Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is known as the ‘Old Master’ in the art circles, a tribute to the fact that he was one of Europe’s most prolific pre-19th century painters influential multiple mediums and a variety of themes. This genius lived and worked in the Netherlands all his life, traveling from Leiden to all over the country, ultimately dying close to home in Amsterdam. Still, his legacy is shrouded in mystery, and present-day historians heavily contest his life details. He influenced many future artists, and his work has been marveled at by audiences worldwide for centuries, but his vast body of work makes it hard to pinpoint his artistic legacy to a single style. ‘He moved towards the art of painting and drawing,’ with his cultural philosophy summed into very debatable six words: to produce die meeste ende die natureelste beweechlickheyt—‘the greatest and most natural movement.’
Rembrandt was born just at the start of the Dutch Golden Age in 1606, a period of prosperity where the wealthy Dutch elite was obsessed with showing off their riches by patronizing artists from all over the country and abroad, especially Northern Italy. Ironically, as cloudy, the knowledge about the Old Master’s life is, a few letters left by him are mostly asking for patronage. He studied at the University of Leiden and was heavily influenced by various North Italian artists, which shaped his diverse background spanning from a painter, printmaker, draughtsman, etcher, and even as an art dealer. During his time at the university, he earned praise from Constantijn Huygens, a secretary to the Prince and one of the most influential patrons in the Dutch Republic. According to Huygen, the young master could make masterpieces marvelous as Italian painters and the lost world’s ancient ruins. And that Rembrandt sure did build up a portfolio of world-famous paintings ranging from miniatures to monumental sizes, from etchings to numerous self-portraits.
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Rembrandt had an inherent quality of direct observation, which complemented his rigorous study of people, objects, and very crucially his surroundings. These qualities, combined with his supreme mastery over movements and illumination, made sure the commissions kept coming his way. During this time, he added the letter ‘d’ to his birth name, a play on the dutch words Rem (Obstruct) and Brandt (Light), a testament to his signature style of playing with light in his work. The young Dutch pioneer with lofty ambitions did theatrical portraits and sanctioned works like The Anatomy Lesson and The Jewish Bride.
Even though his style evolved to become more contemplative and mature over time, the themes of light, space, perception, texture, and social structure stayed constant. During the later years of his career in 1642, he created his most famous painting, a group portrait called The Night Watch. As swift was Rembrandt’s rise to success, his fall from grace was tragic and fueled by failed art deals, his first wife’s death, and several disastrous financial decisions. In the end, the Old Dutch Master died a poor man, leaving sparse notes of his life behind but an inspiring legacy.
Going through hundreds of paintings done by the Golden Master in his lifetime, over three hundred etchings, and the sheer volume of artists he influenced, it’s easy to try and define him or put him in a box. Anyone who tries that misses the point; Rembrandt’s pioneering rise and tragic fall is a story of imperfection; it’s the tale of a populist and a romantic, of a saint and a snob. His paintings reflect ugly and frowned upon taboos in society, and most importantly, a reflection of our tainted selves.
Currently, the maestro’s work can be seen around the Netherlands, especially in Amsterdam at The Rijksmuseum, which holds his most extensive collection comprising 22 paintings, 60 drawings, and over 300 prints. The Rembrandt House Museum, situated in the capital’s old Jewish quarters, displays several of the artist’s work and hosts numerous depictions of his life. Other places where one catches Rembrandt’s talents are the Amsterdam City Archives, The Hague, Leeuwarden, and in cities like Leiden.
Everything said there’s a reason Rembrandt is the face of the Dutch Golden Age in art history. His paintings were imperfect yet masterful; his work was done in his likeness and always held meaning, just like the Dutch society of those times, much like the Dutch society of modern times.