A Brief Study of the Mastery of Rembrandt

One of the best-known, respected and admired artists, Rembrandt "is often described as a genius, which is usually taken to mean a talent so exceptional as to be unique." ~ Christopher Wright, Rembrandt and His Art.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leyden, Holland, in 1606. He attended the University of Leyden in 1620, and then painted as an apprentice from 1621 to 1624. Soon his skill became recognized by influential patrons. He began to accept commissions from the court of The Hague and to train students of his own. He then moved to Amsterdam, the booming capital city of Holland in 1631 and remained there for the rest of his life.

Very affluent before 1640, Rembrandt had to sell his property and house to avoid bankruptcy from 1656-58. He died in 1669. Although popular and slightly successful during his early career, it is only after his death that the full impact of his work is realized.

Rembrandt is usually considered one of the Dutch Baroque Masters. This period of art, from 1600 to 1750, is characterized by paintings with realistically-rendered figures, selectively illuminated in shadowy surroundings for dramatic emphasis. He was also influenced by the Renaissance. His style is definitive High Baroque in his paintings of Old Testament subjects, created around 1630. His works display more depth and individual style during his later years.

The art of this Dutch Master is characterized by sensitive portrayals of the complex emotions of human nature; in scenes that show accurate perception of light and dark, form and volume. He used variations of textures, values and detail to create a certain mood. The painting Christ at Emmaus is an excellent example of his typical subject matter and technique. A soft, rich, luminous scene is brought to life with the subtle contrasts of light and dark in the figures of Jesus, his disciples and the servant; and with a realistic rendering of the textures of fabric, wood, and stone.

Rembrandt worked mainly in oil on canvas or wooden panels but also created many drawings, copper etchings and woodcut prints. The etching Adam and Eve is a portrayal of the classic biblical scene where Eve offers the apple from the tree of life to Adam. Facial expressions and body language of the figures easily convey the conflict. The serpent is depicted as a dragon on a gnarled tree trunk, shadowy and overhanging, adding to the sense of foreboding. Rembrandt adds a great deal of surrounding detail; bright sunlight and curling ferns suggest the beauty of the garden. There is even an elephant walking in the background, demonstrating his unique sense of imagination.

He used drawings and quick sketches frequently, to put ideas into picture for reference in his paintings. Some of the drawings are not preliminaries but complete works in themselves. Rembrandt's drawings are usually constructed of observant lines that give the impression of the figures represented and suggest the feeling of the scene. Hints of his majestic and dramatic paintings can be seen in his sketches, often done in ink or red and black chalk. He also used washes of ink and watercolors.

About 1,500 drawings by Rembrandt have been found. The pen drawing of Jael and Sisera that Rembrandt created in 1659 or '60 depicts part of the biblical story when Jael is about to pound a nail into the head of the sleeping Sisera. This again illustrates both the infinite variety of the imagination of Rembrandt and the influence of religious imagery prevalent in European artwork during his career. Christopher Wright said of Rembrandt's works: "We find ourselves not so much looking at shadowy representations of legendary figures but actually in the presence of real people involved in real dramas."

Many of his paintings are portraits of exquisite detail, including over 50 self-portraits created at different stages of his life. These chronicle his many observations in art that distinguish Rembrandt's works from others of that period. His parents and siblings, his wife Saskia and their son Titus were also the subject of many of his portraits and were models for figures. His daughter, Cornelia, her mother, Hendrickjie (his housekeeper) and Titus' nurse Geertje also appear frequently in his paintings. A Bust of a Young Woman Smiling is a well-known work thought to be of Saskia, created shortly after she married Rembrandt, but as with many of his paintings this identification is uncertain. With her jaunty feathered hat, elegantly detailed bodice and dimpled smile, this depiction has delighted and intrigued many admirers of Baroque portraiture.

Other celebrated portraits include Self-Portrait 1658, Young Girl at an Open Half-Door, and Bust of an Old Man with a Beret. Of his many biblical scenes, The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Visitation, The Blinding of Samson, and David and Jonathan are familiar to many. Paintings with mythological and historical themes or military subjects have also become famous, such as Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer and The Night Watch.

The man at the center of the Dutch Baroque Golden Age, and now thought to be the greatest Dutch painter, Rembrandt von Rijn created over 300 paintings and 2000 drawings in his lifetime. He remains a prolific and profound influence on the art world. The perceptiveness of his characterizations, combined with his mastery of the human form, have contributed to his continual popularity in the 20th and 21st century. There are now websites dedicated to featuring examples of his works, such as and Purchasing a print allows any one of us to bring the mastery of Rembrandt into our own homes.