As with great works of imaginative literature, masterworks of art move us to understand and appreciate the human condition. And no master artist moves us better than Rembrandt. In his more than three hundred paintings, Rembrandt’s focus is riveted on what is real—specifically, the imperfect and yet glorious spectacle of human existence.
Rembrandt captures intricate detail and with a presciently modern sweep of his brush across the canvas, creates movement out of texture, producing paintings that many of his contemporaries regarded as unfinished. While the art world of his time was experiencing a revival of the classical ideal with its emphasis on perfect forms and portraits airbrushed of the weathering of age upon their subjects, Rembrandt painted with the eyes of a fellow man.
He is known for his exquisitely innovative use of etchings and drypoint and for his masterful group portraits. It is, however, Rembrandt’s individual portraits, including the more than one hundred self-portraits, that take us closest to the artist’s unique insight into the human condition. Rembrandt helps us see and understand, relate and sympathize. We are invited to finish what is unfinished as we reflect on this condition that we share with the subjects in his paintings, to encounter all in their tender frailty and magnificent beauty.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden in July of 1606. His father was a moderately well-off miller, his mother a baker’s daughter. Enrolled at first in the Latin School, followed by some time at the exceptional University of Leiden, Rembrandt withdrew to study art with the local artist Jacob van Swanenburgh. After three years learning the craft with Swanenburgh, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam to study for six months with Pieter Lastman. Upon his return to Leiden at the young age of twenty-two, Rembrandt opened his own studio and began accepting students.
His career as portrait painter began when he was commissioned by the monied and politically connected. Capturing the personalities of the important figures of Leiden and Amsterdam society, he earned a favorable reputation with his delicate but truthful portrayal of these newly wealthy Calvinists. Though his paintings portray his subjects simply as they appeared before him—wrinkled, say, or red eyed and gray—they are not without sympathy. He captures the personality and the internal light of each individual subject.
His innovative use of rough painting lent his portraits an energy that invites the viewer to participate (see Jan Six below). His mastery of detail and use of textures invite the viewer to touch, to complete the movement, as in Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts below. In Claudius Civilis (below), one of his last group paintings, this style is dramatically captured. Painted as one of several historical pieces for display in Amsterdam’s new town hall, it was commissioned to represent a classical ideal of the noble and courageous ancestors of the now internationally powerful burghers. Instead, Rembrandt produced an earthy, tribal scene. The painting was rejected. They had not wanted to commission Rembrandt in the first place and were not surprised to be disappointed by what they viewed as a monstrous depiction. Rembrandt, forever in debt, cut the canvas for resale as a smaller piece. What remains is a fragment of the original masterpiece, a masterpiece for which provincial Amsterdam was not yet ready.
Rembrandt’s use of light was innovative as well. He never left the Netherlands, but we know that he was familiar with the paintings of the great Italian Renaissance masters. While their use of light was imitated by other Dutch masters (van Horst, Rubens) to direct the viewer’s attention, Rembrandt’s use of light is diffuse, his shadows profoundly deep. It is difficult to tell in his paintings from where the light originates, and we are left to wonder if the light comes from the inner being of his subjects.
In his self-portraits, Rembrandt appears as poet, military man, cavalier, settled burgher and ruling official, even a great industrialist. In his religious paintings we find him as a member of the crowd that stones St. Stephen, but also as one gently aiding the descending body of Christ from the cross; he even appears in the face of the crucified Jesus. Perhaps as he completed these self-portraits, Rembrandt began to see himself in others and others in himself.
As historian Simon Schama describes it, by putting himself in the company of the wealthy and the pious, the powerful potentates and the unwashed beggars, Rembrandt shows us that “imperfections are the norm for humanity. He speaks across the centuries to those for whom art [is] something [more] than the quest for ideal forms; [he will move those]…unnumbered legions of damaged humanity who recognize…with gratitude, [his] vision.”
Amsterdam, in the 17th century at least, was not ready for all this innovation, and Rembrandt piled up debt even as his family succumbed, one after the other, to the devastations of the plague as it swept through the Netherlands—several times, in fact, during his lifetime. Rembrandt was predeceased by two wives, three daughters, his son and daughter-in-law.
Two of his most moving paintings, Simeon, Anna and Jesus and his final Prodigal Son (below), were both found after his death. His studio had been picked clean to pay his debts; these paintings were apparently uncommissioned works. In them, however, we have two of the most beautifully eloquent portrayals of grace and love. From one who had suffered so much loss within his own family, we have received a vision, though not idealized, of the profound mystery of life with its sweet trust and loyal companionship experienced within the bonds of familial love. And it was this loving vision that Rembrandt chose to portray as the essence of humanity (Schama 666).
Mary Frances Loughran is Cana Academy’s Director of Writing. She also directs CA’s mission to women in crisis. This post was based on her recent VISIONS presentation and draws on Simon Schama's book, Rembrandt's Eyes.