatha Bas (1641) (detail)
British Royal Collection.
One of Rembrandt's masterpieces of
Protestant portraiture, that shows
clearly why he is still revered as one
of the best portrait artists ever.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.
For the top allegorical painting,
see: Best History Painters.

Painting Methods

Rembrandt's paintings are characterized by broad thick brushstrokes, the use of layers of glazes to give scenes extra depth and gravity and, in particular, his masterful treatment of light and shadow (chiaroscuro). He was strongly influenced by the Italian painter Caravaggio (1573-1610) and the Caravaggism movement, but Rembrandt went further by depicting his figures' mood and inner mental feelings through an accentuation of physical features and facial expression, as illustrated in his wide range of portraits and self-portraits.

Rembrandt maintained a teaching art studio for many years, instructing nearly every important Dutch painter of the time. His art pupils included Bol, Flinck, Eekhout, Koninck and Aert de Gelder, though his influence extends across the whole history of modern art. Among many other famous artists, the great American genre-painter Edward Hopper was a particular admirer of the Dutchman.

Rembrandt's uniqueness and artistic reputation rests upon his profound humanity. The perception of his portraiture remains unequalled and his unsurpassed mastery of chiaroscuro (treatment of light and shade) was acknowledged by all art critics even when they considered that his subject matter was inappropriate.


Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
Still life painter from Antwerp.
Frans Hals
Antwerp Portraitist
Hendrik Terbrugghen (1588-1629)
Painter of the Utrecht school.
Adriaen Brouwer (1605-38)
Noted for his tavern genre-pictures.
Adriaen van Ostade (1610-85)
Peasant scene artist, from Haarlem.
David Teniers the Younger (1610-90)
Peasant, guardroom scenes.
Gerard Terborch (1617-81)
Genre painter, Amsterdam, Haarlem.
Jan Steen (1626-79)
Leiden artist: tavern scenes.
Pieter de Hooch (1629-83)
Famous Delft school genre-painter.
Gabriel Metsu (1629-67)
Intimate small-scale genre scenes.
Jan Vermeer (1632-75)
Greatest Dutch Realist artist.

For the best still life painters:
Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-83)
Utrecht School of Dutch Realism.
Willem Kalf (1619-93)
Pronkstilleven Paintings.
Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78)
Interiors, genre works, still lifes.
Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750)
Flower painter, still lifes.

Aelbert Cuyp (1620-91)
Dordrecht landscape artist.
Jacob Van Ruisdael (1628-82)
Haarlem-born landscape painter.

For a list of the highest priced
works of art sold at auction, see:
Top 10 Most Expensive Paintings and
Top 20 Most Expensive Paintings.

Greatest Paintings

Early 20th-Century art experts assessed Rembrandt's output at over 600 paintings, nearly 400 etchings and 2,000 drawings. However, recent research conducted by the Rembrandt Research Project has reduced this to nearer 300 paintings, 300 prints (etchings) and somewhat less than 2,000 drawings. It includes landscape painting and biblical Christian art, plus a few examples of landscape painting, as well as his more famous portrait art.

Here is a short selection of his greatest paintings, most important works.

- An Artist in His Studio (c.1629) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
- Samson Betrayed by Delilah (c.1630) Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
- The Merchant Nicolaes Ruts (1631) The Frick Collection, New York.
- The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Mauritshuis, The Hague.
- Portrait of a Young Woman with the Fan (1632) Nationalmuseum Stockholm.
- The Shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen and His Wife Griet Jans (1633) Royal Collection.
- The Feast of Belshazzar (c.1635) National Gallery, London, UK.
- The Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) Hermitage, St Petersburg.
- The Blinding of Samson (1636) Stadelsches Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main.
- Danae (1636) Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.
- Mennonite Preacher Cornelis Claesz Ansloo and his Wife (1641) Berlin.
- Portrait of Agatha Bas (1641) Royal Collection, UK.
- Old Rabbi (1642) Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest.
- The Night Watch (1642) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
- Susanna Surprised by the Elders (1647) Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.
- The Supper at Emmaus (1648) Louvre, Paris.
- Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels (c.1650) Louvre, Paris.
- Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653) Metropolitan Museum, NY.
- Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654) Louvre, Paris.
- Portrait of Jan Six (1654) The Six Collection, Amsterdam.
- A Woman Bathing in a Stream (1655) National Gallery, London.
- Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656) Kassel.
- Lady with an Ostrich-Feather Fan (1660) National Gallery, Washington DC.
- The Conspiracy of Claudius/Julius Civilis (1661) Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
- The Syndics of the Clothmakers Guild ( Staalmeesters) (1662) Rijksmuseum.
- The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
- Lucretia (1666) Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN.
- Return of the Prodigal Son (1669) Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.


The Art of Rembrandt

Considered from the point of view of technique, Rembrandt is merely the adapter and perfecter of that so-called "dark manner" of painting which Caravaggio and his disciples had spread widely through Western Europe. Considered more intimately, Rembrandt is the exponent of a romantic sympathy and glamour all his own - of a personal poetry which entirely transcends the Dutch School. Thus Rembrandt is the first great painter on record who habitually reacts against his environment, preferring to live in proud isolation, the first rebel genius in painting, the first painter of the modern sort.

He reached this position of dissent gradually, after fifteen years of conformity.

Although now firmly established as the greatest figure in 17th century Dutch painting, Rembrandt's career was troubled from without and within. His material adversities he shared with many contemporary artists; his moral maladjustment was of his own making. He rose above it through many painful steps. His seems a dual personality. In one aspect he is merely the most faithful of Dutch portraitists and most literal of Dutch narrative painters. In the other aspect he is a seeker for strangeness and mystery - an incorrigibly romantic temperament equally capable of the romantic sublimities and puerilities. He can descend to cheap masquerade; he can rise to heights of imaginative vision. This duality runs through the nearly forty years of his activity.

Side by side with his most visionary creations, he paints the most truthfully objective portraits. He can be very great in either mood - great in the Lady with the Fan; in the portrait of Saskia, at Cassel; in the Jan Six portrait; even greater and more himself in the Good Samaritan and the Supper at Emmaus. He fails, relatively, when he cannot harmonize the two aims, as in the Anatomy Lesson, which, with great reality, has no glamour, or the Night Watch, which, with extraordinary glamour, lacks reality. He is greatest when he invests palpable reality with glamour, as in the Self Portrait in the Frick Collection, and the immortal group of the Syndics of the Cloth Guild.


Early Years

Rembrandt Harmensz van Ryn was born at Leyden, July 15, the year probably 1606. His father was a miller, fairly prosperous and ambitious for the family, for he sent the boy to the Latin school in preparation for the law. This plan yielded to young Rembrandt's evident vocation for fine art painting. He studied three years with Jakob van Swanenburch, an Italianate painter of modest but agreeable talent in idyllic landscape, an intelligent imitator of such Italianized Northerners at Rome as Adam Elsheimer and Paul Bril, and what was perhaps more important for Rembrandt's training, an accomplished etcher. Later young Rembrandt worked six months with a more vigorous, but still Italianate master, the Caravaggian Pieter Lastman, at Amsterdam. By 1626, when Rembrandt was about twenty, we begin to get little signed pictures of a strenuously ugly sort which show the youthful master struggling seriously with the problem of representation. This endeavor was successfully completed in about six years, in 1632. It is the period of Rembrandt's technical self-education.

He wishes to construct in the new and fashionable "dark manner" which had pushed its way from Caravaggio, lately dead, through his emulator, Gerard Honthorst, into Southern Holland. The "dark manner" required a waiver of the old decorative colour schemes in favour of solid construction in light and dark, dark pre-dominating, and it also implied an assertion of the interest of common folk and their ways as against the aristocratic and somewhat conventional dignity of the Renaissance style. Young Rembrandt wants in form, maximum emphasis of construction; in expression, maximum emphasis of emotion, and with these ideals for three or four years he painted the most repellent early pictures that were ever perpetrated by a great painter. A look at them is enough and often too much - Tobias and his wife, 1626; Balaam and the Angel, 1626; Jesus expelling the Money Changers, 1626; the Gold Weigher, 1627; except for unchallengeable signatures it would be very difficult to see in such forced and labored work the beginnings of the creator of the Night Watch, the Supper at Emmaus and the Syndics of the Cloth Guild.

There is a hesitation between line and edge - both are hard, wiry and ugly, perhaps because not hard enough. There is everywhere concern with sensational effects of lighting, as the candlelight in the Gold Weigher, but these effects are not realized either as natural appearances or as factors in imaginative design. There is a technical vacillation. Young Rembrandt likes the broad, untroubled, rather opaque shadows of the tenebrists, but he also wants them transparent, and he loads the shadow to cause coruscations which complicate and disturb the simplicity of the method.

Soon the little narratives improve, lose something of sensationalism in handling and expression, attain a fair harmony of tone. Such a picture as the little Andromeda, so homely, yet so picturesquely conceived, is already masterly. The tiny Bathsheba; the theatrically effective Supper at Emmaus; the romantically staged Simeon in the Temple, with its intent, spotlighted group, its vague Orientalism, and its high spaces where mysteriously light and dark interpenetrate - all these show a great talent of a dramatic sort rapidly discarding cruder melodramatic defects, steadily refining on its methods of presentation, plainly coming to its own.

But the mark of the young lion's claw appears more clearly in the numerous small portraits of these juvenile years. We have about a hundred of them, mostly of himself or his father, mother and sister. Possibly the earliest, and surely the most instructive of these, is the familiar little self-portrait at Cassel. It shows a rather coarse and sensual mask; in the unconsciously open lips and the deep eyes nearly effaced by shadow there is a hint of the discontent and volatility of the visionary. The method, with fairly even distribution of sharply contrasting light and dark, is pretty much that of Caravaggio. But I think the touseled, curling hair, so well suggested in mass with a few individual strokes, could hardly have been painted that way without first seeing something by Tintoretto. One gets the sense of a formidable and sullen character still living in some confusion of the aims of the flesh and the spirit. It was indeed a confusion that Rembrandt outgrew very slowly. By the self-portrait of 1629, at The Hague, Rembrandt looks as if he had found himself. He faces the world with confidence, is already fully conscious of his own mastery. The handling is more urbane; the uncalled-for steel gorget is a bit of masquerade which Rembrandt will use and often abuse in portraits of himself and of others.

Rembrandt's progress towards such mastery was rapid, but also broken. There is much inequality in these little heads dashed off so passionately. Many have nothing valuable about them except the monogram R. H. L., which tells that Rembrandt, the son of Harmen of Leyden, painted them. An excellent landmark of his progress in these student days is the portrait of 1629, of himself in a plumed hat, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. To the old energy it adds urbanity and distinction. It still lacks the richness of tonality which he will soon command, but it already shows the great master.

By 1632, in his late twenties, Rembrandt had carried realistic portraiture as far as his early technique permitted. Take, for instance, the oval bust of his sister. It has pretty nearly everything that goes to make a great portrait: strong rendering of form with very delicate means, a true and sympathetic grasp of fine and sturdy character, admirable composition in pattern and in atmospheric depth. And this competent and noble Dutch girl seems about to say some sensible and friendly thing. To realize the vast superiority of this portrait over the seven or eight others of the same young woman is to learn a lesson in taste. Except for a certain warmth and charm of tonality, it lacks nothing of the perfected Rembrandt.

Rembrandt's Mature Period: Amsterdam (1632-41)

We may regard 1632 as the year of Rembrandt's graduation from his student activities. A year earlier he had left Leyden to seek broader fortunes in the commercial capital, Amsterdam. Besides his painting, he had made many etchings. As a class these early scratchy plates are not impressive, but such etched portraits as those of his mother, dated 1628 and 1631, announce his approaching mastery. To mark his graduation a diploma piece was necessary, and this he furnished in Dr. Tulp's Anatomy Lesson, The Hague, 1632.
It is probably the most overpraised picture in the world, for while it abounds in accurate observation and tenacious handling, it lacks unity and dignity.

In colour it is rather neutral and raw. The over-insistence on the plastic effect of the heads impairs any pattern there is, and makes the surface disagreeably lumpy. The group is even ambiguously placed - how far is it supposed to be from the picture plane? The arrangement of the heads with too many parallel postures is monotonous, and the relief attempted by making three men peer out of the picture is unmotivated and artificial. Dr. Tulp himself is singularly insignificant. The cadaver is slack and without the fine rigidity of death. One must imagine it painted from a living model. One need only compare this group with Frans Hals' first Doelen of St. George's, sixteen years earlier, to realize its inferiority in the essential matter of fine composition.

Of course, an overestimate lasting for centuries must have its reasons. The solid merit of the picture - a stupendous creation, after all, for a painter only about twenty-five years old - lies in the professional thoughtfulness and concentration of the heads. Taken individually, they are superbly characterful. Any prosperous Amsterdamer who saw this picture would rightly want Rembrandt to paint his family portraits. And this is what actually happened. For nine years, until 1641, and the Night Watch, Rembrandt prospered mightily as a professional portrait painter, perfected his "dark manner," by making the darkness even more penetrable, by giving to harmonized tone the richness and value of colour.

This phase of his progress may be most readily grasped from a picture too familiar to need reproduction, the Little Scholar near a Winding Stair, 1632. Though much of the surface is very dark, there are no dead areas. The construction is clear, even where it is nearly lost. Everything is most tenderly painted, with no loss of strength, emphasis or character. Finally, the small figure of the thinker oddly dominates a large scene which in one aspect is merely his study; in another, seems a sort of emanation of his contemplative mood. Painted wholly in browns, there is no feeling of monochrome. One accepts it as so much rich and varied colour.

His gain in refinement as a portraitist may be measured by the two double portraits - the Shipmaster and his Wife, 1633, and the Mennonite Preacher Cornelis Claesz Ansloo and his Wife, 1641. Both pairs are cleverly caught in momentary, almost obvious, relations, but relations that are significant. The shipmaster's wife will disappear the moment the letter is delivered. Her hand has not left the door handle - no more interruption of ship design than is absolutely necessary. The preacher's wife listens with attention and respect to what seems to be a well-started sermon. It is her wifely part, and she has willingly accepted it. Both interiors are admirably suggested, the later picture with subtler and richer modulation of lights and darks, and with a more vibrant sense of spatiality.

Rembrandt's Marriage to Saskia van Uylenborch

On June 10, 1634, Rembrandt married a comely and amiable girl, and incidentally an heiress, Saskia van Uylenborch. Their happiness is almost too emphatically advertised in the famous picture, at Dresden, with Rembrandt raising a wineglass, while he fondles Saskia on his knee, 1635. It is an exultant masterpiece, and magically painted.

It is customary to date a dramatic and sensational phase of Rembrandt's art from his marriage, as an exaltation of physical love, and that is possible. In any case, alongside objective portraiture we find a new interest in sensational themes. It is the time of the Rape of Proserpina and Samson threatening his Father-in-Law; the Blinding of Samson; the Danae; big pictures, often tumultuously over-emphatic. Etchings of like character are Christ expelling the Money Changers, the Stoning of St. Stephen, the Death of the Virgin, the Angel departing from the Family of Tobias, the Raising of Lazarus, the Descent from the Cross, the two Lion Hunts.

Now it is a pleasing hypothesis that Rembrandt found in Saskia's arms the inspiration for the expression of an energy chiefly physical; but, after all, he had liked these subjects in his late teens, and it is more reasonable, if also more prosaic, to imagine that he returned to such themes when his own patronage and Saskia's dowry seemed to justify his painting to please himself.

In the professional portraiture of this second period there is naturally some inequality. The habit of imposing fantastic and inappropriate accessories - armour, sham Oriental headgear - is almost disagreeable at times. It corresponds to the cheaper side of his fantasy. But it also reveals the great technician who loves to multiply difficulties. And, in general, the portraiture of his early maturity is admirable for its unflinching rectitude. Unforgettable portraits abound - the oval of himself bareheaded, 1633; the infinitely just and delicate half-length of Saskia in profile; or the tranquil and unassuming perfection of the Herman Doomer, "The Gilder"; or the aristocratic quietude of the half-length of the Lady with a Fan, 1641. These portraits of his early prime, once seen, are never forgotten. Later he was to paint more profound portraits with a deeper investiture of sympathy and mystery, but merely as a painter he was hardly to surpass these best portraits of his young manhood. Only the best works by Frans Hals and Diego Velazquez of the same years may be safely compared with these rather early portraits by Rembrandt. The Halses will seem a little overasserted and brittle; the Velazquezes, while equally discreet as painting, may seem less humanly significant.

Again the hint of multiple personality in Rembrandt seems justified by the considerable inequality even of his portraiture - its tendency to overindulge in puerile masquerade, and even more by the fact that contemporaneously with his superb objective portraiture he paints pictures outrageously sensational or cheaply melodramatic, and at the same time begins to paint Bible themes with a unique seriousness and penetration, with new interpretations wholly his own. The greatest work of this sort falls in his last period, but the tendency was firmly established in these six or seven years of probably extravagant happiness, and certainly of extravagant living.

Rembrandt agreed with Caravaggio, the inventor of the "dark manner", that the Bible folk had no classical dignity, but were poor folk like those of Rome and Amsterdam. In this they both took sharp issue with the tradition of Hellenizing decorum transmitted by the Italian masters. Rembrandt's reaction was all the more remarkable that, unlike Caravaggio, who scorned the noble conventions, he himself appreciated these qualities, studied Italian pictures constantly, even collected them. As a good Protestant and believer in the literal truth of the Scriptures, Rembrandt went beyond Caravaggio's generalizing formula - that the people of the Bible were humble folk - and specifically insisted that they were Jews, such Jews as swarmed in the poor quarters of Amsterdam. It was all of ten years before he realized in his art the full value of his own point of view.

The Passion series, Munich, which he made in the 1630's for Frederik Hendrik of Orange, uses the new ideals only superficially, and betrays much of the sensationalism of what we must call Rembrandt's tumultuous years. Even the technique is backward-looking, as if Rembrandt had to learn all over again in Biblical subjects the lesson he had already mastered in portraiture.


Perhaps the most accomplished masterpiece of painting in the second period is the so-called Danae, 1636. In the delicate liveliness with which the nude woman is represented, Rembrandt successfully rivals all the great chiaroscurists - Correggio, whose painting he knew well; Velazquez, who had not yet painted his Venus. Amid accessories of furniture heavy and tasteless in itself, but, as illuminated, part of a fairyland, the nude and ardent girl is ready to greet the lover whose face just appears beyond the curtain. The reflections from the warm ivory of her body and from the white bedclothes seem to irradiate the fantastic scene, glinting here and there on carved wood, edges of velvet curtains and on an inherently absurd, but pictorially valuable, cupid hovering over her head. Of all the rather early Rembrandts this is probably the one that a painter would most value. Quite simply conceived as a legitimate glorification of physical passion, it is a veritable treasury of fine painting. It brings into a singular harmony the rectitude, sensationalism and exoticism of Rembrandt's prosperous years.

Meanwhile he was living in reckless extravagance. The fine house on the Bree Street was becoming a museum. Rare pictures and objects of art, with the incorrigible optimism of the collector, he regarded as safe investments of Saskia's little fortune and of the money that came in so easily from portrait painting and teaching. Along with what may seem merely pardonable bad judgment seems to have gone some relaxation of character. He had dozens of pupils and sold their work profitably, doubtless as his own. This fact may account for the over three hundred inferior pictures in the standard lists of about seven hundred Rembrandts.

Concerning Rembrandt's way of working - like Frans Hals, he constantly made little oil sketches of heads - many for practice, apparently, for very few correspond to finished portraits. More summary studies of figures, figure compositions and landscapes, were dashed off constantly with the coarsest of tools - big brushes, the reed pen, a soft-wood stick, his fingers. A heavy line serves both as contour and modeling shadow, being an abstraction for both. These drawings have the most extraordinary form-giving and space-making power.

There are also figure drawings rich in emotional overtones, such as the study of Saskia ill in bed, or his widowed self trying to feed baby Titus from a spoon. The method, by which a single process - a modulated coarse line - conveys at once the pattern in plane and the existence in depth and mass of a design, is akin to that of the great Chinese and Japanese pen and ink painters. In Hokusai you will find it in perfection. So it is no wonder that Far-Eastern amateurs, who are generally averse to what they regard as the literalism of Occidental draughtsmanship, accept and admire the drawings, etchings and figure painting of Rembrandt.

All the extravagance and romantic excess of Rembrandt in his early thirties is embodied in his most famous, if far from his best, picture, the Night Watch, 1642. It was to be a portrait of Captain Banning Cocq, with some fifteen officers of his military company. The formula for this sort of group was solidly established. All the patriot warriors were to be represented in most recognizable fashion and each was to receive a prominence in the group roughly corresponding to his contribution and his rank. What each officer wore was almost as important as the look of his manly face. But Rembrandt rejected the sound principle that the task was one of straight-forward portraiture, substituting instead a mystery and glamour entirely unreasonable in the circumstances. In so doing he not merely offered an unconscious affront to the taste and thrift of his patrons, but also repudiated what was dearest to the national taste. (What matter, if through such apparently willful self-expression he created a great masterpiece? I hear an individualist art lover protest.) But did Rembrandt create a great masterpiece, or something which, made with that intention, fell short of its goal?

It is easy to see why Captain Cocq's officers felt they had not had their money's worth. Out of the staff of some fifteen, only four or five were easily recognizable. The pictorial focus was not the captain, but the adjutant, in silvery yellow. There were queer features, like the female dwarf in white gliding with a cock in her hand amid the legs of the soldiery. The place and the time of day of the assembly were entirely ambiguous. Finally, a well-trained company was represented as in pointless confusion. No wonder that the officers quarreled over the price, and made the best of the matter by having at least their names plainly inscribed on a tablet. It is fair to say that their expectations had been seriously undermined.

What is much more interesting and less easy to divine is Rembrandt's attitude in the matter. Probably the great scale of the picture, over twelve by twenty feet, allured him to try to extend the colourful "dark manner" which he had worked out successfully on the small scale of narrative and portrait. This decision was to make the great canvas not a portrait of a military company, but a battlefield of light and dark, the officers and the military apparatus serving merely as absorbers or reflectors of light. This was to make phantasmal an entirely familiar scene. To justify the procedure he chose the moment of apparent disorder before a military group snaps into formation. This may have made matters right with himself, but not with his patrons. Indeed, the relative success with which Rembrandt carried off an essentially unreasonable endeavor - for the picture has a fascinating glamour - should not blind us to the fact that his method was and is applicable only on a rather small scale. A big narrative or historical picture wants more clarity, more conventionality, and the successful painters of such pictures - the Tintorettos, Veroneses, Halses, Rubenses and Velazquezes - have remained modestly within this convention. And here it is significant that, save for the Night Watch, the handful of big historical canvases by Rembrandt are so negligible that critics rarely even mention them. They all fail for the same reason, that a luministic method suitable for small and intimate pictures becomes empty and meaningless when applied to big pictures of public import. One may add that on this great scale the eye reasonably demands more richness and variety of colour than Rembrandt's method permits.

So, although the Night Watch, simply for isolated passages of magically light and imaginative painting, is a fascinating field for observation, it is as a whole a masterpiece gone wrong.

It is customary to date the tragic fall of Rembrandt's fortunes from the controversy over the Night Watch, and its general unpopularity. In this view there is probably some dramatic exaggeration. We probably make everything more sudden than it actually was. But the general truth is, that after the Night Watch Rembrandt's portrait commissions tail off significantly. He paints his friends, the sombre Jews who attract his curiosity and sympathy, Bible scenes of profoundest insight made, probably not for pay, but for his own eye. And merely as a matter of chronology, when Saskia died in June, 1642, within a few weeks of the finishing of the Night Watch, Rembrandt's personal happiness collapsed with his professional fortunes. Rembrandt was left in the big, cluttered house with an ailing son, Titus, nine months old, survivor of four children who, coming within as many years, had naturally died in early infancy.

The critics usually write of a period in Rembrandt's art limited by Saskia's death in 1642 and his bankruptcy in 1656. Since this stretch of years saw the synthesis of his fantastic and realistic endeavor, the making of his finest prints and practically the end of this activity, the division seems justified. But it should be noted that there is no marked difference in ideals between such a third period and the work of his latest years, rather a difference in opportunity and accomplishment. He entered this period a strong and proud man of thirty-five or so, he ended it at forty-nine enfeebled and prematurely aged.

In these days of narrowing fortunes, he made himself a new and humble happiness. The faithful nurse and housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoeffels, a young woman of utmost gentleness and kindness, as his numerous portraits of her show, became his mistress and, since the relation was unconcealed, in all but name his wife. In these days he must constantly have read the Bible, perhaps not so much for religious consolation as for its amazing repertory of poignant human relations - stories of his fellow sufferers of old time.

Within these years fall the greatest religious pictures - the Good Samaritan and the Supper at Emmaus; the Vision of Daniel. While the method has not changed materially, the penetrable gloom with which Rembrandt loved to veil and relieve his figures has assumed a new and spiritual value.

There are many portraits of Hendrickje Stoeffels, none more perfect than that in the Louvre, so instinctive with benign humility and modest steadfastness. She wears unconsciously and without pride rich jewels, probably bought with Saskia's money. The few professional portraits of these years are of the finest quality. That of his friend and patron, Jan Six, 1654, is inferior to no portrait in the world, whether in swift and massive construction, rich decorative effect or in sympathetic visualization of character. For so entirely perfect a painting all verbal praise is an impertinence. The only real homage is to forget yourself while looking at it. Velazquez or Hals never painted anything more deftly and rightly, while the portrait has an emphasis on character and worth that even these great rivals hardly commanded.

These drab and lean years saw most of his finer imaginative creations. We have the very embodiment of youthful hopefulness and adventure in the Polish Rider. How confidently the stripling faces certain peril and possible death. Horse and rider are of a piece - both thoroughbreds. Even the mounting, broken landscape conveys a sense of lurking danger. In this time fall most of his landscapes. He conceives nature as ominous and unfriendly - a place of imminent storms, threatening alike trees and the constructions of man. In these landscapes there is more emphasis of tragic mood than truthfulness. Indeed the method, with its extreme contrasts of light and dark and its reduction of colour to tone, is essentially dramatic, not descriptive. In two of the bigger pictures, the Landscape with Ruins, and The Mill - a masterpiece which some critics deny to him - Rembrandt has caught the diffused peacefulness of eventide. Probably Rembrandt was fundamentally a city man who rarely gave much direct observation to nature, and merely wreaked his romantic excess in studio improvisations which were less landscapes than release for his own tumultuous moods. His fine observational work in landscape is not in his paintings but in his etchings.

His best nudes are occasional recreations of these middle years. The Danae we have already considered, while other works include Bathing Woman, and the great Bathsheba, whose forms, as Renoir was later to say, "take the light" beautifully. Such were some of the sufficient solaces for dwindling health and fortune.

Etching, which in the prosperous years may have been chiefly a recreation, soon begins to be a crucial source of income. The early 1650s saw the creation of such masterpieces as Christ Preaching, Christ healing the Sick, Christ before the People, Dr. Faustus. The old romantic emotionalism reappears in chastened and disciplined form in the Three Crosses, in the Sacrifice of Isaac, in that most pathetic of evocations, Blind Tobit. The price of any of these prints today would have kept the little family comfortable for many a year. As things went, the family situation steadily grew more distressful. Rembrandt's collector's lust was insatiable. Saskia's dowry and what little money he earned himself slipped through his loose fingers.

Finally Saskia's relations intervened legally, and salvaged a little to form a trust for young Titus. In 1656 the big house on the Bree Street was inventoried for a bankrupt sale. Two rooms contained more than fifty paintings, many by esteemed Italian masters, not to mention arms and armor, Persian miniatures, and hundreds of prints. Rembrandt, in May of 1656, tried to forestall his creditors by conveying his property to Titus. The auction sale, from which Rembrandt had fondly hoped to recoup himself, went off disastrously. Only after nine years and much litigation, did Titus recover the small sum due him.

The big house sold over their heads, the little family moved to the Inn of the Crown. Rembrandt probably made a little from his etchings, but when, in 1660, Hendrickje and Titus set up a print shop, their articles of partnership declared Rembrandt incapable of earning anything.

But not incapable of painting great pictures! The self-portrait in the Frick Collection, New York, was painted in the year of Rembrandt's bankruptcy. We have a man sad and worn, but confidently maintaining his dignity as a great personage. Rembrandt ruined is still Rembrandt. There is something about the portrait that inspires, with sympathy, a certain awe. We behold a king, to be sure in shabby regalia, but still a king. The picture has a sort of monumentality which is the new note in many of the later portraits. It is strongly present in the Jan Six of 1654, and equally marked in an Old Woman cutting her Nails, as in the supremely elegant Lady with an Ostrich Feather, one of the latest portraits from his hand. This monumental quality must have been superb in the Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Joan Deijman, of which the central portion is preserved at Amsterdam. The sharply foreshortened corpse has the grandest accent, as have the firm and skillful hands of the demonstrator. The fire that destroyed most of this great picture of 1656, has, after all, left us sufficient evidence of its mastery, and a composition sketch shows that the theme was conceived monumentally. A comparison of the fragment with the Anatomy Lesson of 1632 will tell how far Rembrandt had travelled in twenty-four years.

The greatest picture of these narrowing years is, of course, the Syndics of the Cloth Guild, painted in 1662. One of the best Baroque paintings, it is surely the greatest portrait group existent. Out of a mere committee meeting of five business men, Rembrandt has wrought a universal symbol for rectitude and prudence. There is an amazing range of clearly denoted character - irony, simple good nature, bluff straight-forwardness, suspecting shrewdness, and dull tenacity. And these various temperaments are concentrated on the single purpose of safeguarding the interests of an important trade, which is virtually a public service. It is the sense of togetherness, of mutual friendly understanding, that is the spiritual content of the Syndics. Two years later, at Haarlem, aged and decrepit Frans Hals was to express the same feeling as faithfully, and even more poignantly, in the Female Regents of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. But he was no longer able, indeed never had been able, to embody such a vision with a beauty of workmanship approaching Rembrandt's.

In some mysterious way the dull red of the Oriental rug which serves as tablecloth seems to pervade the entire brown surface. The impeccable arabesque of the group is admirably set off by the rectangular elements in the table, the chair, and the wainscotting. The figures live in their own atmosphere. As you gaze at this arrangement of cool and flushed browns, you look into a world which is most precisely the everyday world of great affairs.

The Syndics was really Rembrandt's swan song, and a superbly sonorous song it was. A year earlier, 1661, his last etching is dated. His tired eyes are no longer fit for such close work. How it stood with him towards the end one may divine in the self-portrait at Kenwood House, London. Nothing is left of the princeliness of the Frick portrait. A wearied and almost broken old man, huddled down for warmth, looks out almost unseeingly beyond the hand that holds the palette and brushes. Fine white hair is untended. With the wisdom of resignation, Rembrandt has accepted the position of a poor and shabby man. The face is not sad; the artist has the solace of his art. It is a face that compels sympathy to the point of tears, without really making any claim on pity. Oddly, this mild and gentle apparition has a strange spectral monumentality. Along with the Syndics it shows how great Rembrandt could be when actual appearances and imaginative vision jointly challenged his genius.

In the old age of every strong man there must be black moments when he realizes the sheer hideousness of the gradual degradation of his body. In such a moment, surely, Rembrandt painted the self-portrait at Cologne, in which he leers at us and himself in impotent defiance. And this grimacing spectre is the portrait of a man well short of sixty years old. Here is matter for depths of pity, but the picture is not self-pitying. It merely reckons with the appalling facts, and the sordid effigy of human wreckage is strangely glorified by a golden light, as that of sunset might transfigure a hulk rotting sordidly on the beach.

The loving drudge, Hendrickje, died in 1661. The ailing son, Titus, followed her to the grave in 1668. There was still a year of loneliness left for Rembrandt. He was buried in the Westerkerke, October 8, 1669, in his early sixties.

When Rembrandt died, Amsterdam probably knew it had lost a very eccentric and interesting character, but, one feels, had no sense that a great painter had departed. Dozens of young painters, many Rembrandt's pupils, knew better than this. They valiantly tried to imitate what was almost inimitable, his pictorial style, and more ill-advisedly still, what was entirely inimitable - his personal emotion.

Works by Rembrandt can be seen in the best art museums across the globe, notably the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

• For a list of important dates in the historical development of visual arts, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For more about 17th century Dutch painting, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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