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Rembrandt van Rijn, and his paintings

Rembrandt Self Portrait Since Rembrandt is one of the best known, perhaps even the best known, painter in the world, it is surprising how little is known about him. Meticulous research through the archives has produced over the years a pile of documents in which Rembrandt is mentioned, or which have something to do with him, but these data tell us nothing, or almost nothing, about the man himself. They provide a few important facts about his paintings, but even these are much sparser than we would like.

The bare facts of Rembrandt's life are clear enough. He was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, the son of a miller. His promise was soon recognized, and at the age of 25 he was able to move to the capital, Amsterdam, and set up a flourishing 'practice', chiefly in portraits. In 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, and by 1639 was living in a large house in Sint Anthoniebreestraat. In 1641 Titus, their only child to survive beyond infancy, was born, and in 1642 his wife died. Successively two housekeepers, Geertje Dircx and Hendrickje Stoffels, lived with the painter and his son. During the 1650s debts began to mount up, and in 1656 Rembrandt had to petition for bankruptcy. He had to move to a smaller house, while Hendrickje and Titus set up as art dealers so Rembrandt could go on selling his work. In 1663 Hendrickje died, and Titus in 1668, seven months after he had married. Rembrandt himself died on 4th October 1669, at the age of 63.

To this rather troubled outline modern scholarship has been able to add comparatively little. Rather more striking progress, however, has been made as regards the paintings themselves. Not so long ago, nearly one thousand surviving works of art were believed to have been painted by Rembrandt. Today that figure has been enormously reduced, so that a fair estimate would be more like 300. Of those, there stand out certain key works - documented works, works that mark a turning-point, and works of such outstanding quality or extraordinary force that only Rembrandt could have painted them. This book presents a selection of those works, sixty paintings in which Rembrandt and only Rembrandt - is revealed both at his most characteristic and at his most various, through the different stages of his career.

A succession of scholars have contributed in the twentieth century to the gradual diminution of the world's Rembrandts, or to put it more positively to the isolation of Rembrandt's particular genius, in contrast to the imitations of his many pupils and followers. Currently Rembrandt's entire oeuvre is being examined by a number of eminent Dutch art historians working together in the 'Rembrandt Research Project', initiated in 1968. Although its published findings cover only the first part of Rembrandt's career, there has obviously already been a thorough investigation and discussion of his later works as well, which this book, published for the Rijksmuseum and written by a member of the Rijksmuseum's staff, now reflects. Out have gone some old favorites, such as the Man in a golden helmet in Berlin or the Polish Rider in the Frick Collection in New York, rejected or at least questioned. But there is no doubt whatsoever about the status of the works Rembrandt included here. They constitute the touchstones by which other paintings stand to be judged.

To the nineteenth century, Rembrandt was the 'artist of genius', the man who did not give a damn for the conventions of society, and who under the spur of inspiration wanted to do only one thing paint. The first half of this century produced the image of Rembrandt the 'misunderstood' artist, the man who after the completion of the Night Watch could expect nothing from his public except incomprehension, but who continued indomitably on the road he thought the right one. In the 1950s the image evolved of Rembrandt the painter of people, a man with the exceptional gift of penetrating deep into the psychology of his sitters; also Rembrandt the profoundly religious painter, who knew how to tell biblical stories with infinite understanding.

Today we try above all to build up a realistic picture of Rembrandt, without glorification, without superlatives, as a man of both good and bad qualities. To achieve this what is known of Rembrandt must be tested against the attitudes, ideas and customs of his own time, to see to what degree he was exceptional by the standards of his period, if at all. By reconstructing the milieu in which Rembrandt lived, discovering who he associated with, who lent him money, who g ave him commissions, we can discern more clearly what influences he was subjected to, where he obtained his subjects, what he knew of the art of his predecessors, like El Greco, Caravaggio, and goya, and what he did with that knowledge.

Modern research, including chemical analysis of the paint and X-ray, infra-red and other kinds of photography, can reveal much more about Rembrandt's habits and technique in building up a painting than was known before. However, detailed examination of a painting with the naked eye is also of the greatest importance, to establish the way in which Rembrandt applied his paint, the layers with which he built up a painting, how he suggested shadow, how he managed to paint light. Only all these factors together make it possible to determine whether a painting is a real Rembrandt, or the work of a follower, a pupil, an assistant, or perhaps even a copyist or a forger. In spite of the continual research, in spite of the constantly increasing amount of factual material, both technical and historical, Rembrandt himself will always remain to some extent hidden. Or, to put it rather better, every generation will continue to create its own image of Rembrandt from the existing data, evolving its own emotional response to the works of art he made.