Rembrandt’s artistic origins in Leiden and early successes in Amsterdam, seen through the lens of The Leiden Collection.
The range of impressive paintings from the 1620s and 1630s in The Leiden Collection shows how Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) became so tremendously successful in his day, and why he ranks among the greatest, most admired artists of all time. Born in Leiden in 1606, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in the early 1630s, where he soon became the most famous and innovative, most in-demand painter in that great urban center. Throughout his career he demonstrated an unprecedented level of artistic self-awareness, as well as virtually unparalleled drive and ambition; his exceptional knowledge of artistic traditions contributed to his creative efforts.1
Rembrandt had an enormous impact on his contemporaries. The traditional view that Rembrandt was an independent, singular genius who set himself apart from his society is, to a certain extent, true at later stages of his career. However, during his early years he was very much part of his artistic community, as both an esteemed colleague and a dedicated, inspiring teacher. Rembrandt worked in an artistic milieu that thrived on productive exchange and friendly rivalry. Much as for athletes, competition was thought to inspire artists to do their best; and virtuous rivalry—as opposed to destructive envy, the great metaphorical enemy of painting—was regarded as essential to the advancement of art. The most promising young artists were encouraged to surpass their masters. Colleagues were encouraged to vie with each other, whether informally or in sanctioned competitions. Rembrandt and his contemporaries would have known of the ancient Greek painters Apelles and Protogenes, who competed over who could draw the finer line.2 Closer to home, they had the model of Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), who “tried to compete against and outdo one another, and … on occasion Lucas immediately engraved the same histories or other subjects that Dürer had made,” and who “regarded each other’s works with great admiration,” according to the biographer Karel van Mander (1548–1606).3 The concept of emulation, meaning imitation with the aim of transforming and improving upon an admired model, would have been deeply ingrained in the minds of ambitious artists.4 Rembrandt’s many and varied responses to the art of his predecessors—his teacher Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), his fellow townsman Lucas van Leyden, the great Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), the famed Italian Renaissance masters, and the renowned ancients—can be broadly characterized as emulative, as can the responses of his successors to his art. The depth and breadth of Rembrandt’s creative exchanges with his colleagues, students and followers during the 1620s and 1630s are amply on display in paintings in The Leiden Collection.
Talent and Education
In his autobiography, written in about 1630, Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) pondered the extent to which his upbringing and experiences had formed his character, and the extent to which he was a product of his inborn nature.5 A gifted writer and musician who aspired to nobility and had attained an important position at court, Huygens was the secretary to the stadholder Frederick Hendrick (1584–1647), the nominal ruler of the Dutch Republic. As secretary, from the word “secret,” Huygens was the stadholder’s close advisor, as well as his art agent.6 Huygens was also Rembrandt’s first champion. In his autobiography, he described visiting two young and extraordinarily promising painters in Leiden, Rembrandt and Jan Lievens (1607–74). One wonders whether Huygens posed his question of nature vs. nurture to Rembrandt, or, with his precocious self-confidence and sense of his potential for greatness, was Rembrandt, himself, already curious about this issue? The artist Rembrandt became was partly due to his innate and—in seventeenth-century terms—God-given talent and drive, but it was also a function of his circumstances.
Rembrandt’s father owned a mill and some property in Leiden.7 As was typical of artists, Rembrandt’s family was of the solid, or broad, middle class. Painters worked with their hands and so were among those who practiced trades or professions, and were members of guilds. Yet they ranked above other craftsmen such as tailors and goldsmiths. As producers of luxury goods with intellectual cachet and moral import, painters catered to and hobnobbed with the educated elite, and they themselves were often well educated. Indeed, by this time, painting had achieved a special status as not only a manual craft but also as one of the liberal arts. Painters, broadly speaking, liked to think of themselves as creating with their minds, not just their hands.
Rembrandt quickly became one of the most highly self-conscious of these artists, in part because he grew up in the intellectual milieu of a university town—Leiden University had been founded by William the Silent (1533–84) in 1575. Compared to many painters, Rembrandt was well educated. His family had enough ambition for him, and sufficient funds, to send him to the local elite Latin School, which prepared students—exclusively boys—to go to university. At the Latin School he would have read the classics and must have learned Latin and perhaps some Greek, which would have been good preparation for becoming a history painter, to which Rembrandt would soon aspire. Although, at age fourteen, in 1620, Rembrandt was registered at the University, he apparently did not attend. By then, according to his first biographer, Jan Orlers (1570–1646) of Leiden, he had discovered his passion for painting and drawing.8
His parents, recognizing his talent, set him on the costly course of becoming a painter. Compared with training in other crafts and trades, apprenticing with a master painter was an expensive undertaking.9 First, starting in 1620, Rembrandt apprenticed for about three years in the studio of the Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571–1638); there he would have learned the basics of painting and acquired an appreciation of Italian art, as Van Swanenburgh had spent about fifteen years in Italy, including a stint in Naples that coincided with Caravaggio’s brief but productive stay there in 1606. Although Van Swanenburgh’s few known paintings are not what would be called Caravaggesque, they do rely on strong contrast of light and dark; it may have been in Van Swanenburgh’s studio that Rembrandt first developed an appreciation for dramatic lighting effects.
Exactly what happened immediately after his apprenticeship with Van Swanenburgh remains open to speculation, because the young Rembrandt was faced with a unique situation: the presence, in Leiden, of the talented and precocious Jan Lievens, who was at once younger than Rembrandt and considerably more advanced in his career. Lievens, born in 1607, the year after Rembrandt, had started painting at age eight. He had apprenticed first with Joris Verschoten (ca. 1587–1652) in Leiden, and then for about two years with his “second master” Pieter Lastman, the most important history painter in Amsterdam at that time. In 1619, at age twelve, he had set up as an independent master in his own studio, which was probably in his parents’ house. In 1623/24, Rembrandt may have wanted to catch up with the more skilled and accomplished Lievens. Attending Latin School had meant that Rembrandt got a late start as a painter, although, in the long run, having an education in the classics would benefit him enormously. But at the moment he needed additional training. Perhaps inspired by Lievens, Rembrandt, in 1624/25 at age eighteen or nineteen, went to Amsterdam for a six-month finishing-up apprenticeship with the famous Lastman who, like Van Swanenburgh, had spent time in Italy from 1604 to 1607.
From Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt learned a great deal about staging an historical narrative. Lastman’s David Gives Uriah a Letter for Joab, 1619 (fig 1), in The Leiden Collection, exemplifies the kind of work that Rembrandt would have seen and learned from in the master’s studio. To judge by several early works in which Rembrandt reprised themes and compositions by Lastman—for example, Rembrandt’s Balaam and the Ass of 1626 reworks Lastman’s painting of the same subject of 1622—his teacher encouraged not just imitation but emulation, which entailed a desire to outdo the model on which the work was based.10 The competitive spirit that Lastman taught his pupil, evident in Rembrandt’s responses to his master’s compositions, came to characterize Rembrandt’s relations with his students and later colleagues.11 Lastman may also have encouraged Rembrandt to develop his own style. At least that appears to have been something that Rembrandt inspired in his own students, and which, in turn, was recommended by his pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78).12
When Rembrandt returned to Leiden in 1625, he set up as an independent master and soon began to attract a local clientele. He also established, or resumed, his remarkable working relationship with Jan Lievens, which lasted until about February 1632, when Lievens left for England.13 Within those same few years his fame spread, and Rembrandt was making paintings for clients in Amsterdam and The Hague. By 1633 he had decided to move to Amsterdam, where he would spend the rest of his life. Key works in The Leiden Collection from the 1620s and early 1630s shed light on fascinating aspects of Rembrandt’s early career and his relations with, and impact on, his colleagues.
Rembrandt’s earliest known paintings
The Leiden Collection owns three of Rembrandt’s earliest known paintings, which appear to date from 1624/25, just before Rembrandt went to study with Pieter Lastman: the wonderfully youthful Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch) (fig 2), Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing) (fig 3), and recently rediscovered Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) (fig 4), which is monogrammed with Rembrandt’s first known signature “RHF.” These three works, along with a fourth, Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight) in the Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden (fig 5), once belonged to a series of the five senses.14 The five senses were a popular subject, but Rembrandt’s innovative approach of depicting it as medicinal, or quasi-medicinal, cures was unlike any other. In his series, sight was represented by spectacles, a means to improve impaired eyesight; touch by the stone operation—a trepanation procedure in which a surgeon bores a hole into a patient’s skull—a remedy for madness;15 smell by smelling salts, used to revive a patient who had fainted; and hearing by music, considered to be a balm for the soul and an antidote for melancholy.16
These remedies were all real, though often suspect, cures in Rembrandt’s day, at a time when medicine was viewed both with respect and with ridicule and skepticism, and the line between a doctor and a quack was not always clear. The colorful, antiquated costumes, exaggerated facial expressions, and gently mocking tone of several of the panels suggest that Rembrandt was well aware of both the risks of dealing with medical practitioners, and the pictorial traditions that cast doctors as quacks and patients as dupes. We might imagine that a still missing fifth sense, Allegory of Taste, would have shown a patient responding violently to a foul tasting curative elixir of the sort that doctors dispensed and quacks hawked at fairs, as in Adriaen Brouwer’s The Bitter Potion of the mid-1630s (fig 6).17
Such an inventive take on the popular subject of the five senses would have been an excellent choice for a young, emerging painter to show off the range of his skills and his originality. Rembrandt’s Stone Operation, Unconscious Patient, and Three Musicians might be taken as youthful works of a fledgling painter who has not yet mastered anatomy or facial structure and who, for figures and faces, relies more on stylized types and formulae than on nature. Yet, despite their amateurishness, the raw talent of the series of the Senses prefigures what would become the distinguishing marks of Rembrandt’s distinctively original and unruly style: rough handling and visible brushwork, compelling expression of emotion through faces and gestures, attention to the dramatic effects of artificial lighting, and delight in the colors, textures and overall historicizing effects of old-fashioned and exotic costumes. Indeed, we can imagine that, when Rembrandt went to study with Lastman, the Amsterdam master would have recognized in them Rembrandt’s exceptional talent, albeit one that needed to be trained.
In 1718, Rembrandt’s first biographer, Arnold Houbraken (1660–1719), regarded the young Rembrandt as a notably unbridled talent, as is evident by a somewhat puzzling anecdote in his text. According to Houbraken, Rembrandt, having delivered a picture to “a lord in The Hague” (presumably Constantijn Huygens), wanted to get home quickly with his payment and so took the Leiden coach. When the driver and other passengers got out for a stop at an inn, “the horses bolted and the coach abruptly set off” carrying Rembrandt “for nothing and free of charge” back to Leiden.18 This unconventional trip home might be (and has been) taken as a comment on Rembrandt’s pride after making a profitable sale; however, horses running wild was also a metaphor for untrained talent. This association is made explicit in Houbraken’s text when he quotes the poet Joost van den Vondel (1587–1679), , who writes that “without art and study to rein it in…. a genius, however gifted, will run wild like an unbroken horse. Meanwhile another, tamed by art and learning, succeeds like the stallion controlled and trained with the crop and spur of a good groom… and everywhere gains praise from connoisseurs.”19
Houbraken then insinuates that Rembrandt was never really “tamed by art and learning.” He writes that Rembrandt “would confine himself to no one else’s rules and even less follow the example of the most celebrated artists who had earned for themselves eternal fame by selecting the beautiful.”20 Houbraken’s early eighteenth-century bias toward classicism blinded him to Rembrandt’s learning and knowledge of the art of the past. However, what Houbraken criticized as independence and favoring of the natural over the ideal were evident in Rembrandt’s art from the outset.
Friendship and Rivalry
The series of Senses sheds light on Rembrandt’s relationship with Jan Lievens. Although he would have known of other pictorial precedents, especially in prints, Rembrandt may have been inspired to paint his inventive variation on the senses by Lievens, who, about two years earlier, at age fifteen, had painted an equally unconventional Allegory of the Five Senses (fig 7): in a single composition, Lievens cast the theme as a bawdy tavern scene. Whatever their working relationship at this early date, it seems that we might regard Rembrandt’s choice to paint the same genre subject as Lievens, in a similar Utrecht Caravaggesque format, as motivated by the desire both to learn from and to compete with Lievens.
For a period from the mid-1620s until about 1632, Rembrandt and Lievens worked unusually closely, as if in self-imposed direct competition, often painting or drawing the same subject. The flurry of works that they produced during this period suggests that they thrived on emulating and learning from each other.21 What Ernst van de Wetering has called their “symbiotic” working relationship has led to the assumption—undocumented but plausible—that Rembrandt and Lievens shared a studio.22 More likely, their learning side-by-side, and painting neck-and-neck such subjects as Samson and Delilah and the Raising of Lazarus, was the outcome of a self-conscious and deliberate shared studio ethos of friendly competition.23 To say that from the outset Rembrandt and Lievens were close colleagues does not fully capture the nature of their friendship, which they must have regarded in seventeenth-century terms. Friendship was a humanist concept that carried connotations of virtue. Early modern ideas of friendship stemmed from Cicero and Aristotle and were expressed in Erasmus’s adages “Friendship is equality” and “A friend is a second self.”24 Friendship between artists could spur virtuous rivalry and foster creativity, as it inspired artists to encourage each other to do their best.
So, too, would their frequent painting of each other’s portraits have been in the spirit of friendship, perhaps in imitation of Lucas van Leiden and Albrecht Dürer, who had portrayed each other a century before.25 Rembrandt appears to have painted Lievens in Three Musicians from the Senses (fig 3), as well as in the Musical Allegory of 1626 in the Rijksmuseum.26 Lievens first known likeness of Rembrandt is in Card Players, of about 1623/24, in The Leiden Collection (fig 8); he also included Rembrandt in Pilate Washing His Hands of 1625/26, and he painted a Portrait of Rembrandt in about 1629.27
Constantijn Huygens may have encouraged this remarkable artistic symbiosis. Scouting for talent sometime in the late 1620s, Huygens visited the Leiden studios, or shared studio, of the young Rembrandt and his younger colleague Lievens. Shortly thereafter, in about 1630, he wrote about them as if they were a “young and noble” pair and predicted they would surpass even the greatest masters, including Rubens and the masters of Italy and antiquity. Although Huygens’s visit came well after they had started working together, their painting of the same subjects ramped up after this initial contact with Huygens. Huygens was so impressed with what he saw in Leiden that he must have had Rembrandt and Lievens compete for a commission for the stadholder; the competition pieces are Christ on the Cross by Rembrandt and Lievens’s painting of the same subject, both dated 1631 and both of which are based on a prototype by Peter Paul Rubens, who was favored at court.28 Rembrandt received the commission. In his autobiography, Huygens compares the two and judges Rembrandt to be the better history painter, based on his ability to represent a biblical figure with dramatic and convincing emotions. The deeply expressive, moving Raising and Descent from the Cross are the first two panels of the series of Christ’s Passion that Rembrandt painted over the course of the 1630s.29
Huygens judged Lievens to be the better portraitist, and in about 1628 or 1629 commissioned from him the Portrait of Constantijn Huygens now in the Rijksmuseum.30 However, Huygens was likely also responsible for Rembrandt’s receiving the commission to paint, in 1632, a portrait of Amalia van Solms (1602–75), wife of Frederick Hendrik, as well as intimate friendship portraits of Maurits Huygens (1595–1642), Constantijn’s brother, and the engraver Jacques de Gheyn III (1596–1641).31 Since Lievens had departed for England in early 1632, we cannot know whether, had he been available, he might have received some of these commissions. Early on, Rembrandt may have taken cues from the more established, more accomplished Lievens, yet he also went his own way from the outset: in response to Lievens’s more controlled handling, large-scale figure and theatrical expressive mode, Rembrandt was distinguishing himself through a rough painterly style and a naturalness in representing the passion. Creative competition, in other words, provided a way for each artist to pursue and push his own style. In 1632, however, the two young Leideners went their separate ways, Lievens to England and Rembrandt soon to Amsterdam and ultimately to greater success. Their continued friendship is suggested by the eight paintings by Lievens that Rembrandt owned at the time of his bankruptcy in 1656; according to the inventory made at the time, paintings of The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt and Lievens, presumably the paintings of circa 1630 and 1631, were hanging close together in Rembrandt’s house, perhaps as souvenirs of their time of intense mutual productivity.32
Rembrandt and Gerrit Dou
Friendly and productive influence and exchange of ideas also colored the relationship between Rembrandt and his first pupil Gerrit Dou (1613–75). Dou would turn out to rank among the most successful of Rembrandt’s pupils. The founder of what would come to be called the Leiden school of fijnschilders (“fine painters”), he was famed for an unusually fine, detailed, meticulous manner of painting that was almost diametrically opposed to Rembrandt’s loose rough handling. One wonders whether Rembrandt recognized Dou’s extraordinary talent early on and encouraged him to develop it.
Dou, a native of Leiden and the son of a glass painter, became Rembrandt’s pupil in February 1628 at the age of fourteen, after initially training with an engraver and a glass painter in his father’s workshop.33 The Leiden Collection’s Self-Portrait (?) at the Easel (fig 9) is one of several works either by or attributed to Dou, painted in response to Rembrandt’s Artist in His Studio of circa 1628 (fig 10).34 Rembrandt’s small studio scene completely transformed the pictorial tradition of the artist’s studio. Whereas, since the fifteenth century studio scenes had for the most part featured Saint Luke painting or drawing the Virgin Mary, Rembrandt rendered the studio as an ordinary place, a spare room with a plain plank floor and cracked plaster walls. The closed door, in the shadows at right, suggests that this was also a solitary place. Working alone, without interruption, was already associated with artistic invention and the creative temperament. Indeed, that this is also the site of something extraordinary—of divine artistic inspiration—is suggested by the bright light that hits the front of the painter’s panel, which we see only from the back. Most likely, this painter stands back from his panel because he is inventing his composition in his mind before he begins to paint.35
Dou, or possibly another artist who painted much like Dou, was quite taken with Rembrandt’s innovative little painting—as the perfect opportunity for creative artistic dialogue. Self-Portrait (?) at the Easel (fig 9) pointedly replicates the back view of the painting on the easel, yet switches out what is a panel in Rembrandt’s painting for a large canvas on a stretcher. Rembrandt’s painter stands far back from, and is dwarfed by, his panel, as if to suggest that he is either inventing or contemplating his composition. In contrast, Dou’s painter sits close enough to the canvas to be wielding his brush, making the point that he is engaged in a different kind of creativity. In response to the plainness of Rembrandt’s studio, this one displays a wealth of fine objects—a plumed helmet, armor, a book, a trumpet, a scarf of many colors—that, as elements of history paintings, evoke the intellectual underpinnings of the artist’s work and that, because of their many fine textures and reflective materials, are especially suited to showcasing a fine painting style.36 The differences between these two studio scenes point to the close working relationship between Rembrandt and Dou, but also to the different directions that the two painters would take in their professional lives. Dou would cultivate refinement as his signature style and fashionable persona, whereas Rembrandt would become increasingly independent.
While Rembrandt pictured the studio only in the Boston painting and in a later etching, The Artist Drawing from a Model, he painted, etched and drew more self-portraits than anyone up until the twentieth century. The proliferation of studio scenes and self-portraits in the seventeenth-century Netherlands was symptomatic of the heightened self-awareness of Dutch painters and of the demand for such pictures from a clientele that had developed a taste for collecting paintings and a fascination with painters.37 At just this time, Huygens was writing his autobiography, so perhaps he had an impact on Rembrandt’s interest in self-portrayal.38
Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes (fig 11), in The Leiden Collection, dates to the period of Rembrandt’s most prolific and most varied production of self-portraits, which spanned from the late 1620s through the 1630s. His preoccupation with self-portrayal began in his early days in Leiden and was an interest he shared with both his precocious colleague Jan Lievens and his first pupil Gerrit Dou. In some of his earliest painted self-portraits, such as that in the Rijksmuseum of circa 1628 (fig 12), Rembrandt experimented with suggesting his psychological and emotional presence, and probably his melancholic artistic temperament, by evocatively shading his eyes.39 Rembrandt’s trademark loose handling is evident in his visible brushstrokes and use of a sharp implement to incise his unruly hair (a technique he appears to have learned from Lievens). The Rijksmuseum Self-Portrait is so casual, and so unlike formal portraits, that some scholars have questioned whether it was even meant as a portrait.40 However, Jan Lievens’s equally informal Self-Portrait of 1628/29 in The Leiden Collection (fig 13), along with Rembrandt’s many other self-images of these years, suggest that the young Leideners shared an interest in expressive self-portrayal.41 Through these innovative and strikingly informal self-portraits, they were asserting their capacity for invention.
At the same time, Rembrandt was painting more formal, yet equally imaginative, self-portraits, as for example the fanciful Self-Portrait, Age 23 of 1629, in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston (fig 14).42 Remarkably, by 1633 a similar self-portrait by Rembrandt was in the collection of Charles I of England (1600–49) at Whitehall Palace, where it hung alongside several self-portraits by other artists.43 That Rembrandt’s fame had spread so early to England must have been due, at least in part, to Constantijn Huygens or the stadholder. In these and other early self-portraits, Rembrandt wears not contemporary attire, but quasi-historical clothing—a beret and a gold chain through which he fashions himself as a “noble” artist. “Noble” is in quotations because his elaborate chains evoke only the gold chains of honor that court artists received from their ruler patrons. Rembrandt would never get such a chain; instead, through fanciful chains he advanced a new kind of nobility attained neither by birth nor at court, but solely through his brush. Indeed, Constantijn Huygens considered Rembrandt’s and Lievens’s middle-class, common origins to be “the weightiest argument I know against the so-called nobility of blood.”44
Rembrandt’s most elaborate painted self-portrait of this period is the full-length Self-Portrait in Oriental Dress of 1631, in which Rembrandt dons quasi-historical attire to cast himself as an Oriental ruler (fig 15).45 The Leiden Collection’s copy of this painting, Isaac de Jouderville’s Rembrandt in Oriental Dress (fig 16), provides insight into the master’s teaching practice. Isaac de Jouderville (ca. 1612–48), who was Rembrandt’s second apprentice in Leiden, probably painted it alongside the master, as is indicated by the fact that he did not depict the large dog, which Rembrandt added somewhat later. De Jouderville’s painting is one of a number of copies of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which indicates that copying the master’s self-portraits was a workshop assignment.
In contrast to these fanciful self-portraits, Self-Portrait of 1632 in Glasgow (fig 17) comes as a surprise, for it is one of the few self-portraits in which Rembrandt painted himself in fashionable contemporary attire.46 Like Constantijn Huygens in the portrait by Jan Lievens, Rembrandt wears a fine hat of imported beaver felt and a soft ruff collar of the sort then in style. With this assertive image, Rembrandt marked his new-found financial and artistic success, for he portrays himself as he would one of his well-to-do sitters. He may look like his clients here, but he was not of their class and never would be. Further, through this self-portrait Rembrandt conveyed his lofty ambitions. Specifically, he claimed his affinity with, and aimed to emulate, Peter Paul Rubens, for Rembrandt modeled his painting (and related etching) after Rubens’s Self-Portrait of 1623 (Royal Collection) that was in the collection of Charles I, which Rembrandt would have known through an engraving by Paulus Pontius (1603–58).47 Some years later, in about 1645, Gerrit Dou would base his exceptionally small and finely painted—and so characteristically his—Self-Portrait on Rembrandt’s painting or etching (fig 18).48
In his other self-portraits of the mid-1630s, such as those of 1634 and 1635 in the Louvre, and Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes from 1634 in The Leiden Collection (fig 11), Rembrandt reverted to the imaginary historicized mode.49 Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes shows Rembrandt wearing a fur-lined cloak over an old-fashioned chemise, as well as the black beret that he would repeatedly use to identify himself as an artist. By shading his eyes, Rembrandt evoked his inner self, perhaps to suggest his melancholic temperament.50
These self-portraits from the mid-1630s prefigure the culmination of Rembrandt’s fanciful self-portrait mode in the etched Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill of 1639 and Self-Portrait at Age 34 of 1640, in the National Gallery, London (fig 19).51 The London self-portrait, possibly the painting described as “Rembrandts contrefeijtsel antijcks” in the 1657 inventory of the Amsterdam merchant and art dealer Johannes de Renialme (1600–57), is arguably the master’s most remarkable and most influential self-portrait.52 It assimilated and made pointed reference to two famous Italian portraits that Rembrandt had seen in Amsterdam in 1639, Raphael’s Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione and Titian’s Portrait of a Man, which was then thought to represent the Italian poet Ariosto.53 Through this act of emulation, Rembrandt inserted himself into and claimed to be worthy of a place in this lineage of great masters.
Rembrandt’s London self-portrait is especially relevant here because it was so tremendously influential, and The Leiden Collection holds two outstanding examples of its impact. For his Self-Portrait of 1643, Govaert Flinck (1615–60) (fig 20), who had been Rembrandt’s student in 1634–35, drew both on Rembrandt’s painting and his etched Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill of 1639. Likewise, in his Self-Portrait, Behind a Parapet of 1648 (fig 21), Ferdinand Bol (1616–80), who had studied with Rembrandt in the 1630s, made reference to and pointedly transformed Rembrandt’s painting. Flinck and Bol were among several of Rembrandt’s students and assistants—others included Dou, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Arent de Gelder (1645–1727)—who, years after they had studied with Rembrandt, paid homage to their master by emulating Self-Portrait at Age 34.
Whereas Rembrandt portrayed himself primarily in historicized costume and imaginary guises, and only on a few occasions in contemporary dress, he painted the vast majority of his commissioned portraits in a formal and fashionable mode. These would have been called counterfeytsels, a term that derives from “counterfeit” meaning, in the context of portraiture, an exact or naturalistic likeness. But Rembrandt also painted likenesses of real, though probably not paying, people in imaginary historicized (quasi-) portraits called tronies, a term that derives from the Dutch word for head, meaning a type of character study. Several impressive paintings in The Leiden Collection speak to Rembrandt’s portrait production, its range, and the complexity of the issues surrounding it.
Young Girl in a Gold Trimmed Cloak (fig 22) is typical of Rembrandt’s imaginary, evocative tronies in that it occupies an ambiguous space between portrait and historicized character study. On the one hand, the young girl wears fanciful old-fashioned clothing and is not painted the way Rembrandt would portray a paying client. On the other hand, she must have been a known model, for Rembrandt painted her more than once, and his pupil Isaac de Jouderville also portrayed her. Rembrandt has portrayed her in much the same “antiek” historical, possibly pastoral, costume in which he would soon portray his wife Saskia.54
Rembrandt painted his first formal portrait of an Amsterdam sitter, Portrait of Nicolas Ruts, in 1631.55 In 1632, he was commissioned (presumably via Constantijn Huygens) to portray several sitters from The Hague, including Amalia van Solms, wife of stadholder Frederick Hendrik, and, in a pair of friendship portraits, Maurits Huygens, Constantijn’s brother and the secretary of the Council of State, and artist Jacob de Gheyn III. However, Rembrandt must have recognized that wealthy, bustling Amsterdam offered him greater potential and, eventually, greater independence, for by 1633 he had moved there permanently. At first, because he was not a citizen, he could not open his own studio in Amsterdam. Instead, he went to work for the painter-dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587–1661), with whom he had already been in business since 1631. Initially, he lodged in Uylenburgh’s house and headed up Uylenburgh’s growing workshop, or “academy” as it was called, where he made his success portraying a range of sitters in an array of portrait modes. With these, Rembrandt dominated portrait production in Amsterdam for the decade of the 1630s, painting some of Amsterdam’s wealthiest and most important citizens. For example, the innovative, extraordinarily large and presumably quite expensive Shipbuilder and His Wife, 1633, the double portrait of Jan Pietersz Bruyningh and his wife Hillegont Pietersdr Moutmaker, and the extraordinarily elegant and costly full-length pendants of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit, date from this following year.56
Two portraits in The Leiden Collection exemplify Rembrandt’s portrait production in Uylenburgh’s studio and some of the issues surrounding it. Although we do not know the identity of its marvelously lively sitter, Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat of 1633 (fig 23) must be a commissioned portrait. The man wears fashionable but unusual clothing, in that Dutch men of the period were typically portrayed in black. His red coat, with its braided fasteners, suggests he might be either a military man or, perhaps, a foreigner. That he turns to the right makes it likely that this portrait once had a pendant. Rembrandt has here captured the individual’s character and liveliness, and seemingly exercised a certain liberty in rendering him with such a warm and immediate personality—as a man bold enough to wear red.
The elegant, animated Portrait of Antonie Coopal (fig 24) is a second formal portrait associated with Rembrandt’s time as head of Uylenburgh’s “academy.” Whereas Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat appears to be entirely by Rembrandt’s hand, Portrait of Antonie Coopal of 1635 was probably a collaborative work, painted together with a member of his workshop. Recent technical and stylistic analysis indicates that, while Rembrandt conceived of and blocked out the composition for the portrait, the execution of the fashionable broad lace collar was carried out with studio assistance.
Painted in 1635, the same year as Portrait of Antonie Coopal, the Leiden’s Collection’s magnificent Minerva in Her Study (fig 25) is one of Rembrandt’s great history paintings of the 1630s. In its grandeur and monumentality, the large Minerva is emblematic of the new, more ambitious direction that opened up to Rembrandt after he left Uylenburgh’s “academy” in 1635 to set up his own studio as a citizen of Amsterdam. From the very beginning of his career in Leiden, Rembrandt had aspired to be a history painter. Although he was occupied largely with fulfilling commissions for portraits while with Uylenburgh, Rembrandt also found time to develop another type of painting that blurred the boundaries between portrait and history painting: the large-scale historical “portrait,” of which the Minerva is the most accomplished.
This painting was the culmination of what must have been for Rembrandt an innovative type: the heroic woman from antiquity. These include Bellona of 1633, Artemisia of 1634, and the two Floras of 1634 and 1635, both of which are thought to represent Saskia.57 An etching of 1635, The Great Jewish Bride, which presumably also represents a woman from antiquity, comes closest to the monumentality of Minerva.
When the painting is compared with Rembrandt’s much smaller, far less monumental Minerva of circa 1631 (fig 26), and with the large but somewhat awkward Bellona, the magnificence of The Leiden Collection’s Minerva in Her Study becomes apparent. By placing Minerva at her desk, with its impressive tomes and globe, Rembrandt brings the goddess down to earth in a way that only a Dutch artist could do. At the same time, he brilliantly amplifies her presence by enhancing her with a range of beautifully painted sumptuous, shining fabrics. The extraordinary effort that Rembrandt devoted to conceptualizing and painting this Minerva suggests that he accorded the subject special significance. Minerva (the Greek Pallas Athena) was the goddess of war, but here, with her helmet and gorgon-headed shield behind her, she represents peace and wisdom, and specifically the wisdom under which the arts flourish in times of peace. In that capacity, Minerva was painting’s protector, a role that Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617) had accorded her in 1611.58 Although Goltzius painted her undraped, Rembrandt must have known that Minerva was the protector of crafts more broadly, and of weaving and embroidery specifically. In the Iliad, Homer describes her as wearing a dress that she embroidered herself, along with a “splendid cloak.”59
That Rembrandt, quite fittingly, treated Minerva in Her Study as a demonstration of his skill with the brush is suggested by the sheer quality of handling, especially of drapery. Rembrandt showcases his ability to paint many different kinds and textures of fabric, from Minerva’s gold embroidered brocade cloak, purple-ish embroidered satin dress, and blue sash with gold tassels (all of which correspond to classical descriptions of her), to the lush carpet on the table before her. In the art theory of the time, drapery was regarded as notoriously difficult to master, which explains the ubiquity of multicolored scarves in self-portraits and pictures of artists’ studios by Rembrandt and Gerrit Dou, especially. Karel van Mander, in Het Schilderboeck of 1604, wrote that painting drapery, clouds and hair required geest (“spirit or imagination”).60 With Minerva’s golden locks, Rembrandt meets the challenge of painting hair.
Given Minerva’s significance to the Art of Painting, we might imagine that Rembrandt made the painting for an erudite collector. Whatever prompted it, Minerva appears to have been part of Rembrandt’s larger project, starting when he set out on his own in 1635, to establish himself as a painter of large, monumental histories, such as Belshazzar’s Feast of circa 1636 and The Blinding of Samson of 1636.61 But these are dramatic narratives. In many ways, Minerva—with her imposing strength, alert intelligence, and steadfast self-possession—looks forward to the paintings of powerful historical women from Rembrandt’s late career, above all Juno of 1662–65 (fig 27).62
As the marvelous paintings in The Leiden Collection illustrate, the crucial distinguishing features of Rembrandt’s art—emotional expression and the ability to give compelling human presence and character to sitters for portraits and historical figures alike—were evident in his paintings early on. These were the qualities he cultivated and advanced in the very best of his works. Rembrandt was also an extraordinary colleague and teacher who helped to foster the art and advance the careers of the artists around him. As demonstrated by Lievens, Dou, and many others in The Leiden Collection, Rembrandt stood at the very center of a remarkable artistic moment that thrived on, and drew its distinctive nature from, a culture of virtuous rivalry and emulation.