The Magazine

Looking at Rembrandt

A portrait of the Dutch Master at 400.

Dec 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 15 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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Nothing else pumps up the municipal pride of once- glorious cities, now moribund, like the pertinent anniversaries of their artistic native sons long dead.

Amsterdam may have capitulated to the whoremongers, real and metaphorical, years ago, but the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt's birth evokes the Dutch Golden Age, when piety and prosperity honored each other, and when artistic excellence served them both. This year, at several removes from gold, Amsterdam department store façades sported outsized Rembrandt reproductions; Rembrandt Square featured a Night Watch consisting of 22 life-size bronze figures, in the midst of which the admirer can stand and be photographed; and Rembrandt the Musical regaled the theatergoer with the dirt on "'the master of light' whose life had very shady sides to it," in the words of the publicity agent's all-too-resistible come-on.

It is hard to blame the Dutch for trading on a homegrown brand name that everyone else has been cashing in on for ages. Alongside Leonardo and Michelangelo, Rembrandt is one of the three most famous artists ever, with whom the public is on a first-name basis; and the name Rembrandt has lent the cachet of greatness and the grace of familiarity to sell everything from kitchen countertops to whitening toothpaste to fancy hotels in Bangkok and Knightsbridge. No work of Rembrandt's has attained the iconic status of the David or the Mona Lisa; yet Rembrandt seems to rank with the greatest of the great. The 400th provides a fine occasion to consider why that should be so.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn's lineage was almost as honorably homespun as a 19th-century American president's: His father was a miller, his mother a baker's daughter. The ninth of ten children, with his shining intelligence, Rembrandt embodied his parents' hope for better things, and they sent him first to the Latin School in Leiden, then to Leiden University, the Dutch Oxford. Like many another born artist, Rembrandt soon realized the university route was not for him, and he signed on as apprentice to the painter Jacob van Swanenburgh, who went in for ever-popular (and lucrative) history and architectural painting, though his most famous work shows a fiendish set of jaws macerating sinners in the depths of hell.

Rembrandt never did paint any infernal landscapes, but his three-year stint with Swanenburgh served him well; his progress so heartened his father that he sent Rembrandt to Amsterdam for six months to learn what he could from the eminent Pieter Lastman. Upon his return to Leiden in 1625, Rembrandt established himself in a master's studio of his own, and took to cranking out history paintings--the Bible being his principal historical source, as in The Stoning of Saint Stephen, The Apostle Paul, Judas Returning the Pieces of Silver--which were always in hot demand and which secured his early reputation. The impression he made on the connoisseur Constantijn Huygens, secretary to Stadholder Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, gained him some choice princely commissions; and the prospect of incalculable triumph lured him to Amsterdam in 1632.

The capital city did not disappoint him, and there he certainly lived up to his own vision of himself. He continued with history painting, added portraiture--notably self-portraiture--and the occasional landscape to his repertoire, and taught many able students. Riches and high esteem were his reward, and Rembrandt evidently thought well enough of himself to take after Leonardo and Michelangelo in signing his works with his first name alone. He took after Peter Paul Rubens more directly, investing clinically precise realism with dashing brilliance.

Marriage to Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of an art dealer who helped set him up in business, not only brought him personal happiness but provided him with a nonpareil artist's model. In perhaps their most famous collaboration, Rembrandt sits as well as paints: Self-Portrait with Saskia on His Lap (The Prodigal Son in the Tavern) presents him as a laughing, hard-drinking rascal, holding aloft a glass flute of ale long as a telescope. His wife is cast as that evening's pick-up, disdainfully peering over her shoulder at the viewer, who probably wishes he could order some of what the Prodigal is having. This spirited roistering in the Frans Hals manner defies homebound Dutch respectability, and in this strangely joyous image that seems to celebrate renegade sexuality within marriage, love declares that it lives strictly on its own terms, glowingly.