Ninety times Rembrandt van Rijn asked the question, ‘Who is Rembrandt?’ And ninety times he answered himself for all the world to see.
In commemoration of his 400th birthday on June 15, 2006, I spent the 4th of July with Rembrandt, another independent artist who valued his freedom.
Criticized often for poor drawing technique, held in contempt and lionized even in his lifetime, I discovered over the course of the day a man bent on understanding the souls of people he painted and showing those souls for the discerning to see forever through his work.
Imagine Rembrandt’s motivation to tell his life story in 90 known self-portraits, created from the time he was just 14 until his last, painted the year he died. Why all the prolific self-portraits? Instead of the staid, posed artists’ portraits common over the centuries, he showed himself surprised, laughing, pensive and thoughtful.
Rembrandt’s portraits, so much more than others I have viewed, clearly depict powerful emotions, instead of merely portraying the carefully posed aging of a homely man.
Rembrandt chose to convey his inner feelings, painting a deep conversation with himself about the tragedies and triumphs of his life. For his triumphs, he used stand-out devices that made his portraits pop with excitement. His silverpoint of his new bride, Saskia, shows the beauty of her love and is inscribed, “This is drawn after my wife, when she was 21 years old, the third day after our betrothal-the 8th of June, 1633.” In seven days, Rembrandt would turn 24. Saskia van Uylenburgh, his only wife, and Rembrandt were married in 1934.
Known for his sensitive Biblical paintings, Rembrandt painted 11 known portraits of Christ between 1648 and 1661, ages 39-52. Rembrandt was said to believe in the loving forgiving God of the New Testament.
Rembrandt’s authenticated body of work changes frequently source by source. A 1905 eight-volume catalog by Wilhelm van Bode and Cornelis Hofstede de Groot shows 595 Rembrandt works. The Time Life Library of Art’s 1968, “The World of Rembrandt,” identifies 600 paintings, 1400 drawings, and 300 etchings. The “Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings,” compiled by the Rembrandt Research Project, formed by Dutch scholars in the late 1960s, today says 350 Rembrandt paintings exist.
The first three volumes, published in the 1980s, covered 17 years, from age 19-36, and portrayed the authenticity of 280 paintings with A-authentic, B-doubtful, and C-rejected ratings. The group published Volume IV in 2005 to chronicle Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Volume V, expected to be the final book in the Rembrandt Research Project series, will be published by 2009.
Every once in a while, another Rembrandt surfaces. In 1962, a Rembrandt painted when Rembrandt was a teenager, was authenticated after cleaning by scholars working in the museum of Lyons in France. Perhaps early paintings will be discovered signed “RHL,” a monogram signature Rembrandt used around the time he attended The Latin School from age 7-14. Rembrandt’s name in Latin form is Rembrandt Harmensis Leydendis, meaning “Rembrandt the son of Harmen of Leiden.”
These painters names came up during my research: Michelangelo Merisida Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubins and Albrecht Durer. Yet, I saw no evidence of friendships or collaborations such as you find between Matisse and Picasso or vanGogh and Gauguin. Only six Rembrandt letters are known to exist. Rembrandt never suffered fools gladly and did not bow or scrape, even when he had a need for money.
Rembrandt, the master of chiaroscuro (bright and dark), contrasted light and shadow brilliantly in his works. Realism and mystery play out as Rembrandt painted life in action, unafraid to show life’s messy parts, like garter marks and puffy, imperfect bodies. A master of coloration, his body of work shows he went from vivid elaborate colors to his signature delicate hues, light blues and yellows, pale greens and olive, set off by gray backgrounds and back again late in life to rich color, the brightest colors he had ever used, with particular preference for the harmonies of red and yellow. Light looks like it emanates from inside Rembrandt’s figures, making them appear to be both breathing and thinking, well statedl by poet Jan van Peterson, who said in commenting on a Rembrandt, “…so that his soul shines through his face….”
Late in life, courage and resilience undiminished, Rembrandt suffered the auction of his possessions, fewer commissions, but still had international sales of his prints, receiving the income through a scheme of his children to circumvent turning over those funds to creditors. He also had paying pupils, although he was said to have been such an overpowering teacher that few students lasted for long periods.
Rembrandt conversations are destined to continue for the life of mankind.
FIND OUT MORE ABOUT REMBRANDT
Rembrandt’s home from 1639-58 stands restored to its 17th century state and is open to the public as The Rembrandt House Museum.
In 1852, native land pride built a Rembrandt monument which stands today in the Rembrandtplatz in Amsterdam.
“Rembrandt, the Musical” premiered at Amsterdam’s Royal Carre Theatre on Rembrandt’s 400 birthday, June 15, and plays until February 2007.
“Rembrandt: His life, His Paintings” 1985
“Rembrandt and his Critics” by Seymour Slive
“The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt” by Alison McQueen
“Rembrandt, Reputation and the Practice of Connoisseurship” by Catherine B. Scallen