A Celebration of Rembrandt at 400

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, August 2006 | Go to article overview

A Celebration of Rembrandt at 400


Stern, Fred, The World and I


What was it about seventeenth-century Holland? So many great painters practicing their craft in this small country saw their fame spread across the world, as if driven by wild fire--artists whose status and influence remain 400 years later. Why?

There was Jacob Van Ruisdael whose landscape paintings are in all the great museums. There was Frans Hals whose depictions of the lives of the common people have never been equaled. There was Pieter Sanredam, and Carel Fabrizius, and so many other great artists from that time and place, most of which are celebrated to this very day. And towering over all is Rembrandt van Rijn. Why?

The affluence, sophistication and power of the Netherlanders provide partial answers. But underlying these was the history of the region. The United Provinces, the name given the confederation of Protestant states and which included the area of today's Holland, had won the Thirty Year War (1618-1648) against Spain. It had been a devastating conflagration, decimated huge populations, but now the face of Europe had changed, and the tiny Netherlands was recognized by all parties to the war.

With a population of fewer than four million people, the Netherlands became a mighty naval power and achieved an overriding success with its commercial fleet, thanks in part to the redesign of a shipping vessel called "The Flute." The Flute could handle more cargo than most other contemporary commercial vessels and could be more easily loaded through a port in the transom, the belly of the ship. Flutes were also cheaper to build.

The Netherlands naval and merchant fleets sailed to all parts of the world but especially to Asia where they established a foothold in Japan, set up the East India company, and controlled many of the islands that make up today's Indonesia. In the Caribbean, too, they established colonies, and there was New Amsterdam, the Dutch settlement that was to become New York City.

The Dutch traders grew rich. Their homes reflected this new wealth, becoming grander and incorporating materials from far away. Their furniture was built with the world's great woods: mahogany and teak. Their dinnerware consisted of Chinese imports from mainland trading posts. Oriental spices rendered their foods tastier.

This prosperity called for fine paintings and sumptuous decoration. Prosperous Dutch burghers wanted to be immortalized with portraits, preferably by the best artists of the day. (Remember, this was long before photography came into existence.) We recognize this growing sophistication in Johannes Vermeer's paintings of luxurious interiors. In Leiden, Amsterdam and other cities of the United Provinces, artists' workshops obliged with a sizeable output, much of it of exquisite quality.

In this environment, Dutch artists prospered, perhaps none more so than Rembrandt van Rijn. Sheer talent permitted him to paint intuitively and to attain phenomenal success, in spite of his often-irascible temper, his drinking, and his wasteful nature with money. Rembrandt was able to paint, etch and draw the varied aspects of his country and its citizens, presenting them in such an expert manner that he shares the highest praise for his achievements with the likes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Talent brings success

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606-1669) came from a long line of millers living in Leiden. Families were large in the Netherlands, and the van Rijns had ten children. Rembrandt was the second youngest. His parents thought he might make an excellent lawyer or government official and sent him to the town's Latin school for classical languages. After his secondary schooling was over he was enrolled at Leiden University, one of the oldest and finest in Europe. But he longed to paint and draw, and his parents heard his pleas. He was apprenticed to a minor local painter and later went to Amsterdam to study and work in a more substantial studio. …

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