Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
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 Baroque art. In addition he is especially famous for his Biblical painting, and printmaking (notably etching) of the 17th century Baroque era. His paintings exemplify the dark manner introduced 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.
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.
OF GENRE PAINTING
Frans Snyders (1579-1657)
Still life painter from Antwerp.
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.
DUTCH REALIST STILL
WORLD'S BEST ART
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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 most important works.
- An Artist in His Studio (c.1629)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
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.
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.
Rembrandt's Mature Period: Amsterdam
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.