2019 is the year of Rembrandt van Rijn, perhaps the greatest Dutch painter ever to walk the earth. Who is he and what makes him such an outstanding painter that the year 2019 is dedicated to him?
Rembrandt was born a miller’s son in Leiden in 1606. After he went to Latin-school, his parents signed him up for university. Rembrandt soon dropped out and chose, instead, to become the apprentice of a painter in Amsterdam. He returned to Leiden and became an independent artist. During this period he painted mainly biblical scenes. In 1631, however, he returned to Amsterdam and began painting portraits. He married Saskia and together they had a son, Titus, in 1641. A year later, Saskia died of tuberculosis. Rembrandt remarried and with his new wife Hendrikje he had a daughter Cornelia. Soon things started to fall apart, especially financially. Hendrikje was accused of doing “some lady of the night activities” things with Rembrandt, as they were not considered married by the church, but did have a child together.
The mortgage on their new and luxurious house began to way heavy on Rembrandt. Still, he continued living beyond his means, buying expensive paintings and furniture for a house they couldn’t afford. He was rejected from the painter’s guild in Amsterdam and was no longer allowed to sell his paintings. Hendrikje and Titus helped him out to avoid the guild by setting up their own art-selling gallery with Rembrandt as their employee. He was commissioned to paint a masterpiece for the new city hall via this set up. He chose to paint a historical scene The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis. It was rejected however and returned to the painter. Soon after this, Hendrikje and Titus died, leaving Rembrandt utterly alone in a world that had now turned so cruelly against him. He died shortly afterwards.
What made Rembrandt so extraordinary as a painter was his ability to paint light and shadow. It was so very true to live that his paintings seem almost like a window into whatever scene he painted. The most famous example is, of course, the night watch. He plays with the light by making the girl and the man up front almost seem golden. The rest of the party however, is rather dark, which only emphasises the two previously mentioned characters.
But to truly understand his work, we must put him into historical context. Rembrandt lived in the 17th century, the golden age as it is known for in the Netherlands. The economy thrived and people wanted to show off their wealth, whilst simultaneously also wanting to show off how humble and pious they were. One of the ways to portray that is something that Rembrandt was very good at: portraits. With the rediscovery of the Classical art, classical technique and style of art was incorporated in the 17th century painting style. Both the Greeks and the Romans were known for their idealistic realism, which returned in the 17th century. Rembrandt didn’t want to paint people the way they wanted to be seen, he painted them the way he saw them. This resulted in something well and truly different: we see real people in his paintings. And that is very rare for the 17th century.
So please, don’t miss the opportunity to see Rembrandts paintings in the Rijksmuseum, or elsewhere. Especially in 2019, the year of Rembrandt van Rijn.