Rembrandt van Rijn Biography

It is hard to overstate the importance of paintings by Rembrandt. His ability to capture a personality in his numerous portraits, his skill at using light to focus the viewer's attention on one portion of the canvas and his skill at rendering historical scenes with loving details have made him one of the most important, most copied and most loved artists that has ever lived.


Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in the Netherlands. His father was a miller, of modest means. Even though the family was not wealthy, and education for children was far from universal, Rembrandt was sent to school, where he was given a formal education in bible studies and public speaking. While it's unclear if Rembrandt finished his education, it is known that his studies did help to shape later paintings by Rembrandt. His knowledge of the bible, as well as his knowledge of how to capture an audiences' attention, would serve him well as a painter.

In 1624, Rembrandt began to study with Pieter Lastman, best known for his paintings of historical subjects. Rembrandt would study with Lastman for six months, learning to place historical figures in realistic backgrounds, striking active poses. Some sources suggest that Lastman introduced Rembrandt to the works of Caravaggio, and the technique of chiaroscuro (using light and dark paints to anchor figures in space and give the scenes depth and emotion). As part of his studies, Rembrandt paintings took elements of Lastman's paintings and reassembled them in new ways, with slight changes. This allowed the young artist to learn how elements of a painting work together, and to help him develop his own style.


In 1625, Rembrandt set up shop as a painter in Leiden. Rembrandt was still living at home with the elder Rembrandts in the house he grew up in, but he was far from immature. Rembrandt paintings from this period show the artist beginning his experimentations with light. In The Stoning of St. Stephen, from 1625, the martyr is held in a bright spotlight of light, streaming down from the left side of the canvas. The viewer is focused by the light, and forced to look at the violence about to ensue. In Two Scholars Disputing, from 1628, this technique is yet more exaggerated. The light is golden and very bright. The rest of the room is deep in shadow. Rembrandt artwork would never be the same.

In 1631, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and began working in a studio specializing in portraits and restorations. The Rembrandt portraits produced during his stay in Amsterdam, including many the artist painted of himself, are some of the most beloved works he ever generated. Rembrandt would paint his portraits in a documentary fashion, recording people as he saw them, without sentimentality or ornamentation. He worked to capture the inner nature of his models, not to make them look good. As a portrait painter, Rembrandt was in high demand, and he painted multiple single portraits and group portraits during his time in the studio in Amsterdam.


In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Ulenburgh. Her father, who was an art dealer, found yet more commissions for Rembrandt, adding to his growing fame. At the end of 1635, Rembrandt had accumulated enough wealth to open his own studio and move with his family into their own home. He and Saskia would have four children together, but only one would live past infancy. The family would move into their own home in 1639. The home bordered a prominent Jewish neighborhood, which allowed Rembrandt the opportunity to study Jewish faces for his continuing collection of biblical paintings. While he often used himself as a model for people in the crowd of his paintings, he wanted to portray the scenes accurately, and was delighted to have found a source of models for his works. All told, Rembrandt paintings of biblical works would total over 300.

While Rembrandt paintings were going well, he suffered extreme personal tragedy. Rembrandt and Saskia would have four children together, but only one child would live past infancy. Saskia herself would die in 1642, leaving him with a child to raise on his own. For Rembrandt, The Night Watch would serve as a sort of therapy. A captain stands in the center of the image, bathed in a bright light. A second spotlight of sorts is focused on a young girl in yellow robes, looking distressed and angelic all at once. The company is leaving, the painting is of movement and change, but the mood is overall mixed. It is difficult to know what the artist intended for the image, as it has been cropped on both sides in subsequent years. It is known, however, the Rembrandt Night Watch would be the last painting he would execute in this Baroque style. Rembrandt would paint very little over the next several years, as he developed new ideas and focused on his family and his personal affairs.

Late Period

In 1647, Rembrandt hired Hendrickje Stoffels to help him run his household and raise his child. She became his common-law wife in 1649. As a painter, Rembrandt was a master. As a bookkeeper, Rembrandt's skills left something to be desired. He purchased his home with a very large mortgage, and began filling the home with collections of rare and valuable art. He found himself unable to make his mortgage payments and pay his debts, and was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1656. Rembrandt continued to paint in his new quarters, developing a style that revolved around brighter colors and the interplay of light and shadow.

Hendrickje died in 1663, and Rembrandt's only child, Titus, died in 1668. Facing these two losses, Rembrandt turned once again to painting. The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt portrays the classical story with remarkable grace and tenderness. The father is extremely aged, but still bends and clutches his son. The son and father are bathed in a warm, golden light. The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt would be his last painting, as he died of unknown causes the same year.