This story is about Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (July 15, 1606 – Oct. 4, 1669). Rembrandt was a Dutch painter who is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history. His contributions to art came in a period historians call the Dutch Golden Age.
Having realized youthful success as a portrait painter, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial collapse. Throughout his lifetime his reputation as an artist remained high and for twenty years he taught nearly every important Dutch painter. Rembrandt's greatest creative triumphs are epitomized in his self-portraits, in which he surveyed himself without vanity and with unconditional sincerity and truth.
When I was a very little girl I found a mentor. Rembrandt. He was the first master that I copied and when I learned to read I began to understand his history and purpose. Everything he was has everything to do with who I am as a painter today. Why?
In the beginning I had only the pencil. I could hold it and with concentration it would mimic the lines I saw on a piece of paper. Coordination was the first step and, like everything in life before the pencil, it was a doable thing with practice. Basic lines, shapes, and added values were practiced daily. I was limited to only the technique of creation by imitation until words began to enlighten the mysteries of art. Once I could read I began to study everything I could about painting, with Rembrandt consistently remaining at the center of my interest.
In all honesty, I found that Rembrandt and other masters were like gods to me. They were beings who turned simple pieces of paper or canvas into perfect dimensional worlds of beauty and drama. Their humanness didn’t become clear until I could research and dig for the truth. I had to know – what made them so great? Could their time have been so different from ours that their brilliant minds rose above and beyond what simple folk like me could achieve? What gave them such passion to learn to be the best? In all my studies I found there are links from there to here and each master is but one piece of massive puzzle. And, here is one piece to serve as an introduction to a brilliant mind:
Greatness Was Born
Rembrandt was born at a most opportune time, when his world was a newly formed country that pulsed with the fever of expansion and growth. The Netherlands had recently won an eighty-year war of independence with Spain, and Europe was beginning to recognize it as a country in its own right. The artist was born to a miller in Leiden on July 15, 1606, the ninth of ten children. He was the only van Rijn child to go to the University of Leiden (at age 14), and his training there was probably geared towards preparation for fine citizenship in Leiden – perhaps as a preacher, or civic councilman. Or, maybe he was placed in the University to avoid service in the town Militia. Rembrandt’s father had injured a hand as a town soldier, and his oldest brother had problems while in the Militia, as well. As a University student no service was required, and one received a good ration of free beer to boot!
After a short stay, Rembrandt dropped out of the University and enrolled as an apprentice in Jacob van Swanenburgh’s studio to learn the craft of picture making. No one really knows why his schooling at the University was cut short right before its finale; but I imagine he may have found ‘classical’ training boring and desired to satisfy a passion for painting. His parents allowed and supported this direction for his life.
There are no surviving paintings from his earliest years in that studio but, surely, what he learned there were the basics every artist needed; how to grind paint, size canvases, clean brushes and palettes; and how to stroke with a brush, draw with chalk, and compose a painting; how to render drawings from live models, or make copies from early masters. Swaneburgh had spent time in Italy and surely the Italian influences began for the budding artist in this studio.
Rembrandt stayed with Swaneburgh for three years, then did a brief six months apprenticeship with Pieter Lastman, a famous master in Amsterdam. Lastman had recently returned from Italy, where he was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s use of lights and darks (chiaroscuro), as well as works from the famous masters Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. There is no doubt that Caravaggio’s techniques, taught by Lastman, had a profound effect on the very young artist from Leiden.
After his stay with Lastman, Rembrandt returned to his home town and appears to have opened a studio with a fellow Lastman student named Jan Lievens. In that studio, the two painters often rendered paintings of the same subject, using the same models and props, and their resulting works have been a challenge for historians in respect to attributing certain paintings to either artist. They were friends with the same goal in mind; become a better painter and find success as masters in their own right.
By 1627, Rembrandt began taking on his own students (most notably, Gerrit Dou). In 1629, the statesman Constantijn Huygens, came to the Rembrandt/Lievens studio and purchased a few paintings from each, then secured a commission for Rembrandt that began a series of Passion Paintings for the Court in Hague, which was concluded in 1646.
By the end of 1631, Lievens left for England to become a Court painter, and Rembrandt moved to the new business capital of the Netherlands – Amsterdam. There, he began an association with an art dealer named Hendrick van Uylenburg and found success as a practicing portraitist. He also met and then, in 1634, married Hendrick’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburg.
The training that brought him to success is an interesting point. Rembrandt got a late start in his education as an artist. Most young people at that time began at the age of eight or nine and were well advanced by the time Rembrandt apprenticed at his first studio at the age of fourteen. By nineteen he seems to have learned all that he could from Swaneburgh and Lastman and his work quickly surpassed his teachers. Still bucking the established system, he did not dream of going to Italy to learn directly from those thought to be the best. It is said that Rembrandt, when asked when he planned to visit Italy, replied that there was no need for that. All of the old masters’ work was coming to Holland and he could study what he needed right at home.
After he moved to Amsterdam, before he married Saskia, a very significant event happened that tells us much about his disposition and personality. He was commissioned by the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to produce a group portrait that would represent Dr. Nicolaes Tulp as the director of a human dissection. Prior to Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, those sorts of paintings held a simple row of men, all looking equal in importance and rather boring. This artist took the composition to a place never before seen. He built a pyramidal setting where each person within the canvas space expresses a different emotion and purpose. Dr. Tulp is the only fellow wearing a hat, and his hands are absolutely perfect and delicate in every way. He was the leader of the group, both in reality and in this painted recording.
When looking at this Anatomy Lesson it’s easy to believe that much effort was made to create a fantastic portrait of each individual man, even the poor criminal whose body is being taken apart for the sake of scientific discovery and teaching - he lies motionless wearing his ashen skin rather naturally.
One element of the painting that is often over-looked, but fascinating none the less, is that the right arm of the corpse is too short when compared to the rest of the body. This is the only imperfection I can find when reviewing Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, and modern x-rays of the arm reveal that it was originally painted as a stump without a hand, which reflects the truth of the situation. The criminal’s hand was chopped off as part of his punishment for being an armed robber, and then he was hanged. What this tells us is that Rembrandt most likely attended the actual dissection in preparation for his painting, and the missing hand was painted over the arm-stump later. Why did the painter do this? Did the surgeons wish to pretty-up the painting? Or was it Rembrandt’s decision? When one studies the work closely, from the rich flesh-tones of the living to the blueish-gray of the dead, including all the clothing and instruments and props, and the expressions of every body within the space, the conclusion has to be that it was at the direction of the surgeons.
Whoever delegated the alteration, a puzzling point still remains. Why did the artist simply make a hand on top of the stump instead of extending it from the wrist joint as it would naturally be? Rembrandt was a realist who painted the truth as he saw it, whether it was ugly or beautiful. He painted from nature, always. More than that, when he considered composition, he combined inspiration from nature with elements from those he admired most; Caravaggio and the other Italian masters. He was an intellectual artist who calculated every inch of his canvas and painted accordingly. My gut tells me that Rembrandt thought that the painting was perfect with the stump, and the hand was simply painted because he had to do it to please the patrons, so he placed the new limb in an area that did not affect the white loin cloth of the dead, or any other space around it. It’s the only part of the piece that is not true to life.
With The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, Rembrandt believed he hit his stride and this painting was proof to the world that he was a master equal to the Italians everyone loved. He signed his forename for the first time in the upper right hand corner of the canvas. Rembrandt. In his mind, he must have believed he belonged with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio, and the world needed to know him on a first name basis. The rest of Amsterdam society believed Rembrandt to be great, too, for the Anatomy Lesson was a huge success that propelled him to the status of Holland’s absolute best portrait painter. His reputation was established and he settled down into a life as a wealthy, successful man. All the self-portraits he executed during this period show the content painter loaded with confidence and faith in his future and position as a master artist.
When I first read the story of Rembrandt’s early years I became fascinated with the idea that he didn’t follow the established rule. His schooling was short and influence from his teachers limited. He took the basics, then walked away to find his own interpretation of technique, and didn’t seem to admire his contemporaries enough to follow them. Rather, he adored the work of the Renaissance masters and hungrily sought examples from them to emulate. In reality, he was combining the very new with the very old and the end result was a stunningly powerful mix that would push him to a place of high honour. Are his paintings the thing that makes high honour so? Or is it the artist himself?
After all my years of study, I have come to believe that his nature has everything to do with our respect for the painter from Leiden. And, his nature was all about process and understanding. I admire his steadfastness; his ability to pick up his brush and simply paint as he wanted to paint; his urges to explore beyond examples left by the masters before him, as well as contemporaries around him; his will to survive which allowed him to continue during times when most people would have crumbled; his tendency to buck the established system and never bow down for the sake of money; most of all, I admire his sense of self.
He dares us to look at him, with all his self-portraits. This man is an enigma who has challenged historians since before he died. His life was devoted to painting and teaching, yet he left no journals or books that speak of his processes or intent. He does not tell us how the applications came to be, or why. Even with our scientific brilliance we cannot understand his simple act of impasto or varnishing techniques. We can only study the paintings. Those tell us he followed the general process of inventing, dead colouring, and work-up. Everything about his paintings follow the rules set forth by the traditions of painting, as well as rules established by the art scene of his day. Yet, everything about his application has a twist. Rules are bent and subjects are a reflection of the raw world around him, not a classical ideal at all. With this in mind, one can only think that in Rembrandt’s mind process was important and good, yet the individual perspective must provide a balance of honesty in an otherwise cookie-cutter world. If I were to advise anyone who wishes to become a painter, I’d tell them to build a strong foundation of technical prowess, then search their soul for the honesty one needs to find the perfect place of self, for what is seen through those eyes can only be beautiful and good.