He was born at Leiden to a prosperous miller, Gerrit Harmens, who added “van Rijn” to his name, probably because his house overlooked the Rhine. The artist must have loved his father, for he painted him eleven times or more: in lordly hat and chain,121 and as a money-changer,122 and as A Noble Slav123—a strong, well-modeled face bristling with character—and, in 1629, as a man sombered with age.124 His mother too he pictured a dozen times, most memorably in the Old Woman of the Vienna Gallery, worried and worn. In the Rijksmuseum at Amsterdam we see her poring over a Bible. If, as some believe, she was a Mennonite, we can better understand Rembrandt’s predilection for the Old Testament, and his closeness to the Jews.
At fourteen he entered the University of Leiden. But he thought in other forms than ideas or words; after a year he withdrew and persuaded his father to let him study art. He did so well that in 1623 he was sent to Amsterdam as pupil to Pieter Lastman, who was then rated the Apelles of the age. Lastman had returned from Rome to Holland with a classic emphasis on correct drawing; from him, probably, Rembrandt learned to be a superlative draftsman. But after a year in Amsterdam the restless youth hurried back to Leiden, eager to paint after his own fashion. He drew or painted almost everything that he saw, including hilarious absurdities and shameless obscenities.125 He improved his art with fond experiments in self-portraiture; the mirror became his model; he has left us more self-portraits (at least sixty-two) than many great painters have left paintings. Among these early autoritratti is a charming head in The Hague: Rembrandt at twenty-three, handsome of course (for all mirrors show us handsome), hair carelessly tossed about with young superiority to conventions, eyes alert and proud with the confidence of proved ability.
In fact, he had already established himself. In 1629 a connoisseur paid him a hundred florins for a picture—quite a fee for a young competitor in a land where painters were as numerous as bakers, and not so amply fed. His first themes, after himself and his parents, were Biblical. Jeremiah Mourning the Destruction of Jerusalem126 has the mystic aura that distinguishes Rembrandt’s religious pictures, and Simeon in the Temple127 catches completely the spirit of Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine. So many commissions came from Amsterdam that Rembrandt went back to it in 1631 and lived there the rest of his life.
Within a year of his arrival he painted one of the world’s masterpieces, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Nicolaes Tulp.128 There had already been several anatomies in Dutch painting. No precedents were broken, no modesty violated, when the distinguished surgeon, four times burgomaster of Amsterdam, commissioned Rembrandt to picture him giving a demonstration in anatomy in the Hall of the Surgeons’ Guild; he planned to present the painting to the guild as a memorial to his professorship. It was probably Dr. Tulp who chose the seven “students” to share the picture with him—obviously not pupils but men of maturity and standing either in medicine or in another field; and Rembrandt made full use of the opportunity to show faces illuminated with character and intelligence. The cadaver seems unduly inflated, and two of the onlookers are posing for posterity; Dr. Tulp himself takes the affair quite calmly, as one inured and confident; but the two men peering over the head of the corpse are curiosity and attention vivified; and the play of light upon flesh and ruffs announces Rembrandt’s specialty.
Commissions now flowed in—in two years, forty. With money in his pocket and hunger in his blood, the artist was ripe for marriage (1634). Saskia Uylenborch had a lovely face, dancing eyes, hair of silk and gold, a comfortable figure and fortune; what could be lovelier than the Saskia in Cassel? She was the orphaned daughter of a wealthy lawyer and magistrate. Perhaps her cousin, an art dealer, had induced her to sit to Rembrandt for a portrait. Two sittings sufficed for a proposal. Saskia brought a dowry of forty thousand guilders, which made the future bankrupt one of the richest artists in history. She became a good wife despite her money. She bore patiently with her mate’s absorbed genius; she sat for many pictures, though they revealed her expanding form; she let him deck her out in strange costumes for the rosy Flora now in London and the simpler, wistful Flora in New York. We see his happiness in a Dresden painting where he holds her on his knee, irradiates the canvas with his smile, and raises a tall tumbler to his physical and financial ecstasy.
In these grateful years (1634–42) he turned out one masterpiece after another. He continued to picture himself: in the Self-Portrait (1634) in the Louvre, handsome and jolly, with jewels in his hat and a gold chain on his chest; and again that year in An Officer129—magnificent in a world-conquering hat; and in 1635 with a gorgeous hat whose plume tickles the sky. Looking for character rather than beauty, he painted (1634) the Old Lady who looks down upon us, from the walls of the National Gallery in London, with a face corrugated by the years, and, a year later, the Old Woman in an Armchair in New York. Among the human ruins of Amsterdam he found an octogenarian whom he dressed in turban and robes and pictured in An Oriental.130 He had a penchant for collecting costumes, jewelry, swords, fancy hats and shoes; see them (except the sword) in Martin Daey131—with lace on his gloves, frills on his pants, and shields on his shoes. Now, too, he painted time worn religious subjects with a fresh sincerity, taking his models from the old men and young women whom he met in the streets—each picture so remarkable in technique, so striking in its manipulation of light, and so moving in the intensity of its feeling, that any one of them might be defended as the artist’s best; let The Sacrifice of Abraham132 and The Angel Raphael Leaving Tobias133 serve as examples. From these blessed years came some famous portraits, like The Lady with a Fan134 and A Man with Gloves135—both defying words.
The last achievement of this period, and perhaps the greatest picture that Rembrandt ever painted, was the immense canvas (fourteen by twelve feet) that history knows as The Night Watch, but that is more properly named Captain Cocq’s Company of Harquebusiers (1642).136 No detail is unfinished in that vast expanse, no shade of darkness or incidence of light is uncalculated, no contrast of color is unexplored. In the center the proud captain stands in brown and white and red; at his left a lieutenant in golden yellow boots and coat and hat; swords gleam, pikes flash, pennants wave; at the right the fife-and-drum corps; the company emerges from its headquarters, apparently for some festival parade. Rembrandt had signed a contract with each of the sixteen persons to be painted, each paying one hundred florins. Many felt that equal pay had not been rewarded with equal prominence in the picture; some complained that he had put them too deeply in shadows, or had neglected to make them recognizable by their friends. Few further group commissions came to his studio, and his prosperity began to wane.
It must have been high in 1639, for in that year he bought a spacious house in the Joden-Breedstraet, a street inhabited by well-to-do Jews. It cost him thirteen thousand florins, an enormous sum, which he never succeeded in paying off. Probably it was intended to shelter not only his family but his pupils, his studio, and his growing collection of antiquities, curiosities, and art. After paying half the purchase price in the first year of occupancy, he let the rest remain as a debt, on which the unpaid interest rose to a point that eventually drove him to bankruptcy.
Meanwhile his beloved Saskia was declining in health. She had borne him three children, but each died in childhood, and their painful birth and tragic end weakened her hold on life. In 1641 she gave birth to a son, Titus, who survived; but in 1642 she passed away. Her will left all her possessions to Rembrandt, with the proviso that on his remarriage the remainder of her legacy should be transferred to her son. A year after her death Rembrandt painted her from loving memory.
That loss darkened his mood; thenceforth he seemed obsessed with thoughts of death. Though deeply affectionate within his family, he had always preferred privacy to company; now he courted a somber solitude. When he was painting he brushed premature viewers away, telling them, “The smell of paint is not good for the health.”137 He was not a cultured man of the world, like Rubens. He read little, hardly anything but the Bible. He lived in a wordless realm of color, shadow, and light, as varied as the world of letters, but alien to it and unique. He had difficulty in donning the social graces when sitters came, and in making small talk to keep them amused and still. They came in less number when they found that Rembrandt, like most of his predecessors, was not content to make a sketch from a sitting or two and then paint from the sketch, but preferred to paint directly on the canvas, which required many sittings; moreover, he had an impressionistic way of painting what he thought or felt, rather than merely what he saw, and the result was not always flattering.
It did not help him that his house was in the Jewish quarter. He had long since made friends with many Jews; he had engraved a portrait of Manassah ben Israel in 1636; now (1647) he painted on wood the dark face of the Jewish physician Ephraim Bonus. Almost surrounded by Hebrews, and evidently liking them, he found subjects increasingly among the Portuguese and Spanish Jews of Amsterdam. Perhaps he knew Baruch Spinoza, who lived in that city from 1632 till 1660. Some have thought that Rembrandt himself was Jewish; this is improbable, for he was christened and reared in a Protestant faith, and his features were completely Dutch. But he had no perceivable prejudice in religion or race. There is an especial depth of sympathetic understanding in his pictures of Jews. He was fascinated by their old men, their beards dripping wisdom, their eyes remembering grief. Half the Hebrew Calvary is in the face of An Old Jew (1654) in the Leningrad Hermitage, and in the Portrait of a Rabbi (c. 1657) in London. This last is the rabbi who, after Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, gave him spiritual comfort and material aid.
In 1649 we find him painting Hendrikje Stoffels in Bed,138 and we perceive that he has taken a mistress. She had been Saskia’s maid; she stayed with the widowed artist, took faithful care of him, and soon consoled him with the warmth of her body. He did not marry her, for he was loath to relinquish Saskia’s legacy to Titus, still a boy of eight. As he painted Hendrikje in 1652,139 she was tolerably fair, with eyes of haunting wistfulness. It was probably she who posed for two studies in nudity, in 1654, Bathsheba at the Bath140 and A Woman Wading,141 both of them glories of color and amplitude. In July of that year she was summoned before the elders of the parish church, was severely reprimanded for adultery, and was excluded from the Sacrament. In October she bore him a child; Rembrandt acknowledged it as his and managed to get it safely baptized. He learned to love his mistress as deeply as he had loved his wife; how else could he have put such tenderness in her face when he painted her in 1658 in the red robe that matched her hair?142 She was a good stepmother to Titus, who was growing up into a bewitching lad. See him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, aged fourteen, as lovely as a girl, with the wondering eyes of youth, mystified by life and only half secure under paternal love; or, again, in the Wallace Collection, a year older. We can weakly imagine what a solace he must have been to Rembrandt, who in this year found economic realities crashing about his head.
He labored to make ends meet. Some great religious pictures belong to this period (1649–56) of adultery and debt: Jacob Blessing His Grandchildren,143 Christ at the Fountain,144 Christ and the Woman of Samaria,145 and a Descent from the Cross.146 However, in Protestant Holland ecclesiastical subjects were not in demand. He tried his hand at mythologies, but succeeded only when he could clothe the figures; Danaë147 is uninviting, but Athene148 and Mars149 are unsurpassed in their kind. He continued to paint portraits of arresting character. Nicolaes Bruyningh150 is snatched directly from a vivid moment of life and thought; and Jan Six151 is the Dutch burgomaster at his strongest and best. And about this time Rembrandt painted some nameless figures profoundly studied: The Man with the Golden Helmet,152 The Polish Rider,153 The Centurion Cornelius;154 beside these, most portraits seem surface sheen.
Rembrandt was fifty when disaster came. He had seldom bothered to count his debits and credits; he had recklessly bought house and art, even shares in the Dutch East India Company;155 now, as patronage lagged far behind maintenance, he found himself hopelessly in debt. In 1656 the Orphans’ Chamber of Amsterdam, to protect Titus, transferred the house and grounds to the son, though the father was for a while allowed to live there. In July Rembrandt was declared bankrupt. His furniture, paintings, drawings, and collections were sold in costly haste (1657–58), but the proceeds fell far short of his obligations. On December 4, 1657, he was evicted. He moved from one house to another, until at last he settled on the Rozengracht, in the Jewish ghetto. Out of the wreck some seven thousand florins were salvaged for Titus. He and Hendrikje, to protect Rembrandt, formed a partnership by which they could sell his remaining works without letting them go to his creditors. They seem to have taken loving care of the aging artist.
Amid these tribulations he continued to spawn masterpieces: the Man on Horseback, recently sold to the National Gallery, London, for $400,000; the wonderful Head of an Old Man156—a Karl Marx in octogenarian disillusionment; the astonishingly vivid and natural Woman Cutting Her Nails157—perhaps part of the religious ritual that required cleansing of the whole body on the eve of the Sabbath. Now, too, he painted some startling self-portraits: Rembrandt with His Sketch-Book (1657), in Dresden; the stern face and enveloped corpulence of the more famous portrait (1658) in the Frick Collection at New York; the full-figure portrait (1659) in Vienna; the worried face (1659) in Washington.
In his final decade (1660–69) he was kept alive by his son and his mistress, but his quarters were cramped, his studio was badly lighted, his hand must have lost some of its decisiveness as the result of age and drink. St. Matthew the Evangelist158 is coarse in its texture, but the angel whispering in his ear is none other than Titus, now twenty and still as fair as a bride. And then, in that year 1661, came the master’s last triumph, The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild.159 The staelmeesters—examiners and controllers of cloth—commissioned the old artist to commemorate them in a group picture to be hung in the hall of their corporation. We would have forgiven some hesitancy in the composition, some crudity in details, some carelessness in the incidence of light; but criticism is at a loss to find fault there. The subdued foreground and background make the five main figures leap to the eye, each of them “a single and separate person,” but all caught in the living moment of their common thought. In many paintings of these broken years the connoisseurs find signs of failing energy and technique—simplicity of colors, neglect of details, a hasty sweep and crudity of the brush. And yet even then we have such arresting pictures as The Return of the Prodigal160—an unforgettable portrayal of loving forgiveness—and The Jewish Bride.161 This is wondrous fruit to come from a dying tree.
But we have said nothing of his landscapes, his drawings, and his etchings. Only a few of the landscapes stand out, but the drawings are at the top of their kind. Famous are the pen-and-ink View of Amsterdam, in Vienna, and An Old Woman Sitting, in Berlin. Rembrandt’s etchings are prized as highly as any in the history of that painstaking art. One of them, Christ Healing the Sick, came to be known as “The Hundred-Guilder Piece” because it was bought for that unprecedented price ($1,250); in 1867, however, a copy of it brought 25,000 francs ($20,000?).
Three hundred etchings, 2,000 drawings, 650 paintings—this is the surviving œuvre of Rembrandt, almost as widely known as Shakespeare’s plays, almost as varied, original, and profound. Nearly all were from his own hand, for though he had aides, none of them shared his secret for revealing the invisible.162 Some of his work was careless, some of it repulsive, like the Flayed Ox in the Louvre. At times he was engrossed in technique, at times he skimped it for the vision’s sake. He was as neutral as nature between beauty and ugliness, for to him truth was the ultimate beauty, and a picture representing ugliness truthfully was beautiful. He refused to idealize the figures in his Biblical paintings; he suspected that those Old Testament Hebrews looked pretty much like the Jews of Amsterdam; he pictured them so, and in consequence they rise from myth or history into life. More and more, as he grew older, he loved the simple people around him rather than men dehumanized by the pursuit of gain. Where artists like Rubens sought their subjects among the beautiful, the happy, or the powerful, Rembrandt lavished his sympathetic art on the outcasts, the sick, the miserable, even the deformed; and though he made no show of religion, he seemed to embody, unconsciously, the attitude of Christ and Whitman toward those who had failed, or had refused to compete, in the war of each against all.
We take a last look at him in the self-portraits of his old age. There is no vanity here; on the contrary, these are the autobiography of defeat. As he pictured himself in 1660,163 he was still facing life with a blend of courage and resignation; the pudgy unshaved face was quizzical but not sad; he was still moving forward. But in another portrait164 of the same year a worried look darkens and ridges the face around the rubicund nose. In 1661 he saw himself165 as baffled, but shrugged his wrinkles philosophically. And in his last year he pictured himself166 as having found peace in accepting the limits and the wry humor of life. Hendrikje died in 1662, but Titus still blessed him with the sight of youth; and in 1668 the old man rejoiced in the marriage of his son. When, in that same year, the son followed the mistress, the artist lost his hold on life. On October 8, 1669, the death register of the Westerkerk recorded: “Rembrandt van Rijn, painter … Leaves two children.”
His contemporaries hardly noticed his passing. None of them dreamed of ranking him with Rubens, or even with Vandyck. Joachim von Sandrart, his contemporary, wrote of him: “What he chiefly lacked was knowledge of Italy, and of other places which afford opportunities for the study of the antique and of the theory of art. [This now seems to us the secret of his greatness.] Had he managed his affairs more prudently, and shown more amenity in society, he might have been a richer man…. His art suffered from his predilection for the society of the vulgar.”167 Ruskin agreed with the German historian of art: “Vulgarity, dullness, or impiety will always express themselves through art in brown and grays as in Rembrandt. … It is the aim of the best painters to paint the noblest things they can see by sunlight. It was the aim of Rembrandt to paint the foulest things he could see—by rushlight.”168 But Eugène Delacroix, reflecting democratic developments in France, thought, “Perhaps we shall one day find that Rembrandt is a greater painter than Raphael. I write down—without taking sides—this blasphemy, which will cause the hair of the Academicians to stand on end.”169 The tendency among art critics today is to rate Rembrandt above Raphael and Velázquez, equaled only by El Greco.170“Truth,” we perceive, is a function and vassal of time.
From Rubens to Rembrandt, what a gamut and chasm!—between joyous light and somber shadow, between the abyss and the court, between the happy sensuality of the Antwerp noble, at home in palaces and with kings, and the Amsterdam bankrupt who knew the lower depths and was acquainted with grief. To see these two men as the contrapuntal elements of a mighty harmony is to feel in another way the greatness of the little nation that had fought a giant empire, to feel the complexity of a civilization that could produce, at one end, a Catholic culture gladly adorning its unquestioned creed with myths and its beloved shrines with art, and, at the other, a Protestant culture that could nourish the greatest artist and the greatest philosopher of the age.
I. Let us, for convenience, use Flanders and Flemish as applying to all the Spanish Netherlands, and Holland and Dutch for all the northern, or United, Provinces.
II. E.g.: “Dear and beloved husband … A letter from you … gave me joy, because I see from it that you are satisfied with my forgiveness. … I never thought that you would have believed that there would be any difficulty about that from me, for in truth I made none. How could I have the heart to be angry with you in such peril, when I would give my life to save you? … How could so much hatred have succeeded so quickly to our long affection, as to make it impossible for me to pardon a slight trespass against myself, when I have to pray to God to forgive the many grave trespasses I commit against Him every day?”7
III. This picture brought $770,000 at an auction in London in 1959.
IV. This game was probably of Dutch origin, passing to Scotland in the fifteenth century. The word is from the Dutch kolf, which is the German Kolb, the English club.92
V. Aelbert Cuyp: Piping Shepherds (New York). Carel Fabritius: Portrait of a Young Man (Rotterdam).
Jan van Goyen, the greatest in this group: masterly landscapes in a dozen museums, including the Corcoran Gallery in Washington.
Dirk Hals, younger brother of Frans: The Merry Company (London).
Gerard van Honthorst: The Concert (Leningrad).
Thomas de Keyser (son of Hendrik): fine portraits in Dresden, Naples, the Louvre, New York; his Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Vrij (1619) long preceded Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp(1632).
Karel van Mander wrote a Schilderboek(1604), or Book of Painters of the Netherlands, almost rivaling his model, Vasari.
Michiel van Mierevelt: portraits in many museums.
Adriaen van Ostade: The Old Fiddler and The Smokers (both in New York).
Isaac van Ostade: A Market Place (Wallace Collection).
Frans Pourbus the Elder: Portrait of a Gentleman (Wallace Collection).
Frans Pourbus the Younger: Portrait of a Youth (Pitti Gallery).
Pieter Pourbus: An Allegorical Feast (Wallace Collection).
Hercules Seghers: View of Rhenen (Berlin).