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Scholarly Essay

Rembrandt as Universal Artist

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Wheelock, Arthur K., Jr. “Rembrandt as Universal Artist” (2020). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 3rd ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Lara Yeager-Crasselt. New York, 2020–. https://theleidencollection.com/essays/rembrandt-as-universal-artist/ (accessed June 22, 2021).

As I write this essay in the fall of 2020, we face many uncertainties in our daily lives caused by a worldwide pandemic, civil unrest, systemic racism, climate change, and economic concerns. In unsettled times like these, works of art can provide solace and guidance and inspire hope. They reflect our core values and basic humanity. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is one of those masters whose enduring legacy, which is both universal and personal, seems to matter now more than ever because of his ability to convey deeply felt emotions to which we can all relate.

Rembrandt () derived his essential humanism from the triumphs and tragedies of his own life as well as from his studies of artistic and literary traditions, including the Bible and mythology, and he assimilated these experiences in paintings, drawings, and etchings. He depicted the physical characteristics of those he portrayed, but also their thoughts and feelings, from pride and dignity to worry and embarrassment. Through his artistic sensitivities and human insight, Rembrandt’s figures come alive, whether he rendered them from life or his imagination.

Rembrandt firmly belonged to the tradition of the “universal” artist, a designation well established in the Netherlands by the Dutch theorist Karel van Mander (1548–1606) for identifying great masters, such as Raphael (1483–1520) and Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533), who worked in a variety of media and depicted a broad range of subjects. However, from the very earliest years of his career, when he was still active in Leiden, Rembrandt redefined the essence of this concept by emphasizing, as well, the emotional and spiritual realms of the human experience in his art.

This distinctive quality of Rembrandt’s artistic genius was already recognized in the late 1620s by Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687) (), one of the premier connoisseurs of the day and secretary to the Prince of Orange, Frederick Hendrick. After a visit to Leiden to meet Rembrandt and his colleague Jan Lievens (1607–1674), Huygens wrote admiringly of Rembrandt’s ability to capture the “movements of the soul.” This remarkable aspect of Rembrandt’s manner drew continued admiration in subsequent centuries, particularly by the late nineteenth-century German scholar Wilhelm von Bode (1845–1929), whose outlook was deeply influenced by the Romantic movement and its ideals of creative genius. Bode admired the way Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro effects allowed him to suppress surface details so that he could render “souls rather than existences.” For Bode, Rembrandt’s art marked “a climax in the development of universal art.” Although the full story of Rembrandt’s path to becoming a universal artist is beyond the scope of this essay, its essence is found in each of the master’s paintings in The Leiden Collection, which give shape to the following narrative.

Rembrandt’s Life Trajectory as Seen through His Art

Rembrandt’s appearance and life story are known to us from many sources, but none so compelling as the self-portraits he made over the course of his career. We watch him age from a rough-hewn, unrefined young artist in Leiden, where strong contrasts of light and dark capture momentary expressions (), to a respectable and successful burgher after he moved to Amsterdam in the early 1630s (). We also observe, through the eyes of the artist, how late in life his body, if not his indomitable spirit, began to weaken and fail (). Rembrandt did not idealize his features in his paintings, drawings, and etchings, and, over time, we see his bulbous nose widen and his jowly cheeks grow ever more distended. The one constant in his late portraits is his steady gaze, often heavy and not without sadness, but with a sense of dignity and equanimity that reflects Rembrandt’s conviction that his legacy was equal to that of any master from antiquity or the Renaissance.

Rembrandt’s character emerged from the vagaries of his life, and his successes and failures, as well as his excesses and limitations, provided him with a broad range of experiences that informed the depth and breadth of his art. While he rendered all aspects of the world with great sensitivity, he was particularly fascinated with the human face, whether old or young. He drew, etched, and painted both strangers on the street and members of his family—another reason that we can relate so directly to the world in which he lived. For example, Rembrandt captured the forceful personality of his mother () and the quiet solemnity of his blind father. We feel connected to Rembrandt’s beloved Saskia (), whom he rendered from the very day that they were betrothed in 1633 to when she lay bedridden before her untimely death in 1641. Only one of their children, Titus, survived infancy, and through Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings we watch him grow to early manhood, not only in genre-like portraits but also when he served as a model in his father’s biblical and mythological scenes. Finally, Rembrandt’s dear companion Hendrickje (), who came into his life in the mid-1640s, often features in his work. Their life together, while caring and supportive, was not without economic distress: in 1656, Rembrandt had to declare a form of bankruptcy and, a few years later, he was forced to sell his large home and extensive art collection. In 1663, Hendrickje tragically died of the plague, a pandemic not unlike the one we are facing today, which tore through the Netherlands. These powerful life experiences inform the empathy that one always feels in the presence of one of Rembrandt’s works.

When Rembrandt died at age sixty-three in 1669, he was largely alone, predeceased by Hendrickje and Titus. At his death, moreover, the art world had largely passed him by. After years of success, his dark and roughly brushed portraits and religious, historical, and mythological paintings lost favor, not only among younger patrons but also with Amsterdam’s city fathers who had become enthralled by more elegant artistic styles. Nevertheless, even as many of Rembrandt’s contemporaries turned away from him, he did continue to receive commissions from those who seemingly realized that his artistic creations probed the very essence of human life by fusing the physical and spiritual in ways never before reached ().

Rembrandt in Leiden in the Early 1620s

Rembrandt’s story begins in Leiden on July 15, 1606, when he was born to a miller, Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn, and his wife, Neeltgen van Zuytbrouck. As the youngest son of at least ten children, Rembrandt was not expected to carry on his father’s business but was allowed to follow his natural instincts, which were, according to his first biographer, “toward the art of painting and drawing.” The family was prosperous enough to send him to the Leiden Latin School, where he remained for seven years, and to the University of Leiden, where he was enrolled from 1620 to at least 1622. Such an education would have given him a solid foundation in theology and the literature of classical antiquity. This familiarity with narratives from the Bible and Roman mythology provided him with the intellectual framework for becoming a history painter, then understood to be the highest echelon for an artist.

Rembrandt was raised as a Protestant, yet his family’s sympathies lay not with the Orthodox Calvinists but with the Remonstrants—a faction of the Dutch Reformed Church that opposed the Orthodox Calvinists’ position on predestination. Calvinist doctrine maintained that God’s elect were chosen even before the fall of Adam, and that those selected for damnation could not ameliorate their destiny through repentance and faith. The Remonstrants argued, on the other hand, that God would save those who had fallen if they lived in “true obedience of faith.” Debates between the Remonstrants and the Orthodox Calvinists, known as the Counter Remonstrants, were intense during the early to mid-1620s, particularly at the University of Leiden, while Rembrandt was a student.

Although Rembrandt’s own religious views are not known, the importance that the Remonstrants placed on personal faith is consistent with Rembrandt’s emphasis on the inner life of his subjects. There was nothing dogmatic about his ideology, however. He would eventually have important contacts with individuals from a wide range of religious traditions—not only Remonstrants and Counter Remonstrants—who would inform and broaden the perspective he had derived from his family and early education. Rembrandt studied with two masters who were Roman Catholics: in the early 1620s with Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh (1571–1638) in Leiden, and in the mid-1620s with Pieter Lastman (1583–1633) in Amsterdam. He also had close relationships with Mennonites, including the Amsterdam art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh (ca. 1587–1661), for whom he worked as a master painter in the early 1630s, as well as associations with many Jews—not only individuals who served as models () but also those who commissioned paintings and etchings from him. This acceptance of and engagement with different religious traditions helps account for the broad humanity of his art.

To judge from the type and character of the images Rembrandt produced throughout his long career, he found spiritual affinities with each of these religious traditions. He was well versed in the Bible, but another important literary source for Biblical themes was Jewish Antiquities, a book recorded in his 1656 inventory. Written by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (ca. 37–100 CE), this tome describes the psychological state of Old Testament figures faced with painful choices, frequently as a result of God’s commands—subjects that Rembrandt also gravitated toward throughout his career because of their expressive possibilities and wider implications for human behavior. In order to depict stories from the Bible and antiquity with a sense of authenticity, Rembrandt began to collect artifacts from many parts of the world, including Africa, Turkey, and India. He also amassed a large collection of prints and drawings by and after such masters as Raphael, Titian (ca. 1488–1576), Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), and Lucas van Leyden that provided him with inspiration for his own inventions.

The first evidence of Rembrandt choosing an artistic career dates to 1620 when, at the age of 16, he entered the studio of Van Swanenburgh, a prominent history painter in Leiden. Van Swanenburgh’s paintings depicting fiery scenes of hell () were by then already rather old fashioned, and they had no perceptible influence on the young artist. Nonetheless, this Leiden master, almost certainly guided by Karel van Mander’s Het Schilder-boeck (The Art of Painting) (), taught Rembrandt the fundamentals of painting.

Van Mander’s important art treatise, originally published in Haarlem in 1604 and reprinted in 1618, just two years before Rembrandt entered Van Swanenburgh’s studio, provided both practical advice and a historical and theoretical framework for the broader significance of art in the cultural landscape of the time. Van Mander noted, for example, that an aspiring young artist should draw constantly, first copying prints and paintings by older masters and subsequently drawing after nature. He should learn to express himself through a variety of techniques, including painting, drawing, and printmaking. Importantly, Van Mander emphasized that history painting, which encompassed allegorical scenes and subjects drawn from the Bible, antiquity, or Greek and Roman mythology, was the most noble and prestigious genre of painting. History paintings focus on uplifting or cautionary narratives that encourage one to contemplate the meaning of life. They deal with ethical and moral choices that confront individuals in times of crisis, where emotions and passions are expressed in dramatic and evocative ways. History painters had to be learned artists, knowledgeable about stories and cultures from the past, but also able to work from the imagination.

Van Mander’s Het Schilder-boeck not only provided guidelines for producing a work of art, but it also recounted the great achievements of artists from the past—not only Italians, such as Raphael, but also Netherlandish artists, including Lucas van Leyden, both of whom he specifically celebrated for being “universal” artists. Van Mander wrote that Van Leyden was “naturally gifted” and “never stopped drawing everything from life: faces, hands, feet, houses, landscapes and all manner of fabrics, in which he took a particular pleasure. He was in fact universal, or familiar with . . . all that the art of painting comprehends: for he painted histories, portraits, landscapes and figures in oil and watercolor and practiced glass-painting and engraving from an early age.” Rembrandt clearly embraced Van Mander’s assessment of Lucas van Leyden as a universal artist, for this Leiden native was, in many ways, Rembrandt’s spiritual forefather. He was a model worthy of emulation; indeed, Rembrandt based one of his earliest etchings on a Van Leyden composition. He also recognized that Van Leyden’s self-portraits helped ensure his lasting reputation, which may be one reason that Rembrandt featured self-portraits in his work.

Rembrandt and Lievens in Leiden in the Mid-1620s and Early 1630s

Rembrandt left Van Swanenburgh’s workshop in 1624, likely because he wanted to paint in a more modern manner and found a sympathetic colleague in Jan Lievens (). Although one year younger than Rembrandt, this Leiden native had already established himself as a precocious master. Like Rembrandt, Lievens had first trained in Leiden, but in 1617, his parents sent him to Amsterdam to study for two years with Pieter Lastman, the preeminent history painter of the day. In Lastman’s studio, Lievens would have seen history paintings, such as David Gives Uriah a Letter for Joab (), that depict narrative episodes from the Bible. Lievens learned from Lastman key principles of the genre, including the arrangement of figures within a composition and how gesture and glance help create a compelling narrative.

Having gained this knowledge, Lievens returned to Leiden around 1620. It seems, however, that the young artist soon went briefly to Utrecht to train with Gerrit van Honthorst (1592–1656), who had just returned to Utrecht from Rome. Van Honthorst had embraced the revolutionary style of painting developed by Caravaggio (1571–1610), with dramatic chiaroscuro effects (contrasts of light and dark), which he adapted in scenes that often featured candlelight. Lievens enthusiastically embraced Van Honthorst’s much-acclaimed Caravaggist manner in both his history paintings and scenes of daily life, such as the Card Players of ca. 1625 (). Aside from its pronounced chiaroscuro effects, Card Players has a visual power that comes from Lievens’s tightly cropped composition and the physicality of his figures. Strikingly, Rembrandt was the model for the seated smiling figure holding a pipe, the earliest known depiction of this young Leiden artist. The fact that Rembrandt served as one of Lievens’s models clearly indicates that the two artists knew each other well—and perhaps even shared a studio.

Rembrandt painted his earliest known works, his multipanel Allegory of the Senses, around this time, presumably in Lievens’s workshop. Three paintings from this series of the five senses are in The Leiden Collection: Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell) (), Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch) (), and Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing) (). In these works, Rembrandt fully embraced Lievens’s modern manner, including his bold brushstrokes, strong chiaroscuro effects, closely cropped composition, and sense of humor. Moreover, just as Rembrandt is an actor in the Card Players, young Lievens appears as a participant in the Allegory of Hearing, the earliest known image of that artist.

This allegorical series reveals Rembrandt’s imaginative approach to the well-established pictorial tradition of the five senses. Each of the panel paintings features three tightly framed figures who focus on a shared experience in a dark, undefined space. Rembrandt robed his figures in bright pink and light blue attire that, lit by artificial light sources seen and unseen, provides splashes of color that greatly enliven the images. As depicted, these surgeons, patients, and singers—young and old, male and female, crude and refined—are unforgettably expressive characters involved in activities that connect the senses of smell, touch, and hearing in ways both humorous and empathetic, whether reviving a fainted patient, undertaking a surgical operation, or singing from an open songbook. In Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing) (), for example, an unforgettable bespectacled man with wrinkled forehead holds a large music book and beats time with his raised hand to guide the other members of his trio—an elderly woman wearing a colorful striped turban and young man in a dark beret—both of whom eagerly lean forward to join him in song. Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch) () is no less humorous, as a barber-surgeon in old-fashioned dress wields a scalpel to remove a stone from the head of a patient clenching his fists and grimacing in pain. Rembrandt had an irreverent sense of humor, and the exaggerated expressions and gestures of the figures in these paintings almost induce one to laugh out loud at the recognizable human foibles he depicted.

In 1625, shortly after painting Allegory of the Senses, Rembrandt followed in Lievens’s footsteps and went briefly to Amsterdam to study with Pieter Lastman, from whom he, like Lievens, learned key principles of history painting. After Rembrandt returned to Leiden in 1626, he matured quickly as an artist and composed a number of history paintings that both emulated and competed with those of Lastman by depicting the same subjects in more dynamic ways. In a similar manner, during the late 1620s Rembrandt also competed with his Leiden colleague Lievens: the two young artists often portrayed the same narratives in their paintings, prints, and drawings. Their stylistic approaches were so similar that attributions of their works were sometimes disputed.

Lievens’s and Rembrandt’s innate artistic abilities, and their shared desire to portray themselves as outsiders who felt free to express themselves in new and different ways, brought them great notoriety, even at their early age. Their fame spread to The Hague and to Constantijn Huygens, who traveled to Leiden in 1628–29 to see these two young artists, in part because he was in search of new home-grown talent for the Prince of Orange’s art collection. Huygens was enthralled with what he saw, particularly a portrait that Lievens painted of him (). He registered his praise in an epigram that reads, in part: “This is the face of Huygens, who was meditating, / If you look for the soul, you will see the one who is full of breath.”

Huygens wrote at length about the two artists in his autobiography, where he distinguished between their artistic strengths and weaknesses. He noted that while Lievens “chooses a larger scale,” “Rembrandt was superior . . . in his sure touch and liveliness of emotions,” qualities that were essential for painting expressive history scenes (). Much as with his praise for Lievens, Huygens lauded Rembrandt’s ability to capture the “movements of the soul,” which he contended rivalled the achievements of the great masters from antiquity, including Protogenes, Apelles, and Parrhasius. Huygens’s assertions about this young master’s expressive abilities explicitly raised the level of his creations to that of artists renowned through the ages, an implication that Rembrandt took to heart.

Huygens’s visit to Leiden would have real consequences for both Lievens’s and Rembrandt’s careers, for both subsequently received princely commissions from Huygens that greatly enhanced their prestige and public esteem for their works. Among these commissions were requests that each artist portray Prince Rupert of the Palatinate, a nephew of the Prince of Orange. Lievens’s likeness of Prince Rupert in The Leiden Collection is one of these masterpieces (). Lievens depicted Prince Rupert exotically dressed in a golden cape attached with a chain clasp as well as a blue and gold turban festooned with the soaring plume of a bird of paradise. The young sitter looks like a Turkish or Persian character from a biblical story, but the brilliant, shimmering yellow, gold, and blue fabrics of this wardrobe reflect a style of dress then in vogue at the Dutch court.

Despite their successes, both Rembrandt and Lievens remained rebels, anxious to make their marks in Leiden by breaking with established conventions of decorum and artistic presentation. Around 1630, Rembrandt, in particular, made a number of etched self-portraits in which he presents himself as unbeholden to social norms, including freely rendered images showing himself as coarse, rough-hewn, and unrefined as he smiles, frowns, or snarls directly at the viewer (). The courtly contact they had through Huygens created inner conflicts for both artists, who struggled to reconcile their identity as rebels, working outside the norms of Dutch society, with being court artists who would be expected to conform to a certain code of demeanor. Rembrandt, in particular, was caught in a vortex of conflicting artistic ideals and styles of painting, from comic to serious and from refined to broadly executed, which he never quite reconciled into a consistent whole—a tension that makes his work fascinating and unpredictable. This sense of being an outsider but also wanting to be accepted by the Dutch court and society in general also constitutes an important factor in the universality of Rembrandt’s art, which touches on all aspects of the human condition.

Throughout their careers, both Lievens and Rembrandt were captivated with the challenge of rendering the human countenance, and they depicted the faces of those around them in paintings, drawings, and etchings. In these head studies, known as tronies, they rendered not only themselves but also family members, see (), (), and (), friends, and working-class people they encountered in and around Leiden, some of whom they dressed in imaginative, exotic costumes. Both artists were fascinated with the faces of the old, for in age they found “character,” whether in the creases that lined a wizened visage or in the wisdom that radiated from those who have experienced the vagaries of life. They painted, drew, and etched tronies from life (“naar het leven”), from memory (“van onthout”), or from the imagination (“uit den gheest”), but always with the aim of enhancing the expressive character and inner life of the figures they were depicting. Tronies were often independent works of art, but Rembrandt and Lievens later adapted many such character studies in their history paintings.

One of Rembrandt’s most compelling tronies is Bust of a Bearded Old Man (), a small painting that he executed in 1633 on a sheet of paper no larger than a playing card. Rembrandt’s bold and energetic brushstrokes—particularly those rendering the elder’s furrowed brow, unkempt hair, and beard—create a dynamic image even though the elder, with eyes obscured in shadow, looks down in a moment of quiet reflection. Rembrandt signed and dated this tronie, signifying that he greatly valued its expressive character and viewed it as being no less significant than a full-scale painting. He may have executed this treasure for a friend or collector, since it is unlikely that he would have made such a small work for the open market.

Rembrandt in Amsterdam during the 1630s

The dynamic relationship that Rembrandt and Lievens enjoyed in Leiden as they challenged each other to greater and greater levels of artistic expression ended in the early 1630s, when Lievens left for London and Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, both in search of larger and more prestigious artistic centers. Amsterdam was a much more cosmopolitan city than Leiden, and Rembrandt’s move gave him an opportunity to feature his skills as a portrait painter, which he had hardly displayed prior to 1631. It seems likely that Rembrandt’s move came about in part through the invitation of Hendrik van Uylenburgh, who ran a so-called “academy,” which was primarily a workshop for portrait commissions. Rembrandt acted as head of Van Uylenburgh’s workshop and quickly established his reputation in Amsterdam as a portrait painter.

The cosmopolitan environment Rembrandt encountered in Amsterdam encouraged the artist to abandon the persona of a rebel artist that he had developed in Leiden and to present himself as a respectable member of society, particularly by 1634 when he married Hendrick van Uylenburgh’s younger cousin, Saskia (). In one of the most engaging self-portraits from this period of his career, Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes (), the artist, wearing a fur-trimmed jacket, gazes at the viewer from beneath a dark beret worn at a jaunty angle. As he peers out from an oval framing element, Rembrandt presents himself as a sincere and scholarly artist-suitor, far different from disreputable painters who were characterized by such slurs as “hoe schilder hoe wilder” (the more of a painter the wilder he is).

Rembrandt appears here with his face largely in shadow, an unusual approach to self-portraiture, announcing, yet again, that he thought differently about presenting himself to the world than did his contemporaries. By leaving both eyes in the shade of his beret’s soft brim, and hence somewhat undefined, Rembrandt encourages the viewer to look carefully at the image, thereby becoming more fully engaged with the artist’s persona. Rembrandt modeled the face with blended strokes and subtle half-lights that further enhance his physical reality and psychological presence.

In Amsterdam, Rembrandt found an enthusiastic clientele eager to acquire his portraits.  They admired the way Rembrandt created lifelike images through his innovative poses, subtle rendering of flesh tones, and control of light and dark. Young Girl in a Gold-Trimmed Cloak (), signed and dated 1632, is one such work. Rembrandt modeled the young woman’s face with smoothly blended strokes and rendered her blond hair with flowing touches of the brush. He vividly characterized her distinctive features—pronounced forehead, slight pout, and double chin—in ways that capture her unique personality. Although she gazes directly out at the viewer, her body slightly turns in space, an effect Rembrandt enhanced through his handling of light. For example, Rembrandt juxtaposed the illuminated left side of her body against a dark background while doing the opposite at the right, where light illuminates the ocher wall behind her shaded form. The differing character of the glints shining off the gold trim on the woman’s jacket also reflect this subtle twist of her body, which enhances the lifelike character of this image.

Another painting that Rembrandt executed soon after he came to Van Uylenburgh’s Amsterdam workshop is Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat (). Artist and sitter must have immediately found that they had an easy rapport. Rembrandt depicted his subject with moustache twirled upward and a friendly demeanor as he looks directly out at the viewer. The essence of the sitter’s easy personality is evident in his robust features, arched eyebrows, and generous girth. The red doublet he wears, which Rembrandt brushed with an appropriate freedom of touch, and particularly the garment’s horizontal braided clasps add sparkle to this image. The sitter’s conspicuous attire, so different from the black wardrobes often found in other portraits at that time, may indicate that he was a member of the military, but it is also likely that he dressed this way because it suited him.

Rembrandt attracted a number of students who came to learn his method of painting in Van Uylenburgh’s studio, among them Govaert Flinck (1615–1660), Ferdinand Bol (1616–1680), and Jacob Backer (1608–1651), all artists represented in The Leiden Collection. As was customary in Dutch workshops, Rembrandt occasionally had pupils and assistants aid him in meeting the high demand for commissioned portraits. In such instances, the master would paint the face and hands, while the assistant would help execute the costume. Such seems to have been the case with Portrait of Antonie Coopal, which is signed by Rembrandt and dated 1635 (). Here, the manner in which Coopal’s face is rendered is consistent with Rembrandt’s touch, but the elaborate lace collar lacks the nuanced modelling of other collars in Rembrandt portraits of the mid-1630s. After Rembrandt left Van Uylenburgh’s workshop and began painting on his own, he continued to involve students and apprentices in his creative process, teaching them not only the value of tronies for probing the human psyche but also the importance of history painting.

Rembrandt’s active engagement in portraiture in Amsterdam during the 1630s did not preclude him from painting magnificent biblical and mythological scenes, among them Minerva in Her Study () of 1635. Rembrandt believed that to be a universal master, one must excel in history painting, and he began executing history paintings at a scale and with a visual power beyond anything he had created in his Leiden period. Although we do not know what motivated Rembrandt to paint in such an imposing manner at this time, he probably sought to emulate and even compete with the achievements of the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), then recognized as the greatest history painter of the day. Constantijn Huygens, who was an admirer of Rubens, noted that the Flemish master was without equal in his inventiveness and the variety of his subject matter and that he was “experienced in all the humanities.” Huygens further described Rubens as the “Apelles of our time,” a designation that would have registered with Rembrandt, whom Huygens had also compared to Apelles after visiting the young artist in Leiden.

Minerva was an appropriate subject for an artist who sought to compete with Rubens. In Rembrandt’s painting, this Olympian goddess is regal in both appearance and demeanor as she quietly sits at a tapestry-covered table. Light, which enters from the upper left, illuminates not only the laurel wreath crowning Minerva’s head, but also her flowing blond hair, the shimmering gold-embroidered cloak draped over her shoulder, and, importantly, the whites of her eyes.  Although the goddess’s facial features are somewhat similar to those of Saskia (), they are generalized and idealized, much as Rubens would have done, in a manner befitting an important Olympian deity.

Rembrandt depicted Minerva as the goddess of wisdom, engaged in learning and reflecting on scholarly discourse in a manner that connects directly to the human experience. With her left hand resting on a large leather-bound folio, she looks up toward the viewer, her alert, open expression indicating that she is contemplating the text she has just read. The nearby globe further signifies the broad scope of her knowledge. Arrayed behind her are attributes associated with her role as goddess of war and peace: a helmet, sword, and large oval shield, with its frightening image of Medusa’s severed head. Rembrandt, however, explicitly depicts Minerva facing away from such associations with war to pursue her scholarly interests.

Rembrandt likely painted this work for one of Amsterdam’s regents, civic leaders who believed that a peaceful environment was beneficial to international trade and hence to Amsterdam’s prosperity. His intent, thus, was not solely to portray a mythological goddess but also to demonstrate how her example could help guide contemporary social and political concerns in the Dutch Republic.

Rembrandt’s Mature Period in the 1640s and 1650s

In 1639, five years after his marriage to Saskia and at the height of his artistic success, Rembrandt purchased a large house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat in Amsterdam (). To acquire the house, he had to borrow heavily, assuming a debt that would eventually figure in his financial problems of the mid-1650s. Rembrandt and Saskia had four children, but only Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. After a long illness, Saskia died in 1642, the year Rembrandt painted perhaps his most renowned composition, The Night Watch (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam). After Saskia’s death, Rembrandt seemed to find comfort in taking long walks in the countryside, with sketchbook in hand, making landscapes and figure studies, much as Karel van Mander had urged artists to do. He also found solace in painting quiet and intimate scenes from the Bible set in domestic interiors, which reflected the new reality he faced as a single father to a small child who needed love and caring from his devoted parent. This personal tragedy and his varied reactions to it expanded Rembrandt’s life experiences in ways that had a huge impact on the character of his later work, which now conveyed an even greater empathy for those who suffered losses and disillusionment in their lives.

One subject that Rembrandt featured in his paintings of the 1640s was the Holy Family, as with this intimate scene in the Hermitage (). As noted above, Rembrandt often made tronies in anticipation of his history paintings, to study not only expression but also effects of light and dark. One such tronie is Head of a Girl (), which served as the model for Mary in the Hermitage painting. In this freely executed tronie, Rembrandt illuminated the young woman’s face with strong light falling from the upper left while he used more nuanced strokes of the brush to render her shaded cheek. Largely through the tilt of her head, he captured a sense of tenderness that he would adapt in his portrayal of Mary gazing down at the sleeping Christ Child.

Many of Rembrandt’s tronies from the 1640s portray individuals whose character he found intriguing, whether it be an elderly Ashkenazi Jew wearing a wide, flat beret () or a formidable yet humble woman who conveys a strong inner core of beliefs, as in Study of a Woman in a White Cap (). Rembrandt depicted such figures in different ways, perhaps to reflect their distinctive personalities, but also to indulge his interest in exploring various ways to model their faces. For example, he painted the Ashkenazi Jew with quick brushstrokes, contrasting dense impastos on the face with thinly brushed areas in his clothing, while he captured the working woman’s distinctive personality by modeling her features with subtly nuanced areas of light and dark.

The 1640s were a difficult period in Rembrandt’s life for many reasons. He became involved with Geertje Dirckx, who had entered the household as a nurse for Titus, but their relationship ended acrimoniously a few years later. In 1647, Rembrandt met Hendrickje Stoffels (), who would become his companion and would care for him and Titus until her death from the plague in 1663. However, Rembrandt and Hendrickje never married because of a stipulation in Saskia’s will that he would have to transfer half of their joint assets to Titus should he remarry—money the artist did not have. Partly as a result of public outrage over his domestic situation and partly because Rembrandt’s dark, roughly brushed portraits and religious, historical, and mythological paintings had largely lost favor among both younger patrons and Amsterdam’s city fathers, he was beset with financial difficulties. In 1658, Rembrandt suffered the humiliation of seeing his possessions, including his large art collection, auctioned because of insolvency. He then moved to the artist’s quarter in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, eventually renting a relatively small house on the Rozengracht where he lived for the rest of his life.

Although Rembrandt still received some important portrait commissions during the late 1650s and early 1660s, stylistic trends had veered away from his deeply personal manner of painting. Many of his contemporaries preferred the more elegant styles of former students, like Flinck and Bol, and Rembrandt became more and more isolated from the mainstream of Dutch art. No students are documented as having worked with him during the latter half of the 1650s, and only one, Arent de Gelder (1645–1727), is known to have studied with him in the 1660s.

Those who did welcome Rembrandt’s broad manner of painting were rewarded with such powerful images as Portrait of a Seated Woman with Her Hands Clasped (), which the master executed in 1660. The name of this woman is not known, but Rembrandt’s portrayal of her forceful visage, with its rough skin and pronounced features, is unforgettable. Aged she may be, but the years have not taken away the intensity of her gaze or the alertness of her mind, qualities that Rembrandt captures in the woman’s upright pose and tightly clasped hands. The master’s vigorous, unblended brushstrokes left, without hesitation, for all to see, convey both her rugged outward appearance and her inner strength. Neither the setting, a dark room with plaster walls, nor the woman’s fur-trimmed jacket and red-velvet sleeves provide much information about her identity or social class, although her black headdress may indicate that she was a widow. Given the forcefulness of this image, which seems to exist in a realm between portraiture and character study, one wonders if Rembrandt associated this woman with some biblical or mythological figure, as he occasionally did at this late stage of his career.

Rembrandt’s Late Self-Portraits as Expressions of a Universal Artist

Rembrandt’s conviction that he was an artist who reached beyond his own time and place is particularly evident in his late self-portraits, among them the 1658 Self-Portrait at the Frick Collection in New York (), the 1659 Self-Portrait at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (), and the ca. 1665 Self-Portrait with Two Circles at Kenwood House in London (). One would never guess from these works that the master’s fortunes and prospects were at such a low ebb. In each of them, Rembrandt exudes confidence and inner strength. He looks out at the viewer with a calm, resigned equanimity that is both sympathetic and stately. In these works, Rembrandt fuses the abstract and the real so that they become one and the same.

In the Frick’s Self-Portrait, Rembrandt sits in a Savonarola chair and holds a silver-knobbed wooden staff lightly between his fingers, both symbols of authority. His striking garments—a golden tunic with brocade lapels and red sash, and a fur-trimmed robe—are not the clothes of a practicing artist or a Dutch burgher. They are fanciful evocations of ancient dress, similar to what Jupiter wears in Rembrandt’s Jupiter and Mercury Visiting Philemon and Baucis, which the master also executed in 1658. Rembrandt does not specifically assume the awe-inspiring persona of Jupiter in this Self-Portrait, for his seated pose is inviting rather than intimidating, and his deep humanity is evident in his firm yet caring expression. For the National Gallery of Art’s Self-Portrait, Rembrandt chose to emulate Raphael’s famed portrait of the author and courtier Baldassare Castiglione, which he had seen at an auction in Amsterdam on April 19, 1639. He not only made a copy of Raphael’s painting but also adapted Castiglione’s pose in an etching in that year, and again in a painted Self-Portrait in 1640. The memory of Castiglione’s direct gaze and clasped hands must have remained deeply ingrained in Rembrandt’s mind for the next two decades. He returned to Raphael’s prototype because he found in it a vehicle for expressing his perception of himself as a learned painter, equal to the great masters of the past.

The Kenwood painting is particularly evocative for understanding Rembrandt’s perception of himself as a universal artist. Rembrandt stands proudly as a painter, brush and palette in hand, before a wall on which portions of two circles flank him. These abstract shapes resemble the paired circles on double-hemisphere wall maps that were being produced in the Dutch Republic. It seems probable that in depicting these circles, Rembrandt was inspired by the symbolism of such maps, which were viewed as images of the entirety of the visible world. These double circles, however, also evoke terrestrial and celestial globes, such as those seen in portraits of scholars—among them Thomas de Keyser’s image of Constantijn Huygens—that symbolized knowledge of both the physical and metaphysical worlds.

Throughout his life, Rembrandt aspired to be a universal artist, a concept that was instilled in him from an early age through the writings of Van Mander and personal communications with Huygens. He sought to achieve that status in many ways, not only by working in diverse media including painting, etching, and drawing, but also by becoming a history painter. With his powers of observation and fertile imagination, Rembrandt explored new ways of rendering both the spiritual realm and the physical world around him, including landscapes and domestic interiors. His genius resides in his ability to convey the depth of human emotion—whether in family members and friends or people he met on the street, sometimes in quick sketches and sometimes in carefully finished commissioned portraits—in ways that speak to all of us. His essential humanism provided him with insights that allowed him to capture the “movements of the soul” to a degree that no other artist has ever equaled, in images that resonate profoundly amid the fraught circumstances that confront us today.

- Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., 2020
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