Unsurpassed Rembrandt

REMBRANDT VAN RIJN was born in Leiden in 1606, when the seven watery provinces we now call the Netherlands were still at war with Spain and religious issues were often a matter of life or death for the individual. Rembrandt was a Calvinist, and a student of Mennonite theology, he was also well acquainted with Jewish texts. His mother was a Roman Catholic. It is apparent that this well-educated man was wonderfully tolerant, and in that age of general prejudice he approached religion with a deep humanity which is evident in his art. Sometimes dubbed the ``Protestant painter of the Bible,'' Rembrandt was familiar with the episodes and personages he depicted from it, transposing them into the outward semblance of his fellow citizens with such warmth and simplicity that we feel he drew little distinction between them and the people he knew in his daily round.

His father, a prosperous miller, was able to give his son the advantages he needed, no doubt aware that this young man was extraordinarily endowed. Leiden University, which Rembrandt attended, was already distinguished by having been given its charter by William of Orange - it was a gift to the town itself for the heroic siege it had endured at the hands of the Spanish. Later, while still a young man, Rembrandt went on to Amsterdam to study etching, an art in which he has never been surpassed.

As a self-portrait made at this time reveals, he was then something of a rebellious youth, an angry young man, tough, and of a mind to shock people. One way to do this as an artist was to challenge the current admiration for the classical, in which antique models were taken as the standard of perfection. Rembrandt insisted that this attitude was wrong, demanding that painting should depict people as they are, not as ideals. His own subjects, usually peasants, were generally heavy, ugly, and even gross. Rembrandt's detractors claimed that he kept ``low company,'' and wanted only to attract attention with such figures.

As time passed, Rembrandt himself rose above shocking or placating the public, as he developed his instinct ``rightly to judge the human heart,'' so that whatever their outward appearances, his personages seem to us to have a unique beauty. Through him, the provincialism prevalent in the country turned to a wider, universal channel, classical in its own way, wholly natural, as the painting of the Netherlands went forward into its golden age.

At that time it was thought important for a painter to visit Italy, to see the classical for himself, and on the way south to visit Switzerland and view the wonders of its mountain scenery. Rembrandt never succumbed to such temptations, he was always too busy.Amsterdam was then (c.1630) the center of the world's art trade, and through its auctions passed a wealth of masterpieces - pictures, drawings, prints, sculpture, objects d'art.

Rembrandt saw everything, and like many of his fellow artists became a collector. As he was the greatest of these artists, so did he become the greatest of collectors. He was not indulging himself; he literally had to have such things as the prints of Raphael and Michelangelo and the other inspired geniuses of Italy to study. He needed the antique busts which were then fashionable, and the beautiful materials we see on his models - brocades, satins, fur, glittering chains. He had a vast collection of myriad things - these we know from his works - weapons, shells, jewelry. But it was too costly, and he fell deeply into debt.

His house, large and fine, was full of pupils, to whom he could transfer some of his afflatus. His students (Gerrard Dou, Govert Flink, Ferdinand Bol, Samuel van Hoogstraten, van Reneese) became more remarkable under his tutelage than they could have been without it. When it came to signing work, and figuring out attributions, it seems things were sometimes confused. It is certain that the financial situation of the household and its owner was a terrible muddle, and finally ended in a type of bankruptcy.

The house and collection had to be sold. Rembrandt's friends helped install him in another house and arranged to pay him a monthly allowance, made up from his sales. He also had a certain income from the dowry of his first wife, Saskia, who had only lived a few years after their marriage. She was the mother of the Titus whom we know from the ``Polish Rider;'' she herself is known to us as ``Flora, The Jewish Bride,'' and other incarnations.

Rembrandt received an enormous number of commissions, from individuals, from groups, from corporations. One of his patrons was the Stadtholder Frederick Henry, William of Orange's youngest son. Like all true artists, Rembrandt's work was always developing, working toward new modes. He adored Raphael's drawings, and borrowed from his motifs as well as from those of other artists (a practice common then and now), transforming these ideas after his own insight.

The painter employed other Italianate concepts as well, emulating their ideas of light and shade, and adopting the rich colors of the Venetian palate. He adapted his own fancies about exotic, bizarre accouterments and elaborate costuming. He came to use strong parallel lines and bold linear strokes.

This last element is evident in this drawing of the Prodigal. The two chief protagonists here are joined by an unknown child who is in the background. We see again that magnificent Rembrandtian handling of the heads, the perfection of the composition, and are awed by the humility, grace, and love which radiate from the scene. However outwardly humble or plain, such a drawing is touching and moving.

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