A nineteenth century critic once said that we need only pronounce Rembrandt’s name and we say the word “Art.” This observation might strike the modern critic as somewhat dramatic, but recent events in the art world continue to confirm the Dutch painter’s lofty reputation. His paintings remain among the most prized objects in museum collections, one Rembrandt recently selling for millions of dollars on the open market. And there is an excellent chance that those unacquainted with the visual arts will recognize his name before that of any other painter, ancient or modern.
This famous artist and the age he served are the subjects of Anthony Bailey’s affectionate biography. In addition, Bailey also leads the reader on a conducted tour of Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s adopted city and the center of Dutch seventeenth century trade.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was not a native of Amsterdam but was born and trained as a painter in Leiden. He did not move to Amsterdam until he was twenty-two; and when he did, the motive was strictly mercenary. Amsterdam was a growing city—rich and powerful—with a reputation for good taste in art and architecture. Indeed, it was said that Amsterdam, the center of Northern European commerce, was in love with art, that its rich patrons, with their weakness for family portraits, could not get enough of it. The city appeared to be an excellent market for Rembrandt’s talents. He had already distinguished himself in Leiden and had developed a reputation to precede him. In 1631 he left for Amsterdam, formed a business connection with Hendrik van Vylenburgh (later to be his father-in-law), and began his conquest of Amsterdam’s patrons. Eight years later, with his wife Saskia van Vylenburgh at his side, he purchased a house in the Joden-Breestraat, Number 14, where he spent the next twenty years of his life.
The work he completed while residing there was well received, and Rembrandt found himself professionally successful. His paintings were in great demand, he moved easily within Amsterdam’s wealthy circles, and numerous students paid handsomely to study under his direction. By 1641 his reputation was well established in the city; equally important was the critical attention being paid to his work outside of Amsterdam.
There are a number of features which help distinguish Rembrandt’s paintings during the first period of mature activity. For example, many of these early works are exuberant, sensuous, and opulent in their treatment of subjects and themes. There is what some critics call a kind of Baroque grandeur, a powerful hint of Rubens’ influence. In a way, the richness of his work reflected the great wealth of the city and his own patrons. Among his subjects during this period of prosperity were single and group portraits, biblical and mythological figures, and his celebrated experiments in landscape. Oddly enough, he spent less time painting landscapes—the most popular form in Dutch art during the seventeenth century—than any other subject. His real interest remained people,...
(The entire section is 1254 words.)