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Rembrandt: a short biography

Rembrandt van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in Leiden as one of the ten children of Harmen Gerritsz. van Rijn and Neeltgen van Suytbroek. It was a miller’s family, which was quite well-to-do. As the only child in the family, Rembrandt received a classical education. In Leiden he attended the Latin school until 1619. Rembrandt was registered as a university student (both in 1620 and 1622), but he preferred to be trained as a painter. He trained with painter Jacob van Swanenburgh until 1623. There he was taught the fundamentals of painting. When Rembrandt was 18 or 19 years old, he followed additional training for six months in Amsterdam as a student of Pieter Lastman, the preeminent history painter of the day. In Leiden, Rembrandt created his earliest known work when he was around 18 years old. They are Rembrandt’s “Four Senses”, consisting of The Glasses Seller (“Sight”), The Operation (“Feeling”), The Three Singers (“Hearing”) and The Fainted Patient (“Smell”).

After this training, Rembrandt established himself as an independent painter in Leiden. His first pupil is Gerrit Dou. A childhood friend is Jan Lievens, but they were also rivals. Both are discovered by Constantijn Huygens, secretary of Prince Frederik Hendrik, Stadholder at the time. The latter admires Rembrandt’s ability to capture “movements of the soul”. Rembrandt was a child of his time and started painting many Bible scenes, albeit in a quite realistic way. By the way, his religion – very important in those days – is unknown. His upbringing was Protestant, yet his father was not an orthodox Calvinist, rather a Remonstrant, with a laxer view on predestination. His mother was Roman Catholic. Rembrandt’s father died in 1630.

Initially he signed his work with RL or with RHL: Rembrandt Harmenszoon from Leiden. Only from 1632 onwards did he sign with his first name only: Rembrandt.

In the early 1630s, Rembrandt left Leiden and opted for a painting career in the much more cosmopolitan and prosperous Amsterdam. He lived with art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh. Via Uylenburgh, Rembrandt immediately had access to studio space as well as the art dealer’s extensive contacts with the most influential city regents and merchants. Rembrandt thus grew into becoming a society painter who was willing to paint anyone who was willing to pay, whatever religious background. At Uylenburgh he also met his cousin Saskia, from Leeuwarden (Friesland). In 1634 Rembrandt became a member of the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke and in the same year he married Saskia. His father had already died in 1630. Mother was not present at the wedding, but it was a happy period for Rembrandt.

In his first years in Amsterdam, he developed his skills as a portrait painter, and this is where his popularity as a portrait painter grew. At Uylenburgh’s he made an average of one portrait per month for four years. He also took on students, including Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

In 1635 he rents a house in Nieuwe Doelstraat and establishes his own independent practice/studio; in 1637 he rents a house (“De Suijckerbackerij”) at Binnen-Amstel. In 1639 Rembrandt signs a deed for the purchase of a house at Sint Anthonisbreestraat or Breestraat (now Rembrandt House Museum). Rembrandt makes an arrangement for the payment of the purchase price of thirteen thousand guilders. For the next twenty years, this location will be his home, his atelier, his shop and the workshop location for many students. His pupils include Carel Fabritius and Samuel van Hoogstraten. The house would be a financial burden for him.

Rembrandt and Saskia had four children, however only Titus, born in 1641, survived infantry. After a long illness, Saskia died in 1642. Titus was only nine months old. In the same year Rembrandt painted his probably most renowned portrait, The Night Watch (“De Nachtwacht”). After Saskia’s death, the house will be jointly owned by Rembrandt and Titus; Rembrandt holds usufruct. Geertje Dirckx (1610-1656?), a widow, becomes caretaker of Titus. She will become Rembrandt’s lover, but their relationship ended nasty and malicious.

In 1647, Rembrandt meets Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-1663) from Breedevoort (now: Aalten, Eastern part of the Netherlands). She who would become his companion and would care for him and Titus until her death from the plague in 1663. Rembrandt and Hendrickje remained unmarried, probably because of a stipulation in Saskia’s will that he would have to transfer half of their joint assets to Titus should he remarry. Both his domestic situation as well as his changing style with dark, roughly brushed portraits and his devotion to religious, historical, and mythological paintings, caused numerous commissions from Amsterdam regents and merchants within the existing elite. He also lost favour among a younger generation of patrons in Amsterdam. This may have caused financial difficulties. Other factors may also have contributed to Rembrandt’s need for liquidity (cash). Markets, and the art market in particular, were in trouble. Trade and the economy had been affected by the effects of the first Anglo-Dutch naval war (1652-1654), while in this period the art market had also started to decline more generally.

In 1656 an unclear transaction took place between Rembrandt and Titus regarding the house. Rembrandt’s insolvency (“cessio bonorum”) follows a few weeks later. Torquinius is appointed as administrator. The Chambre of Abandoned and Insolvent estates (“Desolate Boedelskamer”), located at the Amsterdam Town Hall (presently the Royal Palace at Dam Square), oversees the administration. During the following years his possessions, including his large art collection, has been auctioned. A legal battle between a creditor and Titus’ guardian Louis Crayers follows and is finally settled in 1660.

In 1658/1660 Rembrandt had moved (with Hendrickje and their daughter Cornelia, then around six or seven years old) to the Rozengracht in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam. It is a relatively small house, where he lived for the rest of his life. In this period Rembrandt still received important portrait commissions but, overall, slowly fell out of favour. He made several highly regarded self-portraits. However, there was more interest in elegant styles of former students, such as Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol. In 1662 he had to sell the grave of his beloved wife Saskia in the Oude Kerk.

Hendrickje died in 1663 from the plague. Titus married Magdalena van Loo (a cousin of Saskia’s sister Hiskia) in 1668, but six months Titus passed away. Their child Titia, Rembrandt’s granddaughter, would be born March 1669. Titia’s mother Magdalena passed away on October 21, 1669. Rembrandt died on October 4, 1669, at the age of 63. His daughter Cornelia was left alone. Rembrandt was buried in a rented grave in the Westerkerk, Amsterdam. The location of the grave is unknown.

The artist’s paintings are among the most valuable works in the world today. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is one of the few painters whose first name alone is enough. Yet there is still a lot not known about Rembrandt’s life. It is certain that Rembrandt van Rijn is a master with an enduring legacy. He is universal in that he worked with a variety of media and depicts a broad range of subjects. He uses paintings, etchings and drawings, with traditional Biblical and mythological scenes, as well as (group)portraits. These depicted the physical characteristics of those depicted, as well as their pride and their feelings. He is also seen as personal, in his ability to convey deeply felt emotions, that still resonate with many of its contemporary viewers. Several tens of thousands a year join this growing group of admirers.