Rembrandt: His First Break
by Cathy Locke
Today we don’t give much thought to how the great masters of art found their way to becoming successful. With an artist like Rembrandt we just assume he was born knowing how to create good art, but that just wasn’t the case. Rembrandt was lucky because during the time period in which he lived business was thriving. The Dutch Golden Age of the seventeenth century was a period of great prosperity in Holland that led to an enormous production of art by a large number of painters. It was a time when technical standards were very high, forcing painters to become specialized in genre scenes, landscapes, still-lifes, portraits, mythological or history paintings. Unlike the prior century there was far less demand for religious paintings as the Catholic Church was going through a period of reform. This was the time when Protestantism was born, dividing the Roman Catholic Church into distinct branches. In addition, there were fewer large aristocratic houses to fill due to a shift from the few holding all the wealth to the general population having enough income to purchase artwork to decorate their homes. It was a time when Dutch trade, science, military and art were among the most acclaimed in the world.
Born in Leiden, Netherlands, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69) was the ninth child of a well-to-do family. From 1620 to around 1625, Rembrandt trained as an artist under two masters. His first was painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571–1638), with whom he studied for about three years, learning basic artistic skills. His second teacher was Amsterdam’s Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), who was a well-known history painter and likely helped Rembrandt master the genre, which included placing figures from biblical, historical and allegorical scenes in complex settings.1 In 1624, at the age of eighteen, Rembrandt opened his own studio in Leiden and three years later began accepting students. During this period we can see the influence of Lastman in Rembrandt’s work. In several instances Rembrandt deconstructed his former master’s compositions then recreated them into his own, a practice that would be carried out by Rembrandt’s own pupils later on. One such example is The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625), which is believed to be Rembrandt’s first painting, which he painted at the age of nineteen. In this immature work the figures are rendered very stiffly, as if they were wooden mannequins. The composition is also elementary as the figures are stacked next to each other. We can see the beginning of Rembrandt’s use of light and dark values, which he would become known for in years to come. Rembrandt’s paintings created at this time were predominantly small religious and allegorical themes that were rich in detail. By the age of twenty-three, Rembrandt received his first court commission in 1629 from Prince Frederik Hendrik (1584–1647), who continued to purchase Rembrandt’s work throughout his life.
The 1630s was a decade of tremendous success for Rembrandt’s career, combined with great personal loss. The subject matter of his work during this decade was primarily portraiture and narrative painting. In 1631, at the age of twenty-five, he moved his studio to Amsterdam, the business capital of the Netherlands. That same year Rembrandt partnered with Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587–1661), an art dealer who had a workshop that created portraits and restored paintings. This partnership, along with Rembrandt’s “energetic” painting style, helped him receive numerous portrait commissions. Unfortunately, Rembrandt was criticized for his inability to create an exact likeness of his subject. These early portraits exhibit a generic quality where everyone’s face is very similar. During this period he painted one of his most famous portraits, Old Warrior (1629-30). Rembrandt painted many versions of this portrait throughout his life; the original version is part of the collection of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. The actual person in the original version is believed to have been Rembrandt’s father. Rembrandt continued to paint portraits throughout his career. By the 1640s we start to see a higher level of sophistication in capturing his subject’s likeness.
In 1634 Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburg (1612-1642), whose father had been a successful lawyer and mayor of Leeuwarden. It is believed Saskia met Rembrandt at the home of his business partner and her uncle, Hendrick van Uylenburgh. Orphaned by age twelve, Saskia was raised by her sister Hiskje and her husband, Gerard van Loo. Saskia fell in love with an artist who was socially no match for the daughter of a patrician, which caused issues on both sides of their families. The same year that Saskia and Rembrandt married, he painted Flora, a stylized portrait of a pregnant Saskia with a garland on her head. The use of garlands in paintings became popular in the early 1600s when Flemish artists Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568–1625) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) began using them to symbolize the Catholic Reformation. Whether or not Rembrandt was making a religious statement is unknown. We do know that although his mother was Roman Catholic, his father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, and all five of Rembrandt’s children were christened in Dutch Reformed churches in Amsterdam. Rembrandt’s use of the head garland combined with a pregnant young woman as the goddess of plants and fertility in Roman mythology would have been a contemporary take on an ancient theme. Saskia is dressed in luxurious garments worn by the Dutch Jews, which shows the focus of the painting was on Rembrandt’s clientele and not a portrait of Saskia. Rembrandt was very familiar with members of the Jewish community of Amsterdam and often added Jewish artifacts to his paintings.2 Though the painting was criticized because Saskia’s face is too idealized and not an exact likeness, it’s doubtful Rembrandt’s goal was to paint a portrait. Rembrandt’s workshop executed another Flora the following year, using an older female patron as the model. That Flora now hangs at the National Gallery in London.
Rembrandt gained tremendous financial success during the 1630s and decided to buy a house in the Jodenbreestraat in 1639, next to the place where he worked. Jodenbreestraat was an up-and-coming Jewish neighborhood in Amsterdam during this time. Rembrandt asked his brother-in-law, Ulricus van Uylenburgh, a lawyer, to help them out by confirming he was successful and able to pay for the house.3 The mortgage to finance the 13,000 guilder purchase would be a primary cause for Rembrandt’s later financial difficulties. Rembrandt should easily have been able to pay the house off with his large income, but his spending always kept pace with his income. He amassed a huge collection of art and antiquates, often buying his own paintings to drive up the prices.
During the later half of the 1630s Rembrandt began painting dramatic, large-scale biblical and mythological scenes, such as Descent from the Cross (1634), Sacrifice of Isaac (1635) and Danaë (1636). It is during this period that we see Rembrandt developing his own voice as an artist. Descent from the Cross is one of his first paintings that show the beginning of his sophisticated use of light. Painted at the age of twenty-nine, Sacrifice of Isaac is one of Rembrandt’s most successful and mature works in his career up to this point. Compared to the rigid centered composition of Descent from the Cross, in Sacrifice of Isaac we see a flowing composition starting with the angel’s raised hand down to Isaac’s arched body. The circular motif is seen in the physical gestures of the three characters; even the abandoned knife is curved. Note the importance of hands in this painting: the angel’s left hand is pointing to heaven, while his right hand holds back Abraham’s left hand forcing him to drop his knife. Abraham’s right hand holds down Isaac’s head, concealing his identity. Isaac’s helplessness is further reinforced by having both his hands bound behind his back, unseen. The theme of the painting centers around “the hand of God,” which Rembrandt has orchestrated masterfully. Directly under the knife, slightly above Isaac’s body, in the folds of the garments, we can read in Hebrew the name of Jehovah and a letter that signifies it is part of a quotation. Rembrandt did not know Hebrew, but many of his assistants and advisors did.2 The subtle insertion of Hebrew was probably done to speak to the original owner of this piece. There is a copy of this painting in Munich, which was made by Rembrandt’s workshop. The original painting ended up in the collection of Sir Robert Walpole in England and was purchased by Catherine the Great in 1779.
Painted when Rembrandt was just thirty years old, Danaë (1636) was inspired by Lastman’s The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sara (1611). Rembrandt continues to employ the circular motif with the composition of this painting. From the base of the golden Zeus at Danaë’s head, our eye is led down her nude body to the dimly lit opening where her father, King Acrisius, hides. At this point we see a masterful control of light and value contrasts in this work. The white sheets on the bed frame Danaë’s nude body making it stand out in an otherwise dark environment. The model for this painting, Geertje Dircx (c.1610/1615 – c.1656), was the wet nurse for Rembrandt’s fourth and only surviving child, Titus (1641-1668). Geertje was hired during Saskia’s illness, which was most likely with tuberculosis from of which she died the following year. Rembrandt's drawings of Saskia on her sick and deathbed are among his most moving works. After Saskia’s death Geertje became Rembrandt’s lover for several years. In 1649 she expected him to marry her, but if Rembrandt remarried he would no longer have access to his son's inheritance from Saskia. The relationship broke up acrimoniously, leading to a lengthy court case for “breach of promise,” in which Geertje was awarded alimony of two-hundred guilders a year. After learning Geertje had pawned jewelry that had once belonged to Saskia, Rembrandt had her committed to an asylum for twelve years, which put an end to the alimony payments. After her release she tried to sue Rembrandt for wrongful imprisonment. Perhaps Rembrandt’s Danaë carried with it a “bad juju,” because on June 15, 1985 it was attacked by Bronius Maigys, who threw sulfuric acid on the canvas and cut it twice with his knife. The entire central part of the composition was turned into a mixture of spots with a conglomerate of splashes and areas of dripping paint. The worst damage was to the face and hair of Danaë, as well as her right arm and legs.
In the decade beginning in 1630 we see a meteoric jump in Rembrandt’s skills, style and compositions. Gone are the awkwardly staged characters seen in The Stoning of Saint Stephen. Rembrandt’s Flora shows us the beginning of his creation of fashionable paintings that are stylized using the latest trends. The paintings that follow get more and more sophisticated with their use of light and dark value contrast, subject matter, styling and composition. We can see that Rembrandt isn’t just reconstructing his former master’s compositions, but instead he is really thinking out the themes of his paintings to make his own statement. This decade was the foundation for his later work when he produced some of the greatest masterpieces the art world has ever seen.
2. Mikhail Piotrovsky, My Hermitage: How the Hermitage Survived Tsars, Wars, and Revolutions to Become the Greatest Museum in the World; SkiraRizzoli, 2015; page 316.
3. Driessen, Christoph (2012): Rembrandts vrouwen, p 116.
About the Author:
Cathy Locke is an award-winning fine art painter, professor, and published writer, specializing in Russian art of the 19th and 20th centuries. She organizes annual art excursions to Russia every summer and is the editor of Musings-on-art.org.