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( Originally Published 1932 )
In that thriving little city of Leyden, famous for its heroic defense against the Spaniards in 1573, the greatest of all painters, the master of etching, Rembrandt van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606. The city was prosperous, trade and manufacture were active, art was flourishing. Rembrandt's father, Harmen Gerritsz, was partner in the ownership of a mill for grinding malt for beer. He owned a modest home near the river and no doubt the family name, "van Rijn", "Of the Rhine", had something to do with this fact.
He was an independent, worthy man, respected by his fellow townsmen. His mother was a Neeltge Willemsdocher, the daughter of a baker in Leyden, who was undoubtedly much loved and confided in by Rembrandt. We find that he named his daughters for her; he made numerous por traits of her, both in oil and etchings; and though every member of the household had to dress up and pose for him, it is singular that in each portrait of his mother, she is dressed in her ordinary clothes and sitting in a position that seems quite unassumed. This would point to his great reverence and respect for her. We notice also that in all her pictures, there is a Bible, either in her hand or close by her. From this we conclude that she was a pious woman, and no doubt it was at her knee that Rembrandt, as a boy, learned the tales from Scripture, which he later so superbly illustrated. There is not much recorded of Rembrandt's childhood. We are told that at the age of fifteen he was entered in a Latin class at the University. He did not prove a scholar in any sense of the word, though he possessed an active intelligence that drew in daily the intellectual atmosphere of his times.
His letters show that Rembrandt could write with ease and express himself with perfect clearness, in language appropriate to the subject about which he was writing. His signature is firm and legible and he was evidently on easy terms with the principal classical worthies whose names and adventures he writes of. Nevertheless, he was not a student and finally convinced his parents of his vocation for art. They apprenticed him to one Jacob van Schwanenburch, an esteemed, wealthy gentleman, in Leyden, but a very mediocre painter. Rembrandt spent three years studying under him.
True to the prevailing theory that a master craftsman must be able to paint any kind of subject from decorations on cards to religious subjects, Rembrandt first had to learn how to mix paints, stretch canvases, scrape old copper plates to be used for etching, and all the other more or less technical things that increase the skill of the artist in illustrating his conception of ideas. Many are inclined to belittle the value of the youth's study under Schwanenburch. It was, however, the best thing for him.
He was eager, alert, and very original. Schwanenburch, as I have said, was a painter of no importance whatsoever, but he was a good teacher. He simply showed Rembrandt how to do it and left Rembrandt to carry out his own ideas. Had he begun with another more exacting master, there is the likelihood that he would have been in some measure restrained from taking that charming, personal view of Nature which means so much in his pictures. At the end of his three years' apprenticeship he went to Amsterdam to study with Peter Lastman, who, at that time, 77 enjoyed considerable repute as a painter of the Italian school. His style was highly artificial, however, since he had lost the Dutch love of truth and sincerity without gaining the beauty and grace of the Italians in the south.
Rembrandt, after six months, left him and returned to Leyden, determined to "start out on his own" with Nature as his only teacher. Contrary to usual custom, we read of no "Wanderjahre". He settled down with a friend of his own age and tastes, and devoted himself to intense personal study; slowly laying the foundation of his future greatness. A contemporary of Rembrandt, Huygens, writing of Holland and the artists at the time, speaks in glowing terms of the talent, industry and diligence of the two youths, and tells us that when he asked them why they had not gone wandering through Italy to study the great masters, as was customary, they answered that they must make the most of the years of their youth and did not have time to travel.
Furthermore, kings and princes of the North so loved fine paintings that many of the masterpieces of Italy could be seen in Holland, where they had been brought together in collections, while in Italy they were scattered far apart. If this is true it argues well for the development of an appreciation of art among the people of the North. Rembrandt was at this time studying the expressions of emotion, the problems of light and shade, so triumphantly solved in his later works. Having no other models in Leyden he would dress himself in splendid costume and portray himself in every possible facial expression he could assume; he did the same with all the members of his family, and this is how he became so skilled in portraying the various emotions of human nature. The first dated pictures we find were done in 1627 when he was but twenty-one. They were "St. Paul" and the "Money Changer". Of course they cannot be compared in any way with later works, but even here we note that great interest in light and shade. The next year he began a series of etchings unrivaled in their precision and delicacy of line, in the sense of light and shade and in the expression of value. By 1631, when he was but twenty-five, he had etched his favorite model, his mother, numerous times and had reproduced his own likeness in almost every kind of costume and in every emotion that he could possibly conceive. The long war from which Holland had recently emerged had left many cripples and beggars. They, and the blind, the poor, the peasants, were his favorite characters and he etched them deftly, with all their infirmities, yet one feels at the same time his sympathy and kindness.
Later on Rembrandt labored more over his work and treated his etchings like paintings, laying out great masses of shadow and covering spaces with burin work as if with a wash of pigment. In these earlier etchings Rembrandt worked swiftly, with alert mind and as few strokes as possible, "so that the fire should not have time to cool." Some say that he sought for variety by the use of needles of different degrees of fineness, and cite "Rembrandt Drawing with Saskia at the Table Near Him" and "Six's Bridge" as examples.
Incidentally, there is an interesting story connected with the latter etching, "Six's Bridge". It was etched for a wager against the time it would take for a servant to bring from the village the mustard that had been forgotten for the picnic. By 1631, Rembrandt's reputation had been established by these etchings and paintings such as "Presentation in the Temple" and the "Holy Family". Amsterdam, which was becoming the busiest commercial market of the world, was clamoring for him. Merchant princes, proud of their achievements and financial position, wanted their portraits painted and those of their families.
Amsterdam became the center for artists and here Rembrandt found a congenial circle of friends who could discuss questions in art over which he had long puzzled. Here he found in abundance the splendid costumes, jewels, and armor that had always appealed so strongly to his artistic eye. Almost immediately upon his arrival, in 1631, his services were in demand. The first year he painted ten portraits that have come down to us, and in the succeeding four years he executed one hundred and two. He worked tirelessly to satisfy the demands of the public, who, particularly after the famous, "Anatomy Lesson" hailed him as the master painter.
In 1632 he met the cousin of the man from whom he had rented his studio when first he came to Amsterdam,-Saskia van Uylenbarch. She was the daughter of a noted jurist of Leeuwarden. Rembrandt met her while visiting her cousin, in Amsterdam. In 1632 he had painted her portrait, and by the end of the same year he had done two more pictures of her.
They were married in 1634 and the next few years were the happiest in Rembrandt's whole life. Saskia proved a model wife in every way. We know just what she looked like for Rem brandt has painted and etched her many times.
He loved to dress her in elaborate, oriental costumes, and depict her as some character in sacred or profane history. But this happiness did not last long. In 1 64,2, eight years after their marriage, Saskia died leaving Rembrandt one son, Titus, who was brought up by Rembrandt in his own profession but never became a painter of note. Saskia's death seemed to mark a turning-point in the life of Rembrandt.
Up to this time he had lived in comparative luxury. He had many pupils who paid him well. He was in constant demand to do portraits in oil and in black and white, for the art of photography had not been invented in those days and the only means of reproducing many copies of a likeness for friends was an etching. He had a beautiful home wherein he had collected pictures, jewels and other treasures. But after Saskia's death fortune seemed to turn against him. He continued to experiment more and more with luminous shadow, which puzzled his patrons who wanted a likeness with no unearthly illumination. But he would not be dissuaded from his ideas and so they left him for artists who would be merely occupied with producing a likeness to suit their clients.
The popularity of his work gradually declined, though it really was more perfect than before, and his financial affairs grew steadily worse. The etching of "Rembrandt Drawing" is in marked contrast to the portrait of himself he had made some nine years earlier when enjoying great good fortune, entitled, "Rembrandt Leaning on a Stone Sill". In the latter picture we see a young man with curly hair, dressed in a rich velvet cloak and cap, looking quite happy and contented. In the former picture we find that he looks much older, sad and more serious in his modest widower's dress.
It was at this time that he began his series of landscapes, the most remarkable of all his etchings. In his grief over Saskia's death he turned to the quiet and solitude of the countryside, and the scenes are so remarkable that one feels, when looking at them, that one is standing out-of-doors, looking at the scene that lies there,-totally forgetful of the fact that it is a very fine etching, and not Nature. In these later pictures, Rembrandt not only used the pure etching, but also employed the drypoint. "The Landscape with Three Cottages" is a noteworthy example of the use of the drypoint.
Whenever you are able to view a Rembrandt exhibition, make haste. Such masterly precision of both brush and needle deserves the awe-struck feeling which you are sure to have when really studying this great artist's work. Any museum or reputable dealer will be glad to show you either his etchings or paintings. This is the best way to learn to study prints. Did we not all of us, when young, endeavor to mold ourselves after the best baseball player of the day, or even the local Fire Chief, who in himself lends an indefinable something to a child? So the novices, past the stage of adolescence, strive to adopt the style, force and solemnity of this master.