Born in the Dutch city of Leiden on 15 July 1606, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was the ninth child of Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn’s and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. His mother was a baker’s daughter and his father was a miller so the family was considered reasonably well off for the period.
Despite there being little evidence of Rembrandt formally belonging to a church, religion played a part in his upbringing and was a key theme in his work. His father belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church and his mother was a Roman Catholic. All of Rembrandt’s children were christened in Dutch Reformed churches.
Rembrandt attended a Latin school before a brief period at the University of Leiden. His interest in painting was evident early on and he honed his craft through as an apprentice to Jacob van Swanenburgh, a historical painter from Leiden, for three years. Subsequent apprenticeships included a short but significant six months with Amsterdam-based Pieter Lastman and a few months with Jacob Pynas. Alderman Simon van Leeuwen has claimed that Rembrandt was also taught by Dutch Golden Age painter Joris van Schooten.
Around 1624 Rembrandt opened a studio in Leiden and in 1627 he began to accept students. Constantijn Huygens, a statesman and father of astronomer, mathematician and physicist Christiaan Huygens, became an important figure for Rembrandt in 1629. This connection resulted in Prince Frederik Hendrik commissioning and purchasing works by Rembrandt. While Rembrandt was influenced by the work of Italian painters, he never stepped foot out of the Netherlands.
The move to Amsterdam
Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1631. The city was flourishing as one of the region’s most bustling cultural and financial centres. It was here that his career as a professional portrait painter took off, with wealthy merchants from Amsterdam and Europe as clients. His main sources of income were private commissions, art dealing and teaching.
He married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of his art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, in 1634. The year proved fruitful; he was accepted as a member of the local guild of painters and became a burgess of Amsterdam. During the same year, he took on Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck as students and both went on to become important Dutch artists.
Rembrandt and Saskia moved to the fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat in 1635. They moved again in 1638 to a newly built house that would later become the Rembrandt House Museum in the Jewish quarter. The mortgage on the house would later be seen as the root cause of future financial hardship. Despite a substantial income, Rembrandt’s spending and poor investments would see him struggle with money matters throughout his life.
It wasn’t just money that proved difficult, his homelife would also be marred by sadness. Born in 1635, his and Saskia’s son Rumbartus died two months after his birth, in 1638 his daughter Cornelia died at just three weeks of age in 1638 and in 1640 daughter Cornelia died after just one month. Their only child to survive into adulthood was Titus who was born in 1641. Saskia died a year after his birth when she was only 30 years old, likely of tuberculosis. Drawings of Saskia on her death bed are widely regarded as some of Rembrandt’s most moving works.
Geertje Dircx was hired as Titus's caretaker and wet nurse during Saskia's illness and later became Rembrandt's lover. But the story soured when she charged him with breach of promise and he had her committed to an asylum.
Hendrickje Stoffels entered the picture in the late 1640s, first as Rembrandt’s maid, then lover and subsequently mother of his child Cornelia, who was born in 1654. Once again there would be drama with Hendrickje summoned to the Reformed Church to answer to the charge "that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter". Titus was Saskia’s sole heir, but her will stipulated that Rembrandt could access their son’s trust fund as long as he never remarried, which may explain why Rembrandt never wed Geertje or Hendrickje.
Rembrandt continued to live beyond his means. As an avid art aficionado, he purchased Old Master paintings, busts of Roman Emperors, even Japanese armour and other Asian objects for his collections. He faced bankruptcy in 1656 and sold much of his significant collection, though the prices realised were somewhat disappointing. His financial woes continued their downward spiral when he was forced to sell his house and printing-press. Aside from the Amsterdam painters' guild, who limited his ability to trade as a painter, his creditors were supportive.
In 1660 Hendrickje and Titus set up a business as art dealers to circumvent the painters’ guild’s regulations. With Rembrandt as an employee, the business was commissioned to complete work for the new city hall after the previous artist, one of Rembrandt’s former students, Govert Flinck, died. The work submitted was rejected but Rembrandt continued to take on portrait commissions and apprentices.
Innovative teaching style
Rembrandt taught throughout his career, from the early days in Leiden to the end in Amsterdam. It’s estimated that he had at least 40 students, likely as many as 50, who each paid tuition fees to him. While his approach was based in tradition, his curious nature led to innovation in his own work, which was then passed on to his students.
The end of his life, the start of a legacy
Hendrickje died in 1663 followed by Titus in 1668. Rembrandt died as a poor man in Amsterdam on 4 October 1669 at the age of 63. As was custom at the time, he was buried in an unknown grave in the Westerkerk. It is without question that Rembrandt is one of the greatest painters to grace the earth. His groundbreaking work has left an indelible influence on generations of artists.