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A Biography

Rembrandt van Rijn

Genre: Research Article

Article by: Dave Roberts - First Published: 21 November 2012

Born: 15 July 1606 - Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn in the Dutch city of Leiden, Dutch Republic (now Holland or Netherlands). Died 4 October 1669 (aged 63) in Amsterdam.

Famous Works: Along with many others include: Night Watch, 1642 | Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632 | The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as the 'Sampling Officials' | Many Self Portraits.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is the most famous Dutch artist to have lived and is regarded to be one of the greatest artists of all time. He was born in the Dutch city of Leiden into a well off family, his father a successful miller, his mother a baker's daughter. They were able to provide well for the young Rembrandt (their 9th child) including the financing of a good education at Leiden's Latin School - before he went on to study at Leiden University. He attended Leiden University for only a few months, leaving to start a three year apprenticeship with Jacob van Swanenburgh, then studying for a further six months with the famous painter Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam.

Before reaching the age of 20-years-old, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden, which he shared with friend and fellow young artist, Jan Lievens. Lievens, who had also studied with Lastman, (was a year younger than Rembrandt) began his professional career as an independent artist in Leiden at the early age of 12-years-old.

During a period that included the Protestant Reformation, Dutch churches could no longer be relied upon for commissions, yet Rembrandt refused to follow the advice and route taken by many other young artists of the time, to 'travel to Italy', where commissions from the Roman Catholic Church were readily obtainable for artists with extraordinary talent.

However, Rembrandt now struggling to make his mark, came to the realisation that Leiden offered very limited opportunities. In the beginning of the 1630s he moved to Amsterdam - where he took up residence with art dealer: Hendrick van Uylenburg.

Now Rembrandt experienced the success he had dreamed of, his artistic focus concentrated on producing portraits for the successful traders in the rapidly expanding Amsterdam. During these happy times for Rembrandt, he met his wife to be 'Saskia van Uylenburgh' - the cousin of his landlord. Saskia who would model for some of Rembrandt's etchings and paintings, was the daughter of a successful lawyer and Frisian Mayor, she had mixed blessings in her early life. At 7-years-old her mother died, then only 5-years later she was orphaned when her father also died. Saskia was then raised by her older sister Hiske, with her husband Gerard van Loo. Rembrandt and Saskia were married 10 June 1634, at the local church of St. Annaparochie, without the presence of Rembrandt's relatives.

Rembrandt had been taking on students since 1627, including Gerrit Dou. In the same year as his marriage he became a member of the Local Guild of Painters, before expanding his number of students, amongst them being Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck.

With continued success Rembrandt received commissions from many of the most influential families and organisations in Amsterdam, although he would often spend as much and sometimes more than he was earning, as he became a compulsive buyer of art, a collector of antiques - along with props to be used in his works. In 1635 the couple moved into rented accommodation in one of the most 'well-to-do' streets of Amsterdam, the Nieuwe Doelenstraat, where they lived alongside wealthy neighbours and with a view over the Amstel river.

Notwithstanding Rembrandt's obvious success, Saskia's Friesian relatives became concerned that they were wasting her inheritance, when in 1639 they decided to buy the property next to his studio in Jodenbreestraat. To allay their worst fears, Rembrandt asked his brother-in-law Ulricus van Uylenburgh, to confirm he was successful and able to pay for the house.

The couple had four children, but three of them died soon after birth and were buried in the nearby Zuidkerk (South Church), the surviving child named Titus, so named after Saskia's sister Tietje'.

The hand of disaster was never far from Rembrandt, both in his family life and finance. A year after the birth of Titus 1641, Saskia died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis. She was buried in Amsterdam's Oude Kerk (Old Church). Rembrandt's drawings of her on her death bed are among his most poignant of all his works.

Loyal to the end and beyond, Saskia bequeathed Rembrandt use of their son's inheritance, with the caveat that he did not remarry. If Titus died of natural causes or without suspicion, Rembrandt would inherit the estate of Titus. Titus survived into adulthood, dying just one year before Rembrandt at the age of 27, and leaving behind a baby daughter.

During Saskia's illness, he hired a wet-nurse named Geertje Dircx to take care of Titus. She became his mistress, but following Saskia's death she expected him to marry her. Ever conscious of the implications set out in Saskia's will, Rembrandt refused, a stormy relationship ensued, during which she had him charged with a breach of promise, she was eventually awarded the considerable sum of 200 guilden. In 1650 he had her locked up in the house of correction (a bridewell), he claimed she had stolen and pawned jewellery belonging to Saskia.

Long before he ended his relationship with Geertje Dircx, he began an affair with his maid, the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels, who eventually took her place at Rembrandt's side, both as his housekeeper and mistress.

In 1654, Hendrickje gave birth to their daughter, Cornelia. As an unmarried mother, Hendrickje was summoned by the Reformed Church under the charge "acts of a whore". Admitting the charge she was banned from receiving communion. Rembrandt himself could not be charged as he was not a member of the Reformed Church.

Hendrickje became his common law wife, but once again Rembrandt did not marry Her, in order to keep the trust set up for Titus in Saskia's will.

In the early 1650s, even though his work was still held in high regard, the man himself was unable to control his whims and compulsion for spending, Rembrandt's financial status was now spiralling downwardly and out of control. By 1656 he narrowly avoided bankruptcy after convincing the court he could sell off his personal possessions to cover his debts. Unfortunately the sale did not realise Rembrandt's expectations and he was forced to sell his house and move to more modest accommodation, this move allowed him to satisfy most of the creditors and authorities, with the exception of the Amsterdam Painters Guild. They had introduced a ruling preventing artists in his financial situation from trading as a painter. To circumvent this, both Titus and Hendrickje set up as art dealers with Rembrandt as an employee.

In what appears to have been one final opportunity, Rembrandt (or to be technically accurate) - his employers were commissioned in 1661 to complete work for the new city hall (now the Royal Palace) on the Dam (Dam Square), the commission came from none other than Amsterdam City Council.

At around five metres square and in the shape of a lunette or arch, the following year of 1662, the largest ever oil painting (at that time) was born: 'The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis'. It is unclear if the council paid for the work, but they rejected the piece, it was removed and returned. Rembrandt subsequently cut down the piece to a fraction of the original size, before offering it for general sale.

The piece is now in the collection of the National Museum of Stockholm.

In 1662 with his finances in tatters, he was still completing commissions and receiving distinguished visitors such as the Grand Duke of Tuscany (Cosimo III de' Medici). But it became obvious he had reached the lowest point in his life to date, when he sold Saskia's grave.

Within the year Hendrickje died, then Titus in 1668. Rembrandt died 4 October 1669, he was buried in an unmarked grave at Westerkerk (West Church) Amsterdam.


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