‘Rembrandt, (…) belongs to the race of artists who cannot have descendants, the race of Michelangelo, the race of Shakespeare, of Beethoven; like these Prometheuses of art he wanted to ravish the celesti al fife, to put the vibrations of life into still form, to express in the visible, that which by its very nature is non-material and undefineable’. Emile Michel
How many people that you know, left school much earlier than they were supposed to, abandoning the same way their chance for a ‘proper job’, devoting their life totally to The Art?
Going further, how many of them have really succeeded, opening their first art studio before reaching the age of 20 and started teaching other talents ? We just can’t deny it, it takes great strenght, persistance, courage, comittment and self-confidence to risk the stable and predictable ‘decent life’, ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’, hoping for fame, recognition, respect both of your contemporaries and future generations.
There is no doubt, that the young Rembrandt van Rijn, a 9th child of a Dutch family from 17th century must have been certain of own genious and ready to take any kind of risk.
Nowadays,we admire the profusion of his numerous brillant artworks including the most notable masterpieces such as ‘The Night Watch’ (1642), Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (1637) featuring himself and his wife Saskia.
Prodigal Son in the Tavern (detail) c. 1635. Gemäldegalerie Dresden
During his long and fertile career as a painter Rembrandt created approx.300 to 600 paintings, 300 etchings, and about 1400 drawings. However – there is something quite remarkable about the artists life that we should not miss, in order to truly understand and appraciate the value and importantce his works.
Namely, what shall fill our minds with ever new and increasing admiration and awe for this painter due to his incredible strenght of character,the inner power to adapt to the changing circumstances. Not many Rembrandts contemporaries posessed the level of intelligence and knowledge that isn’t sufficient to be either the lion or the fox for ‘the the lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves.’as we learn know from Machiavelli masterpiece ‘The Prince’. Rembrandt knew for certain that ‘one must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.’
Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1630, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm
The essential thing that we need to keep in mind while contemplating on artists 90 portraits is his ability to carry on, to remain ubrakable and unstoppable despite of many obstacles and misfortunes that his life confronted him with frequently. His everlasting battle with the fate he inprinted for us creating the most penetrating personal testament that the world of art has ever seen. From the outset of his career in the 1620s to the year of his death in 1669, van Rijn created a unique autobiography that cannot be compared with anything of at least similar artistic acumen and importance. The artworks of Rembrandt were his tool to ‘touch humanity’ in a way that only a great prophet of civilzation could acheive. The magnitude of artworks was the artists way to scream out loud – ‘non omnis moriar’ – that is ‘I shall not all die’. As we look at the paintings – we can almost hear the words of Horacys poem of ‘a monumentum more lasting than bronze, and loftier than the royal structure of the pyrmamids’.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait Wearing A white Featherd Bonnet, 1635, Buckland Abbey, Devon.
What makes the Dutch masters artworks very intimidating and at the same time deeply moving is his empathy for the human condition. Something that you cannot learn from the books but that has to come from own experiences and deep understanding of human psychology.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait, ca. 1640, Norton Simon Museum, Pasaden
It’s important to emphasise that the master lived longer than those that he loved dearly which forced him to ‘go on’ stigmatised as ‘the one that’s left behind’. His beloved wife Saskia died in 1642, his mistress Hendrickje died in 1663 which was followed 5 years later by the death of his son Titus.
Rembrandt,Portrait of Titus, 1660, Baltimore Museum of Art, Frick Collection
The artist outlived them all – and still kept on painting, without allowing the sadness, despair and negativity cause the nervous and mental break-down and ruin his ability to create. The reason why the artist did not give up may seem trivial, but it was Art that turned out to be Rembrandt’s escape from personal problems. Only the deep focus on finding the right colors, the continous play with light and dark on the canvas made him forget the dramatic events from his life.
Rembrandt, Self Portrait With Two Circles, 1660, Kenwood House, London
When Rembrandts wife died – a dark shroud of despair descended over him. He was no longer the joyous contented man that he had once been. It was in this same year that he painted what is considered to be the most significant single work of his career and one of the most famous paintings in the world, ‘The Night Watch’. Despite his grief, and perhaps because of it, he was able to create a painting which leaves the viewer in awe.
For the the sitters – wealthy Amsterdam citizens – appearing on the canvas in a group of city guardsmen awaiting the command to gall in line, was an expensive but still worthwhile ‘bridge to immortality’ and way to underline own position and importance within the flourishing Golden Age Netherlands.
Rembrandt, ‘Night Watch’, 1942, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
For Rembrandt, on the other hand, the spectacular artwork that acumulated great interest of the Amsterdam society of his times and was a chance to generate significant incomes that he needed to pursue his ‘high-life’activities, broaden own collaction of paintings etc. What we may not notice at the first sight,while celebrating the masterpiece of Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam– the artist intended to create a masterpiece that any viewer shall describe as ‘an unforgettable experience’. Everything had to be special and innovative there – the color, the movement, and light.
But most importantnly – for the artists ‘The Night Watch’ was once again a great possibility to act both a fox and the lion and include a message for the world and build the ‘fortress of love’.
The artist intention was to pay the most glorious and unforgettable tribute to his dearest wife Saskia’ and to the victory of life over death, presenting her as an angel without wings – which I was soon going to discover during my next travel to the past.
When I went to sleep in my antique bed I had no idea that I’ll wake up in Amsterdam in 1642. But these were the facts – when I opened my eyes I was standing in Rembrandt’s atelier where the works on ‘Night Watch’ were at full-steam. I was this blond little girl wearing a marvelous yellow dress covered with rich, glittery ornaments that Rembrandt was a big fan of.
Rembrandt, ‘Night Watch’,detail, 1942, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Rembrandt was seemingly very content with the way I looked. When, after almost an hour of constant work he stopped and offered me water and some bread with cheese that he liked so much – I thanked him kindly and instead, decided to get closer to a big mirror situated in the corner of the atelier.I really wanted to see how I looked.
When saw my face – it became apparent to me – that there was a specific reason why Rembrandt has chosen me to pose as the young, angelic looking ‘guilda masquet’ for his painting.It was my similarity to the artists wife, Saskia.
Rembrandt, ‘Sophonisba receives the cup of poison’, 1634, Prado Museum
It couldn’t be just a matter of coincident that the master made the blond girl stand in the spotlight, making her ‘shine’ on the painting and granting her this way almost equal prominence to the figure of Willem van Ruytenburg, the group commander.
When I was standing in Rembrandts atelier I started to analyse the accessories that I was was armored with. ‘A perfect pretext’ – I thought to myslef. Everything was in line with what the patrons, the Amsterdam guild wanted. Yellow dress that I was was wearing represented the victory and the gun the readiness for faith. For the Dutch artist what mattered was obviously his ‘private victory’.
‘Work of art is an act of faith’, – I said aloud to the master words by Michaelo Angelo when we went back to our ‘painting activity’. I said it aloud as somehow – I wanted the artist realise that I do know, and – understand.
To my surprise – Rembrandt, hearing my words just smiled and answered without looking at me, like these words were his own personal mantra that he reapeated, something that helped him make it trough the difficult days.
– ‘Yes, indeed, my dear. Without faith no piece of art could ever be created.’
Those words echoed in my head for quite a while. I knew, that to Rembrandt, just like every truly dedicated artist, belived in the ‘higher goals’ of the creation and faith was everything to him. He had to go on with a heavy heart, as the one who has been ‘left behing’ by all that he loved so dearly.
From that moment onwards it became clear to me that the painting, according to what Rembrandt claimed is not only „the grandchild of nature, related to God.” but is also “a grandchild of the passion burning in the heart. It is related to Love’.