Baroque and Rococo


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Rembrandt van Rijn

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born July 15, 1606, Leiden, Neth.
died Oct. 4, 1669, Amsterdam

in full Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn Dutch painter, draftsman, and etcher of the 17th century, a giant in the history of art. His paintings are characterized by luxuriant brushwork, rich colour, and a mastery of chiaroscuro. Numerous portraits and self-portraits exhibit a profound penetration of character.

For most modern observers Rembrandt's art has attained a kind of universal familiarity and popularity. Yet the biblical scenes and the self-portraits that today form the hallmark of his art were by no means typical of Dutch pictures of the 17th century; more commonly, his contemporaries produced landscapes, still lifes, or genre scenes of daily life that never held great interest for Rembrandt. In his own era Rembrandt achieved greatest fame as the most fashionable portrait painter of Amsterdam during the 1630s, but he was eventually eclipsed even during his own lifetime by younger rivals, including some of his own students. Another major field of accomplishment lay in the medium of etching. Rembrandt commanded high prices for his prints even during his lifetime, and his technical mastery had a lasting effect on printmakers for centuries.

If any quality typified the works of this great artist, especially in his youth, that quality would be a personal ambition to rival the dominant artists of Europe, particularly Peter Paul Rubens from nearby Antwerp. But the tides of fashion in Holland and Rembrandt's own temperament seem to have frustrated much of his ambition and left him increasingly isolated and idiosyncratic in his final years. There is actually a kernel of truth to the apocryphal legend of Rembrandt's rejection by the leading patrons of Amsterdam, although this loss of favour was gradual and never total. As a result of his increasing isolation, however, Rembrandt achieved a particular personal independence that doubtless contributed to his distinctive and evocative suggestion of the timeless human world of quiet yet deep emotional states. The silent human figure remained the central subject of Rembrandt's art and contributed to the sense of a shared dialogue between viewer and picture, which still is the foundation of Rembrandt's greatness as well as of his popularity today.

Early years in Leiden

Rembrandt's youth does not help much to explain either the derivation or the character of his art. The artist's father, Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn, was a miller, a reasonably prosperous man; the family of his mother, Neeltje van Zuytbroeck, were bakers, but more important, they remained Catholics at a time when Leiden had adopted the Protestant creed. Indeed, Rembrandt's father was the only member of his family who became a Calvinist rather than remaining a Catholic. According to a Leiden chronicle written during the artist's lifetime (by Jan Orlers, 1641), the young Rembrandt was sent to a Latin school and directed toward the local university, the very first to have been established in Holland (1575) and a major centre of learning. But because the young man's proclivities led toward art, he was apprenticed during the period 1619–22 to the local painter Jacob Isaacszoon van Swanenburg. Little of the work of van Swanenburg can be identified today, and his art seems to have left scant influence on Rembrandt, but the fact that he, too, was a Catholic might have affected the choice of van Swanenburg as a master. Moreover, van Swanenburg's father had also been a highly successful painter in Leiden and had trained Rubens' master, Otto van Veen. Thus, this tutor held out a potential set of connections for the young Rembrandt.

But Rembrandt's chief training came from the Amsterdam painter Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), who had spent time in Italy (1603–1606/07) and had returned to Amsterdam to become the leading painter of biblical, mythological, and historical pictures. Although Rembrandt seems to have spent only about half a year with Lastman around 1623, he fully absorbed the lessons of his master. From Lastman he learned the importance of painting lofty subjects in a broad format with careful attention to the ancient costumes, dramatic gestures, and compositional groupings of the full-length figures. The earliest Rembrandt pictures, including “Stoning of Saint Stephen” (1625), “Palamedes Before Agamemnon” (1626), and “Baptism of the Eunuch” (1626), clearly derive closely from both the themes and the pictorial formulas of Lastman. The baptism of the eunuch, for example, had already been painted by Lastman in a broad format a few years before (1623; Karlsruhe); Rembrandt's version of the scene from Acts is transposed into a vertical format, but it retains most of the same figures, costumes, and accessories, yet condensed into a tighter, more dramatically lighted mass. Another close comparison of both theme and form is provided by Lastman's 1622 panel and Rembrandt's denser, vertical 1626 panel of the same subject, “Balaam's Ass and the Angel.” Recent research links the “St. Stephen” and the “Palamedes” with commissions from the young Rembrandt in Leiden by a local humanist named Petrus Scriverius, whose estate cites two large pictures by Rembrandt; otherwise the early patrons of these pictures are unknown today.


The early Rembrandt paintings already reveal the artist's ambition to rival the leading painters in Europe. Not only did he concentrate on the most learned and morally serious subjects but he also strove for the historically plausible settings and costumes that distinguished the pictures of Lastman and such painters in Rome as the German émigré Adam Elsheimer. Also evident in these early paintings are Rembrandt's nascent fascination with dramatic personal responses and with spotlight effects of light and shadow. If anything, these elements came to dominate his art in the succeeding decade. In particular, Rembrandt's exposure to a group of artists from nearby Utrecht led to an abrupt emulation of their sharply drawn chiaroscuro, or painting in light and dark. These Utrecht painters, led by Gerrit van Honthorst, had recently returned from Rome, and their art enjoyed not only local popularity but also strong favour in the courts of northern Europe. Hence, when Rembrandt painted such religious works as “The Presentation in the Temple” (c. 1627–28) or “Christ at Emmaus” (1628), he sought to emulate the drama of lighting and gesture of Elsheimer, Caravaggio, and, now, van Honthorst and to place himself firmly into the international world of art. A measure of the self-concept of Rembrandt around this time is the small but dramatic “Young Painter in the Studio” (c. 1629), which shows a full-length shadowy figure of an artist situated against the back wall and dwarfed by a massive panel lying on its easel in the foreground. This panel, seen from behind, lies in shadow, with only its near edge glowing with light. The overall effect is one of heroic confrontation within the very act of creation.
That Rembrandt had attained eminence as an artist by the end of the 1620s can be discerned from a famous reference, dating from 1629/30, in the autobiography of Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of the Prince of Orange. Huygens singles out Rembrandt as well as his young Leiden friend and colleague, Jan Lievens (1607–74), for special praise in terms of their future promise as artists. Rembrandt is lauded for his penetration to the essence of his subjects and for his effects in small format. In particular, the 1629 panel “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” is held up as a model for moving gesture and emotion, worthy of the finest works of Italy or even of antiquity. Huygens' chief regret is that Rembrandt and Lievens never traveled to Italy for further study of the past masters.


Only in recent years has Lievens begun to receive attention commensurate with that paid to Rembrandt, although the careers of the two artists developed in tandem for many years. Lievens, too, journeyed from Leiden to Amsterdam for a two-year apprenticeship (1618–19) with Lastman. Indeed, it may well have been the example of Lievens that led Rembrandt to study with Lastman, and the influence of Lievens remained essential. Probably through Lievens came the exposure to Utrecht painting, which was to influence Rembrandt's art. In the late 1620s Lievens' art so closely resembled Rembrandt's that scholars are still debating the proper attribution of some panels. For example, Lievens' “Capture of Samson” (c. 1627–28; Amsterdam) appears to have been the stimulus for Rembrandt's “Capture of Samson” (1628), and both works emulate the same subject as painted by Rubens (1610; London) and circulated throughout Europe in prints from an engraved version. In similar fashion Rembrandt and Lievens maintained a pictorial dialogue concerning the subject of the raising of Lazarus, beginning with Rembrandt's c. 1630 panel (Los Angeles), followed by Lievens' 1631 canvas (Brighton) and etching, and ending with Rembrandt's masterful, dramatic, and large etching of about 1632. Rembrandt even seems to have predated some of his works to make them seem earlier than the comparable Lievens compositions. In 1632, however, Lievens departed for England, where he most likely became acquainted with Anthony Van Dyck, whose art redirected his own and led him to a later career in Antwerp between 1635 and 1644 before he returned to Amsterdam.

As part of the same ambition to paint historical pictures, both Rembrandt and Lievens also experimented with studies of heads, or what the Dutch call tronies. Often these figures wear exotic millinery and receive dramatic poses and lighting, but they are not portraits. Rather, they seem to have served as possible models or practice pieces for the character heads to be included within larger histories. Many of the pictures with the same models that were known in the 19th century as Rembrandt's “father” or “mother” are actually such studies of heads, with special attention to the rendition of stuffs, of lighting, and of facial expressions or features. Many of the early self-portraits also seem to have been variants of the tronies formula, in which Rembrandt simply used his own features in lieu of those of another model and dressed himself up in military or fashionable garb: plumed hats, golden chains, armour gorgets. Some of the heads of the older models reappear virtually without change on the numerous prophets and apostles (including the luminous 1630 “Jeremiah”) that Rembrandt produced in 1630–31 in his later years in Leiden; this was a kind of picture that he left off doing until his final decade in the 1660s.

Rembrandt already enjoyed the attention of pupils and followers during his early years. His first disciple was Gerrit Dou, who emulated still another category of pictures from Rembrandt's oeuvre: his genre scenes, or depictions of everyday activities. Rembrandt had already created such scenes in his 1626 “Music Lesson,” a work that also features archaic costumes and suggestions of lustfulness. Dou, also a Leiden native, the son of a glass engraver, became a pupil of Rembrandt in 1628 and continued this kind of subject but with overtones of seriousness and moral instruction and with an enamel-like fineness on a minute scale that was highly prized by collectors.


Music Lesson
Oil on wood
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Having attracted the attention of the influential Huygens at court in The Hague, Rembrandt made inroads with the ruling House of Orange, chiefly with Prince Frederick Henry, for whom he painted in 1632–33 two scenes of Christ's Passion, the “Raising of the Cross” and the “Descent from the Cross” (both in Munich) as well as a portrait of the princess Amalia van Solms that was to have been the pendant of a van Honthorst portrait of Frederick Henry. The Passion scenes were ordered for the Prince by Huygens and are closely linked to the model of Rubens, again known to Rembrandt chiefly through an engraving. At the time Rubens was the leading artistic force in Europe, and as a cultivated diplomat as well as a consummate painter he was especially favoured at princely courts. Thus, to emulate Rubens' “Descent from the Cross” for his own princely patron was for Rembrandt the highest act of artistic self-assertion. Rembrandt even went so far as to produce his own 1633 etching of his picture in emulation of Rubens. One striking feature about both of Rembrandt's Passion scenes is that the artist gave his own features to participants within the scene; in the “Raising of the Cross” he even employed modern dress and a focused light to underscore this personal involvement, meant perhaps to express his own meditative spirituality.


The letters from Rembrandt to Huygens concerning the Passion series survive, and they document a second phase of artistic production between 1636 and 1639, when three more pictures were made for Frederick Henry. The letters document the progressive disenchantment with Rembrandt by Huygens and the Prince, but one of them also contains a rare personal testimonial from Rembrandt concerning his artistic aims. The letter underscores the artist's commitment to evoking “the greatest and most natural emotion” for his religious subjects. In this respect he is close to Rubens, who also was dedicated to the evocation of energy, drama, and emotion. Rembrandt's works in comparison present less of the heroism and beauty of Rubens' scenes but emphasize instead dramatic nocturnal lighting, humble figures, and intimate, lifelike reactions of his religious actors. These were basically the same elements that Huygens had already singled out for praise in Rembrandt's earlier pictures, and they continued to inform his religious art during the 1630s.

Esther Preparing to Intercede with Ahasuerus


Early years in Amsterdam

Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in late 1631. He already had a dealer in that city, Hendrick Uylenburgh, and his prospects at court were eclipsed by the domination of van Honthorst. Thus, the prosperity of Amsterdam, a capital of capitalism and a virtual city-state, drew him inexorably. In part through his introductions from Uylenburgh, Rembrandtquickly became one of the most fashionable and well-paid portraitists in Amsterdam. He was able to impress the regents of his adopted city, that clan of mercantile patricians who formed the centre of political power and influence. A mark of Rembrandt's early success was his commission to paint “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” (1632), a commemoration of the annual anatomic demonstration to the city's guild of surgeons by its praelector, or chief surgeon. This large-scale group portrait by Rembrandt has been justly celebrated ever since for its departure from the rule of showing a coordinated row of portrait heads. In contrast Rembrandt animated his subjects through a pyramidal composition and his mastery of dramatic lighting to focus attention on the actual process of the lecture itself. At the same time he enlivened the faces of the listeners with a rich variety of expressions of attention, investing them with the same suggestive pictorial psychology that would remain his trademark. Many of the same features can be found in Rembrandt's portraits of individuals or of husbands and wives painted shortly after his arrival in Amsterdam. Although Rembrandt had painted very few portraits while at Leiden, his first four years in Amsterdam brought him some 50 portrait commissions, most of them quite well paid. Inasmuch as Nicolaes Tulp was not only a surgeon but also an alderman and a member of the Amsterdam town council, he was an influential man within the regents' group. Also popular with the regents was Uylenburgh, the art dealer with whom Rembrandt lived briefly and also entered into commercial partnership. Many of Rembrandt's portrait sitters (e.g., Marten Looten, 1632) appear to have been Mennonites, religious conservatives, whom he met through Uylenburgh and who were well connected with the Amsterdam regents.

Rembrandt also portrayed a number of religious leaders of Holland during his first decade in Amsterdam: the Remonstrant Johannes Uytenbogaert (1633 panel and 1635 etching), the Calvinist Johannes Elison (1634), and the Mennonite Cornelis Anslo (1641 double portrait panel and etching). This last figure was a renowned preacher, and Rembrandt's portrayal emphasizes Mennonite reliance on the spoken word. In general his renditions take up the traditional challenge to the pictorial arts to render life without the aid of the spoken or the written word, as if in response to the challenge written in verse by the greatest of 17th-century Dutch poets, Joost van den Vondel:


That's right, Rembrandt, paint Cornelis's voice!
His visible self is second choice.
The invisible can only be known through the word.
For Anslo to be seen, he must be heard.


Yet, in addition to these portraits and the numerous pendant pairs of portraits during these early Amsterdam years, Rembrandt also clearly yearned for recognition, after the model of Rubens, as a painter of both mythologies and biblical stories. About the time of his move from Leiden, he produced his most extensive group of mythologies, beginning with “Andromeda” (c. 1630), which stresses the pathos rather than either the beauty or the heroism of the nude victim. A large “Pluto and Proserpina” (c. 1632) was clearly made for Frederick Henry at the same time as the Passion pictures, and both its scale and its frenetic energy attest to its relationship to the idiom of Rubens, although there fined execution still harks back to the Leiden of Dou. More typical, however, of Rembrandt's tendency to demythologize is the way he renders such subjects as “Rapeof Europa” (c. 1632) or “Rape of Ganymede” (1635). The former places a seraglio of exotically clad, small-scale women in front of a shoreline that includes a Dutch harbour scene. The latter scene is even more prosaic, showing a mewling toddler instead of the seductively beauteous youth of legend. Not only is the eagle elevating the child upward against a leaden-gray sky but also the frightened boy urinates reflexively in his horror. The artist seems almost to have taken pains to violate conventions of beauty and decorum in such a work, as if to engage in persiflage rather than homage to the classical heritage. Scholars still debate whether this work holds Neoplatonic significance as a mythic analogue to the union of the Christian soul with the divine or whether its irreverence lies closer to the homophilic traditions of the subject.


Rape of Ganymede
Oil on canvas, 171 x 130 cm
Gemaldegalerie, Dresden






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