Rembrandt, whose full name was Rembrandt Harmensnoon van Rijn, was born in 1606 in Leyden, which had long been a major center of Dutch culture, being the birthplace of two other great painters, Jan Steen and Gerard Dou. At that time, the Netherlands was a province of Spain and had just begun fighting the Eighty Years’ War for independence therefrom. It was a perfect era in which to be born and become an artist: Between 1600 and 1650, the Dutch merchant fleet not only tripled but also contributed about half of the world’s shipping.
Becoming an artist
From about 1621 to 1624, Rembrandt studied art in Leyden with a little-known painter and then in Amsterdam with the master artist Pieter Lastman. Then, in about 1625, he left to paint on his own back in Leyden. In 1630, he traveled to Amsterdam yet again, this time to establish himself in what was the greatest commercial city of Europe at that time. The wealth and power of Amsterdam was increasing thanks in no small part to the establishment of the Dutch East India Company.
Once in Amsterdam, Rembrandt set up a new studio on one of the city’s western quays, the Blœmgracht. Almost immediately, he began receiving both pupils and commissions by the dozens, and he had to accommodate them by erecting partitions, each of which housed a different studio. Several of his pupils, including Jan Lievens, became famous artists in their own right and even joined the city’s guild of painters.
The first paintings made by Rembrandt depicted religious subjects. Unfortunately, several of his works from this early period, including one of Lot and his daughters, have been lost. Rembrandt also painted pictures of events from classical mythology, such as the meeting of Jupiter and Danae and the bath of Diana, reflecting the rediscovery of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome in 15th- and 16th-century Europe. The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp (1632) cemented Rembrandt’s reputation as the most fashionable portraitist in Amsterdam.
Marriage and family
In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh, a Frisian mayor’s daughter. Titus (1641-1668), who often posed for his father, was their only child who survived infancy, and his daughter Titia (died 1715) was the painter’s last surviving descendant. For the rest of his life, Rembrandt remained in Amsterdam, occasionally making short trips elsewhere in the Netherlands.
Towards the end of his life, times became hard for Rembrandt. In addition to family tragedies (Saskia died in 1642), he ceased to be as popular as he had once been. He soon ran short of money and had to declare bankruptcy in 1656, his house and possessions being auctioned off the following year.
During the 15th century, innovative artists had discovered how to use linseed oil as a pigment binder, and oil painting almost instantly replaced the more demanding egg tempera that had hitherto been the dominant painting medium. Painters from all over Europe began taking to oil, and Rembrandt was no exception. Most of his great masterpieces were executed in oil. Of course, like all professional painters, he also made drawings in charcoal, pencil, ink and other media.
Another area of art in which Rembrandt was a master was etching. Rembrandt used the dry point in addition to the etching needle, often bringing in the graver when finishing his work. Much of the charm of his etchings is a consequence of the variety of lines formed with this combination of instruments, including the use of light and shadow, which soon became his principal form of pictorial expression. Many of them were self-portraits made in various positions and with various expressions. An example of an etching made by Rembrandt may be seen at http://urbanmilwaukeedial.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Rembrandt-Self-Portrait-with-Plume.jpg.
How his art reflected his life
The appearance of a person’s face can reveal a great deal about his or her character and temperament. So it is with Rembrandt, who made self-portraits throughout his life; viewing them side by side in chronological order, one can almost read the artist’s life into them. An early one, for instance (http://www.wga.hu/art/r/rembrand/27self/06sp1629.jpg), shows Rembrandt as a handsome, vibrant young man of 23, whereas one made almost thirty years later (http://mystudios.com/rembrandt/works/rembrandt-sp-1658-small.jpg), after his bankruptcy, manifests the hard times on which he had fallen.