Rembrandt at 400 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Rembrandt at 400

Astonishing brushwork, wrinkles-and-all honesty, deep compassion. What's the secret of his enduring genius?

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Had you traveled through any major city in the Netherlands this year, you would likely have met the piercing gaze of a rather startling face. The wild-haired, wide-eyed character who greeted you from street signs, store windows, magazine covers and chocolate boxes is Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), master painter of the Dutch Golden Age. Rembrandt's incomparable art has always been a major selling point for Dutch tourism, but his self-portrait was everywhere in 2006 because Hollanders were celebrating the 400th birthday of their nation's most famous artist. In fact, Rembrandt 400, a yearlong national event under the patronage of Queen Beatrix, touched off a worldwide celebration involving museums and cultural institutions from Krakow to Melbourne. Among American institutions taking part is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where "Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt's Prints and Drawings" will be on view through March 18, 2007.

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All this attention reflects our enduring fascination with an artist whose works remain as moving and meaningful today as they were four centuries ago. Rembrandt is appreciated both for his expressive technique and his ability to capture the emotional heart of any character or story. His subject matter ranges from the biblical past to the people and places around him, but the central motif of his art—and a major reason his work continues to speak to us centuries after his death—is the human figure, rendered with sensitivity both to the telling imperfections of surface appearance and to the turbulence of the spirit within.

There is little doubt that Rembrandt would have approved of the current use of his own distinctive face as a marketing tool. He painted, etched and drew some 70 self-portraits, more than any other well-known artist of his time. By making his face the centerpiece of his art, he engaged in a uniquely personal means of self-marketing. Dressed in costume or assuming provocative poses, he played roles ranging from beggar and prodigal son to courtier and Oriental potentate. In small prints from his early years, he mugged in a mirror and sketched the results to teach himself the art of depicting emotion. Later in life, in closely observed paintings such as his warts-and-all Self-Portrait of 1659, he unflinchingly recorded the marks of time and experience. These works found their way into collections all over Europe, helping to make Rembrandt the most widely known Dutch artist of the 17th century.

Rembrandt van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606, in Leiden, the ninth child of miller Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and his wife, Neeltgen van Zuytbrouck. The family operated a grain mill on the Rhine River, which bordered the city. They were prosperous, working-class people, and their children would have been expected to join the mill business, as several of Rembrandt's siblings did, or take up a trade. Rembrandt must have shown some special promise, for his parents enrolled him in the Latin School, where he was introduced to classical languages and literature. Such an education should have led to the ministry or public service, but according to 17th-century Leiden historian Jan Orlers, Rembrandt was more interested in doodling than studying, and his parents, perhaps yielding to the inevitable, let him train with a local painter and then sent him to study for six months with an artist in Amsterdam.

Half an hour's train ride from Amsterdam (or a few hours by foot, horse or boat in Rembrandt's day), Leiden today is dominated by its university, which was founded in 1575. In the 17th century, the city owed much of its prosperity to the textile trade. The Municipal Museum De Lakenhal occupies a building that was once a guildhall, where governors and assayers of the cloth industry held their meetings. Several major exhibitions took place there in 2006, including a survey of Rembrandt's landscapes. While some of the paintings in that exhibition depict the countryside near his home, others are pure fantasy. In The Mill, for instance, an imposing windmill perches atop a rugged cliff distinctly unlike the flat terrain of Holland. Another exhibition, "Rembrandt's Mother, Myth or Reality," focused on two elderly figures who appear repeatedly in Rembrandt's earliest works. Nineteenth-century scholars, eager to romanticize the artist's life, were quick to identify them as Rembrandt's mother and father, while studies of younger figures were assumed to represent his brothers and sisters. Although modern scholars are more skeptical (there are no documents verifying these identifications), it makes sense that family members would be the most available—and affordable—models for an artist just starting out.

The signature style of the early Rembrandt school, based on precise observation from life combined with exotic historical costuming, can be traced to works such as Rembrandt's Tobit and Anna (1626), opposite, for which his mother and father may have modeled. In such small, meticulous paintings, we catch a glimpse of the young artist carefully training his eye, while developing a fascination with old age that would resurface throughout his career.

By the time he reached his mid-20s, Rembrandt was already gaining international attention. While most of his Dutch contemporaries sold their work locally, his paintings and prints were being collected not only in Holland but in Italy, France and elsewhere. Around 1630, King Charles I of England received three paintings by Rembrandt as a gift, including a self-portrait and a painting that is thought to be of the artist's mother. In search of wider opportunities than his hometown could offer, Rembrandt moved in the early 1630s to Amsterdam, a city of about 125,000 inhabitants and then, as now, the cultural and commercial hub of the Netherlands.

Rembrandt's Holland was unique in Europe: a republic led by citizens, not a monarchy, with a booming trade economy in which hard work and entrepreneurship counted more than a noble title. It was a place where religious diversity was tolerated and where urban, middle-class taste dominated cultural life. Amsterdam was the center of a lively art market, and as soon as Rembrandt arrived there, a business partnership with Hendrick van Uylenburgh, a prominent art dealer, brought the artist some of his first portrait commissions—a foot in the door to patronage from Amsterdam's wealthiest citizens.

With van Uylenburgh's help, Rembrandt quickly became the most sought-after portraitist in Amsterdam. His brilliant Portrait of Agatha Bas, painted in 1641, shows why. The 30-year-old Agatha, a wealthy burgomaster's daughter and wife of one of van Uylenburgh's investors, regards us with a demure yet confident gaze. Her left hand rests on a polished wood embrasure, while the elegant fan in her right hand drops in front of it. Is this a window frame, or the frame of the picture itself? This illusion, along with the direct pose, life-size scale and subtle play of light behind the figure, creates the sense that we are face to face with another living soul. Look closer, however, and the lifelike details of her frizzled hair, embroidered bodice, sparkling jewels and lace-trimmed collar dissolve into dashes and strokes of paint, with translucent glazes of color layered over thick impasto. This magical combination sets Rembrandt apart from the smoother, more polished technique favored by many of his contemporaries.

In 1634, when he was 28, Rembrandt married van Uylenburgh's 21-year-old cousin, Saskia. She, too, was a frequent model for the artist, who cast her in picturesque roles such as Flora, the goddess of spring. In an intimate silverpoint drawing of Saskia that Rembrandt made just days after their engagement, she wears a sun hat trimmed with flowers and smiles shyly. During their eight years of marriage, the couple had four children, but only one, Titus, would survive infancy. In 1642, less than a year after Titus' birth, Saskia died at age 29, from illness or complications of childbirth. Her will stipulated that Rembrandt would benefit from her estate provided he didn't remarry. He had an affair with Geertje Dircx, a nurse brought in to care for the baby boy, then some years later rejected her for a younger woman, Hendrickje Stoffels, who had joined the household as a maid. Dircx sued him for breach of promise, provoking a long and bitter legal battle.

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