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Friday, June 10, 2011

Rembrandt's Ups and Downs

The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp,
1632, Rembrandt van Rijn
Seldom in the history of art has an artist had such a roller coaster existence of highs and lows in his life as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in Leyden, Holland, in 1606, the son of a middle-class miller of grain; as a teenager, Rembrandt studied Latin at Leyden University for a time before becoming the student of a successful local painter. He moved to Amsterdam in 1631 and was something of an overnight success as a portrait artist and etcher. There, a year later, he painted the first of his famous group portraits, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp. The painting is a masterpiece of dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting, illuminating the tense, clinical subject in graphic detail.

Above left, the Rembrandt House In Amsterdam, today, the Rembrandt Museum.
At right, Rembrandt's wife Saskia as Flora, 1635 

In 1634, Rembrandt met and married his beloved Saskia, who bore him four children and was the model for many of his best portraits and religious works of the time. The next eight years were the happiest and most prosperous of his life. He bought a large house in a fashionable part of Amsterdam which he furnished with the best money could buy. His lovely wife and children were always dressed in only the most stylish manner.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669,
Rembrandt van Rijn, one of his last paintings
Unfortunately, as his popularity soared, he became reckless in his creative zeal. In 1642 he painted his greatest group portrait, commonly known as The Night Watch (see previous article below), but in spite of it's massive size and extraordinary composition, the painting proved his undoing. The members of Captain Banning's Militia Company had each contributed a like amount for inclusion in the enormous painting, expecting to be portrayed in a dignified manner in all their glorious and colorfully arrayed uniforms. What they got more closely resembled a mob scene, with some members prominently depicted while others were barely discernible, lost in the background. Rembrandt's popularity plummeted, while in the same year, his wife and three of his four children all died. His huge house was dragging him into dept. The nursemaid he hired to care for his one remaining son became his mistress and bore him a daughter. As if his emotional and financial well-being were not bad enough, the resulting scandal very nearly destroyed him. In 1656 he was declared bankrupt and all his possessions were sold. Only a complicated financial trust masquerading as an art dealership saved him from total financial ruin and allowed him to live out the remainder of his 63 years in modest obscurity, during which time he painted some of his most deeply moving portraits.

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