Rembrandt: The Maestro of Light and Shadow

Rembrandt is celebrated as one of the greatest artists of all time. The Baroque painter of light and shade left behind a great legacy, distinguished by its true-to-life poetic beauty.

Oct 20, 2021By Marija Vucic, BA Natural Sciences and Graphics
rembrandt baroque painting


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in the city of Leiden, Netherlands, in 1606. His father was a respectable miller who decided to send his son to a local Latin School. At the age of fourteen, Rembrandt started studying at the famous University of Leiden. This pursuit represented an exceptional accomplishment for a miller’s son. However, academic life turned out to be unsuitable for the young Baroque painter. Before long, he left the university, wanting to start an apprenticeship as a painter. After three years, in 1624, he ventured towards Amsterdam to study with Pieter Lastman. Soon he returned to Leiden where he started working as an independent painter and shared a workshop with Jan Lievens.


The Miller’s Son: Inception of Rembrandt, the Painter

self portrait rembrandt baroque painter
Self-Portrait by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1658, via The Frick Collection, New York


In the beginning, Rembrandt and Lievens struggled immensely, mainly due to the rise of the Protestant Reformation. The movement resulted in the decision that the local churches could no longer provide artists with commissions, which represented a common practice for the Catholic church in other countries. Subsequently, the artists had to rely on commissions from private individuals. Soon enough, Rembrandt became successful as a painter of historical subjects.


The Baroque painter had no desire to travel to Italy to study Italian art first-hand, which was common for young and aspiring artists. He believed that he could learn everything he needed in his native country. Around 1631, Rembrandt decided to move to Amsterdam, a city overflowing with fascinating people and an abundance of opportunities.


He resided in the home of a notable art dealer, Hendrick van Uylenburgh. It is here that he became acquainted with the landlord’s cousin, Saskia. The pair married in 1634. After all this time, countless paintings and drawings of Saskia remain forever proof of their loving marriage. In 1636, Saskia gave birth to Rumbartus. Tragically, the child passed away after only two weeks. During the next four years, two more children were born, but none survived.


rembrandt anatomy lesson painting
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632, via The Mauritshuis, Den Haag

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On the other hand, Rembrandt was thriving professionally. The Baroque painter collaborated with the most prominent families and organizations in Amsterdam. During this period, the painter crafted numerous portraits and Baroque history paintings, including the famous Belshazzar’s Feast. The Baroque painter was widely known to be a compulsive buyer, collecting antiquities, props, and weapons to assist him in his painting process. However, Saskia’s wealthy family was not pleased with her husband’s spending habits. In 1639, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into a grander, more lavish residence.


During the 1630s, his work was inspired prominently by Caravaggio and the chiaroscuro technique. He fully embraced a new way of depicting faces by using the unique patterns of light and shadow. Throughout Rembrandt’s work, the shadows drawn around the subject’s eyes specifically began to blur the precise facial expression. His canvases became a mesmerizing impression of the living, an embodiment of the thinking mind behind a face.


In 1641, Rembrandt and Saskia welcomed their first child, a son named Titus. After the birth, Saskia was unwell, which resulted in Rembrandt creating plenty of drawings depicting her withered state. Unfortunately, Saskia succumbed to her pain and passed away at only thirty years old.


belshazzar feast rembrandt painting
Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635, via The National Gallery, London


Following Saskia’s premature death, Rembrandt employed a nurse to take care of his baby son. He also took on a widow by the name of Geertje Dircx. Rembrandt soon left Geertje to pursue another woman, Hendrickje Stoffels. The Baroque painter and Hendrickje lived together in harmony, despite the terms arranged in Saskia’s will, which prevented Rembrandt from remarrying. Hendrickje served as a model for a significant number of his artworks. There is speculation that she might have even been the model for Rembrandt’s famous piece A Woman Bathing in a Stream.


By the 1650s, Amsterdam was under a heavy economic depression. Rembrandt’s sponsors started to chase him for money. In 1656, the baroque painter applied for cessio bonorum. The term stands for a moderate form of bankruptcy which enabled Rembrandt to avoid imprisonment. Most of his belongings, along with his extensive collection of paintings, were sold off.


rembrandt danae painting
Danaë by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1636, via The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


The Baroque painter continued making art, and during the last twenty years of his life, Rembrandt began to paint self-portraits more than ever before. In 1663, Hendrickje passed away after a long battle with illness. The unendurable financial difficulties forced Rembrandt and Titus to sell away Saskia’s tomb. Rembrandt passed away in 1669, buried next to Hendrickje and Titus in the city of Westerkerk. It was a sad and unjust ending of the life of one of the greatest painters the world has ever seen.


The Golden Darkness: Aesthetic Signatures of the Baroque Painter

rembrandt conspiracy batavians painting
The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1661/1662, via Google Arts and Culture


Rembrandt remains an innovative and prolific Dutch draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. He is undoubtedly the most significant artist in Dutch history. The Baroque painter was especially keen on portraying biblical themes and mythological subjects. He was active in the period of the Dutch Golden Age, a time of immense wealth and cultural progression. Rembrandt was known to have been an avid art collector and dealer. His most notable influences include Pieter Lastman, Peter Paul Rubens, and the great Caravaggio.


During the 1630s, he started to sign works with his first name alone due to his rising success. Namely, Rembrandt perceived himself as the heir to the Italian masters who also signed themselves only with their first name. He also gave painting lessons, during which he would often persuade his students to recreate biblical scenes and narratives. His early works all had a smooth finish, contrasting his later pieces which were more textural and designed to be perceived only from a distance. In the final stages of painting his later artworks, he used broad brushstrokes, applied at times with a palette knife.


rembrandt christ the storm painting
Christ in the storm on the sea of Galilee by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1633, via The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston


In much of his art, the backgrounds often bathe in the dim shades of brown, evoking a historic ambiance and a sentiment of nostalgia. His figures are dressed in expensive fabrics and theatrical garments. The clothing speaks for itself, serving almost as a character in a story. It reflects the emotions and the presence of the inner self, standing out at all times in color, purpose, and texture. The faces are mesmerizing and serve as genuine proof of his incomparable mastery. They are true to life, with trails of lights and shadows dancing gently on the surface. The play of light conveys most significantly around the eyes, reflecting the ever-changing battle of emotions inside. Every detail in Rembrandt’s works has a meaningful role, whether it’s direct or allegorical. Rembrandt’s artistry shines most brightly through those details, hiding endless secrets and metaphors, like mountains of gold behind the dark void of the canvas.


The Forbidden Gaze: Glancing Through Rembrandt’s Perspective

baroque painter rembrandt isaac rebecca painting
The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1665-1669, via The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


One of Rembrandt’s most treasured masterpieces is the Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca. The painting is nowadays referred to by its nickname, The Jewish Bride. The horizontal canvas depicts a woman, shrouded in a lavish vermilion gown, with her neck and wrists cluttered with pearls. By her side stands a man with one hand laid over her chest. He is wearing a pleated garment with a shirt colored in shades of brown and gold. Her hand gently rests over his, signifying a tender essence of the moment. They are not looking at one another but gazing in the opposite directions. The viewer is left with a feeling of intrusion, as the two figures are alone, stranded within the shades of brown.


Rembrandt fabricated their faces by modifying their skin tones and expressions with a wide range of different colors. He masterfully directed our attention using his unique depiction of the surface textures. The subject of the painting remains a matter open for debate and there have been various interpretations. Some claim it represents a portrait of Rembrandt’s son Titus and his wife. However, what persists as the most notable theory is the interpretation of the figures as the Biblical couple, Isaac and Rebecca.


rembrandt sacrifice isaac painting
Sacrifice of Isaac by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635, via The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg


The tale of Isaac and Rebecca derives from the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. The couple was seeking refuge in the lands of King Abimelech. Isaac claimed that Rebecca was his sister, fearing that the locals might murder him because of his wife’s immense beauty. The true nature of their relationship is uncovered when Abimelech interrupts them in a moment of intimacy. He admonishes them for their lies but commands that no one is allowed to harm them.


The Baroque painter decides to leave out King Abimelech from the painting to redirect the viewer’s attention precisely on this moment of privacy and affection. Additionally, he also achieved to cast the viewer into the role of the spying king. This artistic decision effectively blurs the line between the painting and reality.


rembrandt baroque painter night watch painting
The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, via The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The Night Watch stands as Rembrandt’s most famous painting. Much like The Jewish Bride, this title is a nickname that came later, in the 18th century; the original title from Rembrandt was Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq. Despite the nickname title, The Night Watch does not represent a night scene, as it takes place during the day. But by the late 18th century, the painting darkened considerably and appeared to present an event happening at nighttime.


The painting shows a group portrait of a company of civic guardsmen. Their primary purpose was to serve as defenders of their cities. The men also represented an essential presence at the city parades and other festivities. Traditionally, each company had its guildhall, with the walls embellished with group portraits of the most prominent members. The commission to paint The Night Watch came at the climax of Rembrandt’s career. The baroque painter received an invitation from the Kloveniersdoelen, the guildhall that housed the civic guard company of musketeers.


rembrandt golden girl detail
The Night Watch (detail) by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1642, via The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


The company was under the command of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, holding a prominent position in the center of the canvas. He wears formal black attire, along with a white lace collar and a red sash across his chest. He is speaking to his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh. He is dressed in bright yellow, with a steel gorget around his neck, carrying a ceremonial partisan. Also visible on the piece are sixteen portraits of the company members.


Rembrandt gives life to the painting by capturing the specific actions of the militia. He also added various extras to revive the scene even more. The additional figures are hiding in the background with their faces obscure. By far, the most mysterious figure is the golden girl, emerging from the darkness. She carries a white chicken that hangs from her waist. The bird’s claws are a reference to the Kloveniers. A golden claw on a blue field represented the emblem of the company.


rembrandt bathsheba painting
Bathsheba in the Bath Holding the Letter from King David by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1654, via The Louvre, Paris


Bathsheba at Her Bath is one of Rembrandt’s most beloved paintings. Currently residing in the Louvre, the piece impersonates a tale from the Old Testament. Bathsheba was the wife of a soldier named Uriah. While he was absent fighting in a war, King David came across Bathsheba bathing. He fell in love instantly and was determined to seduce her. In order to cover up the affair and Bathsheba’s pregnancy, the king sent Uriah into a battle that ended his life. Bathsheba then became the wife of David and the mother of King Solomon.


Rembrandt’s painting is presenting us with a scene of significant moral complexity. We see Bathsheba taking a bath along with an intimate letter from King David in her hand. The abysmal gloom is swallowing the background. Her red hair is shimmering, entwined with coral beads. After reading the letter, she gazes down, lost in her reveries. We, the viewers, are looking from the perspective of King David, spying on Bathsheba. A lustful gaze is thrown at the woman while she is unaware and utterly lost in a haze of her thoughts and feelings. We get lost along with her, torn by the intensity of her inner conflict. What will prevail, the passion for her king or the loyalty to her husband? Ultimately, Rembrandt leaves us torn by a choice as well. Will we give in and gaze into the forbidden, or will we persist and look away?

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By Marija VucicBA Natural Sciences and GraphicsBased in Zagreb, Croatia, I am a contributing writer and an aspiring poetry writer. Graduating from the University of Zagreb in Natural Sciences and Graphics, I value the importance of visual arts and design. As a former journalism student, I possess a fair amount of knowledge regarding literary journalism. I am very passionate about anything concerning films, music, and culture at large.