At the heart of symbolism

Light and dark


Self-portrait of elderly Rembrandt (Detail, Museum Wallraff-Richartz, Kln)

A world beyond obscurity

Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt of the Rhine, (1606-1669) was at once painter, etcher and drawer. He was the eighth child of a middle class family of Leyden. During the independence war, the city had resisted a long Spanish siege. After the liberation, Leyden was offered the choice between a tax exemption and the creation of a university; the municipality privileged knowledge. Rembrandt was sent by his father to university to study philosophy at the age of fourteen. As he did not show any interest for his studies, his parents decided to let him follow his own way. They had no reason to thwart his vocation as paintings sold well at that time in the United Provinces and, particularly, in the middle class eager to hang its portraits on the walls. His father entrusted him to a famous painter, Swanenburgh, to study the basics of the pictorial technique and to the portraitiste van Schooten to learn the art of “resemblance”.

In contrast to other artists, Rembrandt did not undertake the traditional trip to Italy. Prepared by the Protestant Reformation and the Dutch aspiration to liberty, his way was principally influenced by Rubens and Caravaggio.

Brought up with these teachings, Rembrandt decided in 1623 to leave for Amsterdam, an open city on the outer world by its harbour and on the inner world by its canals. Forced to come back to Leyden, he became his own model wearing different outfits. He found his other models within the family or among the impoverished and his subjects in the Bible. Rembrandt explored the human condition in his work.

After eight years, his reputation reached Amsterdam. He settled there and opened a workshop. He painted canvasses of corporate bodies and guilds as well as portraits where he excelled in showing the deep nature of his model or, if not, his appearance under rich finery.

In 1633, he married a beautiful patrician, Saskia van Uylenburgh, whom he often drew. Several births were followed by funerals. Only one son, Titus, survived.

Fortunate and wooed, Rembrandt was able to purchase a grand residence. He became extravagant and was even involved in a lawsuit and accused of squandering the heritage of Saskia. The health of his tubercular spouse strongly declined and she died in 1642, only thirty years old. During her disease, Rembrandt painted his greatest canvass, wrongly entitled “The Night Watch”.

The painting went against the rules for this kind of scene and remained misunderstood from its first exhibition. Relegated in a corporation room, it was dulled by the smoke of stoves and pipes. The canvass became so dark that it could only represent a night scene and be entitled “The Night Watch”. In 1715, it was placed under this title in the small room of the martial Court of the Nieuve Stadhuis (Royal Palace today), but not without having two characters cut off due to a lack of space. In 1885, the admirers of Rembrandt discovered that the painting was more a “Military review of the civic Guard” taking place in the middle of the day than a “Night Watch”. The canvas was cleaned of its layer of varnish and dirt and coated with fresh varnish. The masterpiece takes today its place in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The painting is filled with an atmosphere of light and dark characteristic of the painted and engraved work of the artist.

Rembrandt transformed the traditional Dutch portrait into a dramatic composition. He painted events to their peak point. He began where the painting describing a fugitive moment only stopped. The light did not have the function of lighting an obscure space, but on the contrary to underline certain details and hide others in half-light. The Night Watch and following paintings marked a turning point in Rembrandt's work that moved from a cerebral and intellectual approach to an intuitive and sensitive one. Moreover, he even suggested a world opening on inner light in different works. Rembrandt was as remarkable for the depth of his art as for his range. If most of the Dutch painters of the 17th century were limited to their speciality, Rembrandt painted, etched and drew practically all types of subjects with an original touch.

Nevertheless, full light gave way to dark hours of solitude. In 1643, he hired a widow, Geertje Dircx, to take care of the son and soon, the father. The widow became fond of Titus, but had wrangles with Rembrandt who dismissed her around 1648-49. Meanwhile, a girl of 19 years, Hendrickje Stoffels, had entered the service of the master. She became his companion after the departure of Geertje. The birth of a girl outside the marriage and financial difficulties did nothing but worsen the situation. In these dark hours, Rembrandt could always count on the support of Hendrickje and Titus. Hendrickje died in 1663 and Titus in 1668.

Did sorrow and concerns embitter Rembrandt to the point where it discouraged the lovers of his art ? Nothing is less certain. He probably felt the whole vanity of social life after the death of Saskia and purposely looked for solitude. Only painting was still important in his eyes. Eyes that opened on the inner light, the peace of soul, the end of divisive antagonisms. A peace which became permanent with his death in 1669.

His name remained in people's memories after his death, but he was not recognized as one of the great masters of all times before the rise of Romanticism. Rembrandt created in fact an astonishing, even shocking language. Has not one said that his works had something unfinished ? Was he not accused for a long time of being unaware of Beauty and wallowing in ugliness ? Indeed, the work of Rembrandt is not made of an outer beauty of forms and colours, but an inner beauty only perceived by the being ready to receive it, to feel it. And above all, it suggests a world beyond the surrounding obscurity, a world of true light, a world only visible by the being in quest of the invisible.

Detailed page