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Who was Rembrandt?

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born in 1606 in the Dutch Republic was one of the most influential artists in the history of art. A master of imagery and visual stimulation, his innovative techniques and approaches to art were revolutionary for their time. A true gem of the Dutch Golden Age. He was known for his honest unfiltered imagery which rubbed a lot of critics the wrong way but paved the way for future artists to paint imperfections and less-than-desirable human features. He was also a thorough maestro of self-portraits, creative compositions and biblical scenes. While many painters of high calibre existed during his time, what set him apart from the rest was his versatility. His subject matter varied from portraits to nature to still life, and so much more.

Not only was his art innovative, but he also applied it to processes and art forms that had never been considered to be art forms before. One such example is etching. Along with Jaques Callot, he single-handedly pioneered etching as an art. Originally known for printing, he married this process with his hatching-art and turned it into wonderful portraits. His work today sells for as high as 18 million dollars, and rightfully so.

Some other genres that he meddled in were baroque works, Christian and mythological scenes, historical and war imagery. This vast degree of experimentation showed great command over his technique and versatility.

To get an in-depth view of Rembrandt’s range and skill, let us have a look at some of his best works:

1.     The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp:

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Painted in 1632, this piece is rather complex in nature and requires a good comprehension to appreciate. And that is exactly why it is so highly prized too. Rembrandt must’ve known this as well, which is why he signed it as ‘Rembrandt’ in the top left corner. Prior to this, he had never signed an original painting with his first name. Instead, he chose to go with ‘RHL’ whenever he did sign any. This itself showed a huge degree of confidence as an artist. The painting is a pyramid-like composition of a group of doctors examining the medical musculature of a corpse. The corpse in question is an executed prisoner called Aris Kindt. He had been sentenced to death by hanging for armed robberies.

For context, this scene depicts an annual occurring in Amsterdam during the time- a public dissection. The idea of it is to share anatomical knowledge with the public and elevate the common perceptions of the human body. Dr. Tulp was the official city anatomist at the time. People sat in an open theatre above the surgery table and looked down into the dissections made by the doctors. The doctors in the painting had likely paid commissions to be present in it.

Speaking of technique, Rembrandt pulled out all stops for this one. Differentiating a dead corpse from healthy people in terms of colour palette is a tad difficult. And Rembrandt knew this. Hence, he used a technique called ‘umbra mortis‘ or ‘the shadow of death’ which he later used in many of his works.

What is even more fascinating is how a 26-year-old Rembrandt painted muscular tendons with the immense accuracy shown.

Scholars speculate that he must’ve studied anatomy and used those textbooks as reference for getting it right. At the time, getting access to such information would’ve been a tough task, especially since being close to a real corpse in the studio was probably not a scenario critics speculate. Art historians even point out how the corpse’s navel is shaped like an ‘R’. This is a nod to Rembrandt’s frequent attempts at innovative signatures throughout his career. The painting has a lot of hidden gems in the details that make it as valuable as it is.

The captured activity around the table also puts a stark contrast against the stillness of the dead. The color palette is such that the eye is first drawn to the face of the corpse before one looks at the dissected arm. This is because of the way the light bounces off of each figure in the composition. The overall thought that went into this piece shows how much potential a 26-year-old Rembrandt had. The young artist’s creativity and knowledge of complex lighting made him what he later went on to become.

2. The Storm on The Sea of Galilee:

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Painted in 1633, this oil-on-canvas remains Rembrandt’s only seascape. Stolen in 1990 from a museum in Boston during a planned art heist, this work has still never been found. However, we did lose a very prized piece of art.

The painting depicts a Biblical scene where Christ and his disciples are wading through the Sea of Galilee and Peter’s boat is being thrashed by a furious storm. To anyone quickly glancing at the work, it might seem that there are 13 people. Christ and his Twelve Apostles, right? Well, not quite. If you carefully count the figures, there are 14 of them. Rembrandt had painted himself into the scene too.

On one end of the boat, Christ and a few of his disciples sit in peace. This is a heavy contrast, given they are amidst a storm. Christ has a glow to him, and the surrounding disciples share this light. There is a wonderful stillness in their immediate surrounding. However, on the other side of the boat, complete chaos ensues. The disciples on this end are all shadowed in darkness, fighting the waves. There is a sense of movement to each figure. Everyone on this end seems unstill, panicked, and barely visible due to the shadows. Peter is shown fighting with all his will, while Jesus sits calmly on the other end, glowing.

The clouds also have a crevice through which you can see the light come through. This also signifies that the storm is about to break. But ironically, Peter has his back to this light and hence doesn’t see the hope that the audience sees. The beauty of this is that you could relate to almost every boatman at some point in life.

3. The Night Watch:

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One of the most important pieces of work in Dutch art history, The Night Watch is a jewel in Rembrandt’s crown. It was painted in 1642 and stands at a colossal height of almost 11 feet (3.35 m). This makes the figures and compositions look even more life-like.

It is mainly lauded for two things: the masterful use of light and shadow, and the sense of movement in the figures. It looks as if it isn’t a still image. The painting shows a military company moving out, led by Capt. Frans Cocq (In a red hash) and his lieutenant William van Ruytenburch (in a yellow sash). The light and shadow in the composition emphasize the main characters. The two men in the front and a woman carrying a chicken are the ones highlighted the most, drawing the eye.

The woman is a mascot in this case. Especially since she is carrying the chicken- an emblematic symbol for the arquebusiers. The figures a very life-size, almost looking like you could interact with them. This is exactly what makes this painting one of Rembrandt’s finest in his career. The set of skills that required to create a light contrast and saturation contract to guide the viewer’s eye is truly masterful.

4. The Return of The Prodigal Son:

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The last major work of Rembrandt before his death in 1669, this painting is a fitting finale. It was likely painted within the two years before his death. A fairly smaller canvas, The Return of The Prodigal Son stands at about 2.5 meters in height. It is also a biblical painting, like many others. It depicts the scene from the Bible that shows a wayward son returning to his father after spending all his inheritance and thus becoming destitute.

The painting shows a son kneeling before his father, dressed in rags and broken shoes, asking for mercy. The father, who looks like a wealthy man, embraces him as seems to forgive him. His brother stands at the side, looking stern and dissatisfied because he had spent the inheritance wisely and hence thought it to be unfair treatment on his father’s part. There are servants in the background, cloaked in shadows, who watch as the scene unfolds. The Bible says that the prodigal son had gambled and mindlessly spent his inheritance. Hence, he had been subject to abject poverty, serving at a pigsty. The pigs were said to have a better meal than he did. Stricken by hunger and poverty, he realized that his father’s servants live a better life than him. As a result, he went back to his father, asking for forgiveness and employment as his servant.

The textures on the clothes are masterfully achieved by Rembrandt. The contrast between the muddy rags of the son and the luxurious red robe of his father is very telling. Using this to establish the financial and status difference is a very creative move. While Rembrandt is known for his wonderful sense of movement in the paintings, this one is known for its quiet stillness. There is comfort in this image, a sense of bond and emotions. And Rembrandt lets the emotions do the talking, making the faces of the characters enact the scene in a way that ropes in the viewer.

5. Self Portrait With Two Circles:

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It would be criminal to make a list of Rembrandt’s wonderful works and exclude his powerful self-portraits. Made around 1665, Self Portrait With Two Circles is a monumental addition to Rembrandt’s collection of over 40 self-portraits. The artist tries to paint himself in a very complex light- a boastful artist, albeit with imperfections. His hand on his hip, he stands with his pallete, brushes and maulstick, confidently. He has never been one to shy away from depicting the lesser desirable features in his quest for realism and this work is no different. You can see the imperfections in his skin, his hands.

He purposefully makes a few details here seem unfinished, possibly commenting on the journey of making an artwork. However, many claim that this might be unfinished, especially given that it isn’t signed. Regardless, it somehow makes it even more mysterious. We can see the process of the painting laid bare, with the etchings of the moustache and hair being ‘drawn’ into wet paint. A bigger mystery has been the background of the piece. The blank wall with the two circles has often been touted as a symbol of artistic perfection or the Rota Aristotelis- the Aristotelian idea of the world in its true form. Its meaning is highly debated regardless. The defiant emotion on his face is what makes it an even more enigmatic portrait. An intimidating maestro who paints from the solemn space of vulnerability is something that the portrait subtly puts across. This complex image is a treat to the senses.