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Mr. Burgher's Art Facts

Rembrandt van Rijn

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Rembrandt van Rijn: July 15,1606-Oct. 4,1669...Holland

"Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can't do it. I just can't do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy."
~Rembrandt van Rijn

One of the most known teachers, draftsmen, etchers, painters and artists of the 17th century is Rembrandt van Rijn. An art icon that remains a recognizable name, even to those that know nothing of his artworks or his story. His father was a miller and made a modest income. Although the family was middle class, Rembrandt’s parents were sure to provide him with a great education. He studied philosophy and literature but soon, in 1620, began to study painting under Jakob van Swanenburgh. After three years of study, he went on to study in Amsterdam under historical painter, Pieter Lastman, who was a student of Adam Elsheimer, who was taught by Philipp Uffenbach, who was a student of Matthias Grünewalt. He caught on to the skills quickly, and returned to his home in Leiden. There, at the young age of twenty-two, Rembrandt began teaching is own students.

One of my personal favorites and one of the best examples of Rembrandt at this time was a work called Artist in His Studio. Here we see a snapshot of daily life for the twenty-three year old Rembrandt working in his first studio in Leiden. He is no big name in the art world and has only a local reputation. Here he began to teach art. It is believed he taught around fifty students in his life time, although there is no list of students he worked with. He had a million opportunities in front of him and the talent to take the art world be storm. But here he starts. In this shabby old studio in the small hometown of Leiden. We see his self-confidence. On the table we see a stone used for grinding pigments and various chemicles. His brush and maul stick in hand, and ready to attack the largely presented canvas. But, this too gives us clues to how he worked. In this painting, as we focus on the easel, we see two distinct wear marks on the bottom bar of the easel. This is a clue that he painted sitting down, not standing as many believed. He soon gave up this first studio with the cracked plaster walls for a studio where he would make his mark on art history.

Artist in His Studio
1629. Oil on Canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.

Rembrandt moved back to Amsterdam in 1631, where he opened an art studio. In 1634 he married his art dealers cousin, Saskia van Uylenborch. This was a marriage that also helped him boost his art career via contacts and high society clients. This early work, in a dynamic and realistic style, was gaining a great reputation. He was very adamant about being true to what he saw in his portraits: he refused to idealize people. His religious artworks were also very popular at this time. Clients were pouring to get a work by Rembrandt, and students were pouring into his studio to learn from this master. He is very much know for his self portraits. Over his career he created about one-hundred self-portraits. One of my favorites is his Self-Portrait from 1659. This darker ochre painting is an amazing example of his work in chiaroscuro. This was no doubt  influenced by Michelangelo Caravaggio. All of these portraits show the world his sensitivity, grief, and loneliness as the years rolled on. He's emotions were no doubt a result of his not so fortunate personal life.

Self-Portrait
1659. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.

Over a six year period of time, Saskia gave birth to four children. As was somewhat common at that time almost all of those children died as babies. Only the youngest, Titus, lived into childhood. Rembrandt was talented, but was often violent and unstable with his family. The year after Titus’s birth, 1642, she died at the age of 30. Rembrandt soon started a relationship with Geertje Dircks, his son’s nanny. He then hires a housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, who he falls in love with. She would become his common-law wife and was his model for several of his paintings. Geertje was jealous of his relationship with Hendrickje. Although she tried to win him over, Geertje was soon unemployed and then placed into an asylum. Hendrickje was soon pregnant with their daughter, Cornelia. His skill and reputation as an artist was wonderful, but his reputation as a man was flawed. His wife had just died and he moves another women in who gets pregnant but would not marry her. Why would he not marry Hendrickje? Well, when he married Saskia, a more than adequate dowry set aside by her family to live off of. If he remarried, he would loose all rights to Saskia’s funds and Rembrandt loved to spend money. Public scandal and being condemned by the church, no matter; he had his money. His personal art collection included art by Albrecht DürerPieter Bruegel the Elder, Titian, Michelangelo Caravaggio and many others. He had a room filled with "curiosities" from around the world: Persian textiles, a poison-dart blowpipe from South America, armor from Japan. He bought costumes, weapons, art, rarities, and tons of stuff that were props in his paintings. His living beyond his means ate into his amassed fortune and when he tried to buy a new house, he did not even have the money for a deposit. In 1656 he had spent nearly all of the money and declared bankruptcy. Everything he owned as sold for a fraction of its value at auction. Titus felt obligated to care for his father, Hendrickje, and his half-sister.

Surprisingly, this bankruptcy improved Rembrandt's art productivity. Law prevented Rembrandt from managing his money, so he was contracted as an artist advisor through Titus and Hendrickje's newly created art dealer's business. They took care of all his finances. One of Rembrandt’s own great works of this post bankruptcy time was The Syndics of the Cloth Guild. It is a portrait of the appointed five member board of cloth inspectors. The hatless guy in back is their servant. To better understand Rembrandt’s approach and to verify the works authenticity an a true Rembrandt work, it has been x-rayed several times. This has revealed that Rembrandt altered the composition several times before developing this end result. For example the standing man that is second from the left was originally on the far left.

1662. Oil on Canvas. 75.4 X 109.8 in. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands.

As time went on into his later years, Rembrandt developed a more psychological style. One example of that is seen in his work Return of the Prodigal Son. Based on the "Parable of the Lost Son" (Luke 15:11-32). 

The parable is of a wealthy man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father for his share of the estate, which his father gives to him. He left home and squandered all his money foolishly. He had no choice but to become a farm hand who fed pigs that ate better than he did. He planned to go home to become a hired worker for his father. His father lovingly accepted his son home eventhough he was a knuckle head. He gave him the best things in life and a feast. The other brother became upset and refused to go home. His father had to explain that they celebrate because his brother was lost but has been found. In the painting we see the father’s emotion, with his hands on his younger sons shoulders. Eyes closed, almost to suggest that he is calming himself before looking at his son. The shoeless son is at the feet of his father with his older brother looking on. These are complex emotional and psychological issues.

Return of the Prodigal Son

1668/1669. Oil on Canvas. 8 feet 8 inches x 6 feet 8¾ inches. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

One of the truly unique facts surrounding Rembrandt's works involves his studio. As mentioned, it is common for art scholars to use x-rays to determine the authenticity of his works. In his studio, Rembrandt was trading art works with his students like little kids trading baseball cards. He signed some that were made another artist and others had signed some that we now know were painted by Rembrandt. The fact is that in his large workshop, we may never know how many works were painted by Rembrandt over his long and productive life.

As the end was nearing, Rembrandt's personal situation was in a downward plummet. Hendrickje died and then Titus died. His son's death was so hard on him. He never recovered from that loss. Titus' wife was caring for him, and then she died. When he passed in October, it is said that he had his art supplies, some worthless trinkets in his pockets, and little of nothing else to his name.

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Mr. Mike Burgher * PO Box 247 * Dallas Center, Iowa. 50063