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Rembrandt: Biography, Paintings & Etchings

Instructor: Ninamarie Ochoa
Known for his compelling mastery of shadow and light in his art, Rembrandt is among the most famous portrait artists in history. Learn about his life, his paintings, and photography and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Who is Rembrandt?

You know that perfect angle for self-portraits--the angle exploited by selfie connoisseurs like Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, and Taylor Swift? With half their face in the light, and the rest in shadow? The lighting is dramatic and somehow perfectly frames and highlights their features and expressions. Kim K wasn't the first to pioneer this infinitely flattering angle, however (I know--contain your shock). In fact, seventeenth-century Dutch painter and etcher, Rembrandt, is most renowned for his explorations and manipulation of light in both portraits and landscape paintings. As a master of light, Rembrandt helped establish both the Dutch Golden Age and Baroque artistic movements.

Early Life

Rembrandt was born Rembrant Hamenszoon van Rijn on July 15th 1606 in the city of Leiden in what was then called the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He was the ninth child of his father, who was a miller, and his mother, who was the daughter of baker. His family was fairly wealthy, and Rembrandt was raised in a very Christian household.

As you'll notice, Rembrandt is known by his first name, and he slightly altered its spelling from the original 'Rembrant' to include the 'd' in 1633. As he became an established artist, Rembrandt chose to sign his works with his first name (and sometimes with the single initial 'R') in homage to old masters like Michelangelo and Raphael, who also went by their first names.

As a child, Rembrandt studied Latin, and was even enrolled in the University of Leiden. Despite these academic inclinations, he served as the apprentice to a local Leiden history painter for three years during his university years. Shortly thereafter, around 1625, he opened his own art studio, where he began to paint professionally and teach students.

Adulthood and Career

While the rest of us muddle through pre-quarter-life crises, at the tender age of 23, Rembrandt was already commissioned by The Hague (the seat of government in the Netherlands) as its official painter. In 1631, he relocated to bustling Amsterdam, where he continued teaching and began painting portraits professionally.

In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh. Sadly, their marriage was plagued with difficulties: they lost three children, and Saskia died of tuberculosis shortly after the birth of their only surviving child, Titus. While he was married, Rembrandt had a couple of infamous affairs (one with his son's nurse, and the other with the house's maid), both of which ended with legal action against the painter. Throughout his artistic career, Rembrandt frequently used his wife and son as models for his paintings.

Rembrandt was known for his lavish lifestyle, and he accrued great debt during his lifetime. (His carefully curated collection of art and antiques was actually sold in 1656 to pay off his debts, and scholars use the manifest of this sale to learn more about the artist's discriminating tastes).

Rembrandt died on October 4th 1669, outliving his son, Titus, and he is buried in an unmarked grave in Amsterdam.

Paintings

As a painter, Rembrandt masterfully explored the technique of chiaroscuro, which uses shadow to emphasize light in a painting, and vice versa. Chiaroscuro, pioneered by the Italian painter Caravaggio, sees darkness and light as necessary aspects of one another, and is used to convey depth, intense emotion, and movement.

Rembrandt's use of light is especially evident in his portraits, which are known for Rembrandt's signature angle of his subject, whose face is partially obscured in darkness. This darkness throws the lit side of the sitter's face into relief, highlighting their expression and humanity.

Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)
Rembrandt, Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653)

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