Genius Ignored, Chapter 2: Rembrandt [Life/Biography]

[Summary: Rembrandt started out well, became less fashionable over time, and ended up filing for bankruptcy at the age of 50.]

Detail of Self-Portrait, 1659, National Gallery (Washington, DC)

Rembrandt is now universally considered one of the greatest painters who ever lived. This was not always the case. In his lifetime he was ranked below the Italians and certainly below his contemporary Rubens. Some considered him to be the greatest Dutch painter, but many would not have accorded him even this lower status. He started out in a very promising fashion, painting for the highest level of Dutch society, but became somewhat less fashionable over time, did not manage his finances well, and ended up filing for bankruptcy at the age of 50. He continued to make a decent living selling his work to discerning (mostly middle-class) patrons.

Link back to Genius Ignored –Table of Contents

Introductory Note: To understand why Rembrandt’s paintings are considered to be so great, you must go see them in the museum. His drawings come across well in reproduction, the etchings less well, but the paintings are mere shadows of the originals. Take the Old Man with a Gold Chain . This is by no means one of his greatest paintings. Most books on Rembrandt don’t even include it. When it is found, it seems quite ordinary. But when you see this painting in person, you are overwhelmed. The old man’s serious, wonderfully alive, somewhat sad face is reflected in the beautiful steel armour around his neck. One feels that he might suddenly shift his gaze and ask you the time of day. After looking at him for a while, people in other pictures seem like cartoon drawings. . . . Hopefully, there will some day be a technology which captures the beauty of such paintings.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born in Leyden on July 15, 1606. His father was a miller whose family had lived for many years close to their mill on a branch of the Rhine — thus the family name “van Rijn”. Beginning in 1621 Rembrandt spent three years as an apprentice to the painter Isaacz van Swanenburgh. This was followed by six months of study with Pieter Lastman, a decent painter in his own right, who taught Rembrandt important techniques which he had learned in Italy.

In the late 1620s Rembrandt set up shop in Leyden with Jan Lievens, another a former pupil of Lastman. Even at this early age he was beginning to attract attention. In his autobiography (written around 1630) Constantin Huygens, one of the foremost statesmen of his time as well as a great lover of the arts, discusses Rembrandt and Lievens:

“In Triarii, I have purposely singled out a noble pair of Leiden youths. If I said they alone were equal to those prodigies I have pointed out among so many mortals, I would judge even this something less than what these two deserved. . . .” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 69]

“I can scarcely tear myself away from talk of such outstanding young men without turning again to that one fault for which I already censured Lievens — they are carelessly content with themselves and till now have not thought Italy of such great importance, though they need to spend a few months traveling there. In such talented natures there is a certain mixture of madness which one who will destroy young spirits has abundantly bestowed, indeed, this alone is lacking the two for the perfection of art. . . . I will not be silent about the pretext by which they usually hide how much it is a matter of apathy, and excuse themselves. They say that in the bloom of youth, when especially an account of themselves must be given, there is not leisure time to waste in travel. Besides, as there is today an eager delight in and choice of painting by kings and princes on this side of the Alps, they have seen Italian paintings especially outside Italy, which there you track down with great inconvenience scattered about, while here they are displayed en masse and one can have his fill.

“I do not like to judge how conveniently they justify themselves this way. I am forced to witness that I have not seen equal industry and self-application in any sort of man, whatever his pursuit or age. For tardy ‘redeeming the time’ [Ephes 5:16] they do this alone and, lest something be omitted from this miracle, they are not affected by even the harmless delights of youth because the loss of time — as more than if you were looking at old men full of years already experienced in these and other futile diversions.

“This untiring persistence at cruel work — however great progress it suddenly guarantees — I have often hoped these outstanding young men would moderate and would take some account as well for their bodies which they now employ though not strong and robust due to this sedentary life.” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 72]

Fig. R2 Rembrandt Angry – Etching

There’s no evidence Rembrandt ever traveled outside the Netherlands. Around this time Rembrandt did a series of etchings of himself in outrageous poses. It’s not difficult to imagine the youth in Fig. R2 telling the powerful Constantin Huygens that there is really no need for him to go to Italy. Rembrandt painted, etched, and drew about 30 self-portraits. They stretch from earliest adulthood right up to his death. We see him as beggar, prince, urban sophisticate, honest craftsman; laughing, sad, thoughtful; occasionally prettified but mostly (especially in the later years) just his pudgy, ordinary face staring right at us. A very intelligent face. Someone you might want to sit down and have a cup of coffee with. . . .

Fig. R3 Saskia in a Straw Hat

In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam and continued to make a name for himself producing both portraits and historical/Biblical paintings for Huygens and other wealthy Dutch patrons, including Prince Frederick Henry. In addition to being a time of great professional success, the 1630s seem to have been years of great personal happiness as well. Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh in 1634. She belonged to a patrician family and brought with her a substantial fortune. The delicate drawing of her shown as Fig. R3 was produced just after they became engaged.


Old Man with a Gold Chain [Art Institute of Chicago]

A letter of Rembrandt’s to Huygens in February 1639 — asking Huygens to help him obtain payment for some paintings (“The Entombment” and “The Resurrection”) he had done for the Prince — has been preserved:

“Worthy Sir: I have full faith in you, particularly as regards the [matter of my] remuneration for the last two pieces. If things had gone according to your wishes and to propriety, no objection would have been raised to the asking price. As for the pieces [which were] delivered previously, no more than 600 k. guilders were paid for each of them, and if His Highness cannot be persuaded in the face of valid arguments to pay a higher price, even if they are obviously worth it, I shall be content with 600 k. guilders each, with the provision that reimbursement shall be authorized for my [cash] outlay of 44 guilders for the two ebony frames and the crate. Therefore, I ask you, Sir, kindly [to intercede] that I might soon as possible receive payments here in Amsterdam, and I trust with [your] kind help on my behalf I shall soon be able to enjoy my pennies, and I shall remain grateful for all you acts of friendship. . . .” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 72]Rembrandt’s self-portraits were fairly evenly distributed throughout his life. Most of his portraits of other people, in contrast, were painted before 1641. The portraits of Maria Trip and his mother (both from 1639) are especially beautiful. Other noteworthy paintings done in the 1630s were “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp”, Danae, and “Abraham’s Sacrifice”.

He and Saskia purchased a large house in a good neighborhood in 1639. In 1641 Saskia gave birth to their son Titus. (He was their only child to survive; three others had died in infancy.) A year later Saskia died.

Rembrandt was a compulsive collector of art and art-related objects. Filippo Baldinucci (who got his information from Bernhardt Keil a pupil of Rembrandt’s from 1642 to 1644) wrote about him in 1686:

“He often went to public sales by auction; and here he acquired clothes that were old-fashioned and disused as long as they struck him as bizarre and picturesque, and those, even though at times they were downright dirty, he hung on the walls of his studio among the beautiful curiosities which he also took pleasure in possessing, such as every kind of old and modern arms — arrows, halberds, daggers, sabres, knives and so on — and innumerable quantities of drawings, engravings, and medals and every other thing which he thought a painter might ever need. . . . <he> bid so high at the outset that no one else came forward to bid; and he said that he did this in order to emphasize the prestige of his profession.” [quoted in Rosenberg, pp. 22-23]

Rembrandt had students throughout his career — sometimes as many as 25 at a time. In some years a sizable part of his income came from fees paid by students and from the sale of paintings and engravings the students made under his guidance. It seems that the variety of art objects he owned was at least partially intended for use in his teaching. A number of his students went on to be successful artists on their own.

Whether it was Rembrandt’s increasing insistence on the inner emotions of his subjects, the portrayal of whole, real people (as opposed to the ideal figures of the mannered, elegant “Classicism” which was coming into vogue) or something else, Rembrandt gradually fell from favor with the Huygens/Henry circle.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, a former pupil of Rembrandt’s, commented on his grisaille “St. John the Baptist Preaching” (1634/1636):

“I recall having seen, in a certain nicely composed piece by Rembrandt, representing John the Baptist, the wonderful attention of the listeners from all sorts of classes: this is most praiseworthy; but one also saw a dog there that was mounting a bitch in an indecent way. To be sure, this is normal and natural, but I say that it is an execrable impropriety in a History, . . .” [quoted in Haak, p. 117]

One that made the whole painting no better than “ludicrous”.

The German artist and writer Joachim von Sandrart (who had worked in Amsterdam in the late 1630s and early 1640s), writing in a book published in 1675, also had some reservations:

“. . . although he was no wastrel . . . <Rembrandt> did not at all manage to consider his own station, but always associated with lowly people. . . .” [quoted in Mee, p. 140]

“. . . he missed his true greatness because he never visited Italy and other places where the ancients and the theory of art may be studied. . . .” [quoted in Slive, p. 87]

Sandrart goes on to list the “rules of art which Rembrandt did not hesitate to oppose and contradict: anatomy, proportions of the human body, perspective, the usefulness of classical statues, and the reasonable education and academies so necessary for our profession.” [quoted in Slive, p. 87]

In 1647 “When Amalia van Solms dedicated Huis ten Bos to the memory of the prince [Frederick Henry] after he died, Huygens drew up a list of 14 painters who he would like to have decorate the Oranjezaal.” [Slive, p. 26] Rembrandt was not on it.

Beginning in the 1640s (and continuing into the 1650s) Rembrandt did numerous landscape drawings. Other notable works of the 1640s were the famous “Night Watch”, “Susanna and the Two Elders”, and the etching of “Christ Healing the Sick” (the “Hundred Guilder Print”).

Fig. R4: Sleeping Girl

At some point in the years following Saskia’s death, Rembrandt became sexually involved with Titus’ nurse, Geertje Dirckx. In 1648 (when Rembrandt was 42), 22-year-old Hendrickje Stoffels joined the family as a housekeeper. By the following year she had supplanted Geertje in her master’s affection and Geertje left. Apparently Geertje continued to cause problems; in 1650 Rembrandt, Hendrickje, and Geertje’s brother had her committed to an insane asylum. She was freed after five years as the result of a petition by some friends.

Hendrickje lived with Rembrandt for another 15 years (until her death). In 1654 when she was pregnant with their daughter Cornelia, she was summoned before the Church Council (of the Low German Reformed Congregation):

“Hendrickie Jaghers, residing on Breestraet, having acted like a harlot [in her conduct] with Rembrant, the painter, will be summoned to appear within eight days” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 318]

After ignoring this and several other summons finally

“Hendrickie Jaghers appeared before the council and has admitted that she has lived with Rembrant like a whore, for which she has been seriously punished, admonished to penitence and banned from the [celebration] of the Lord’s Supper.” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 320]

Rembrandt himself had also been summoned, but they dropped the matter when they realized that he was no longer a member of the Church. Rembrandt would almost certainly have married Hendrickje if it hadn’t been for the stipulation in Saskia’s will that he would lose the money/valuables inherited from her if he remarried.

Hendrickje was very likely the model for the wonderful “Bathsheba”, the “Woman Bathing”, and the “Sleeping Girl” (a drawing) (Fig. R4).

Woman Bathing

Other famous paintings of the early 1650s were the “Man with the Golden Helmet”, “Aristotle with a Bust of Homer”, “The Slaughtered Ox”, and his three-quarters-length portrait of Jan Six.

Jan Six

In 1656 Rembrandt’s financial problems came to a head and he filed for bankruptcy. He had never been able to make any headway in paying off the mortgage on his house and had accumulated a variety of other debts as well. The house and many of his possessions were sold at auction over the next several years. The following is an advertisement for the sale of his art collection:

“The administrator of the insolvent property of Rembrant van Rijn [the] skillful painter, has been authorized by their Honors, the Commissioners of the Chamber of Insolvent Estates, to sell by executive order the graphic art works in said estate, consisting of works of art by various prominent Italian, French, German, and Netherlandish masters which the said Rembrant van Rijn has assembled by [his] great curiosity. At the same time, a large number of drawings and sketches by the said Rembrant van Rijn himself will be offered for sale.” [Rembrandt Documents, p. 429]

The proceeds from this sale (and the others, including the house) were remarkably low and did not begin to meet the needs of his creditors. Of course, these “drawings and sketches” are now worth millions of dollars. Translated back into 17th century guilders, their value alone would have paid Rembrandt’s debts many times over.

The lovely “Portrait of a Woman with an Ostrich Feather Fan” (noted in the introduction) is believed to have been painted around 1660. (Note: The head benefits significantly from a closer-up view than that offered below.)

Portrait of a Woman with an Ostrich Feather Fan

Also in 1660 the Amsterdam city leaders commissioned paintings for the newly erected town hall. Rembrandt was not even considered in the first set of commissions (the decoration of the burgomasters’ assembly chamber). These went to two former pupils of Rembrandt: Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck,                both of whom painted in a more elegant, fashionable style than their teacher. The commission for the Hall of Citizens, where there was room for twelve huge paintings, went entirely to Flinck. When Flinck died unexpectedly, the commission was divided among Jan Lievens, Rembrandt’s former partner; Jacob Jordaens, a Flemish painter; and Rembrandt. Rembrandt was given the opportunity to do one painting.

In 69 A.D. the Batavians, a Germanic tribe living in what is now the Netherlands, had risen up in rebellion against Rome. Rembrandt was to depict a scene from Tacitus where Julius Claudius Civilis and his compatriots, gathered at a midnight banquet, swear an oath of allegiance to the rebellion. The painting which Rembrandt produced, “Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis” (also known as “Oath of the Batavians”), has a dark, mythic grandeur about it. The founding fathers are shown as rough, primitive men (which they no doubt were) and one-eyed Claudius is portrayed straight on (rather than in profile, with his bad eye hidden). It was rejected by the burgomasters and returned to the artist.

The dramatic “The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by the Angel” (Fig. R5) — the hand resting ever-so-lightly upon the shoulder, the softly-whispered words; the labored concentration of the evangelist, the angel’s serene repose — was painted in 1661.

The Evangelist Matthew Inspired by an Angel (1661)
(from Bolten, The Hidden Rembrandt)

Rembrandt’s last big “successful” commission, “The Syndics of the Cloth Guild”, was completed in 1662.

In 1663 Hendrickje died.

In 1665 “. . . Rembrandt painted the the portrait of a strange and interesting man — the erudite painter Gerard de Lairesse, . . . . Rembrandt made no attempt to beautify de Lairesse’s unattractive features — like those of an aging midget. The man’s nose had been attacked by venereal disease, and he had almost no eyebrows. Yet this portrait is so wonderfully painted, and de Lairesse’s eyes are so luminous, that one forgets he is not handsome. . . .” [Haak, p. 316]

Figure R7:  Lairesse

Nor was Rembrandt looking for surface beauty in his female models:

“His nude women . . . the most wonderful subject of the brush, upon which all celebrated masters from time immemorial spent all their industry, are (as the saying goes) too pitiful for one to make a song about. For these are invariably figures before which one feels repugnance, so that one can only wonder that a man of such talent and spirit was so self-willed in the choice of his models.” [Houbraken (writing in 1718) quoted in Mee, pp. 159-60]

Rembrandt’s son Titus died in 1668. His marvelously tender “Return of the Prodigal Son” was painted in 1668/1669. Rembrandt’s feeling for Titus (whom he had painted so affectionately as a youth) must have entered strongly into this painting.

His beautiful painting of a wedding couple, “The Jewish Bride” (Fig. R6), also completed in these final years, also harks back to an earlier time, to his own marriage. Two hundred and twenty years later another Dutch artist would be enthralled by the painting. (See Genius Ignored: Van Gogh).

The Jewish Bride (Fig. R6)

Rembrandt died on October 4, 1669. He was 63 years old.

Though a few lesser poets had written poems praising Rembrandt during his lifetime, Joost van den Vondel, the greatest of the contemporary poets, had included only two brief mentions of Rembrandt in all of his work. Neither Vondel, who wrote memorial poems for almost all prominent Dutch artists (and other citizens), nor anyone else wrote a memorial poem for Rembrandt.

I have prepared my own:


A Memorial Poem for Rembrandt (Who Never Had One)

Rembrandt, you maniac!

While other guys were down at the local tavern,

drinking and playing cards,

— or off visiting Paris –,

you were in the studio.

Long after your students had left,

there you were, slaving away.


Did your family get sick of posing?


Others painted us as we seem

— a bit better-looking, I suppose. . . .

You painted us as we are:

proud, sorrowful, hopeful, uncertain.

Where we’d seen only ugliness you found beauty.


The Bible? You made it human:

We felt Christ’s pain! Magdalene’s astonishment.


You were foolish with your money,

failed to pay your debts.

We forgive you.


You were stubborn, mean, obsessed.

You loved us

only when you were painting us.

We forgive you.


You worked on your own paintings

instead of ones which might have sold at higher prices,

ones which might have paid your debts.

We forgive you.

Because your art is so incomparably beautiful

we forgive you.



Haak, Bob. Rembrandt: His Life, His Work, His Time. New York: Harry N. Abrams, <1969>. LC card #: 69-12481.

Mee, Charles L., Jr. Rembrandt’s Portrait: a Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988. ISBN: 0-671-62213-7.

The Rembrandt Documents. New York: Abaris, 1979. ISBN: 0-913870-68-4

Rosenberg, Jakob. Rembrandt: Life & Work. London: Phaidon, 1964.

Slive, Seymour. Rembrandt and His Critics, 1630-1730. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1988. ISBN: 0-87817-311-0.


Rembrandt on the Web (paintings and additional biography):

WebMuseum: Rembrandt

Wikipedia: Paintings by Rembrandt

Copyright © Lucius Furius 1997;

2000: paintings, link added
2001: link updated
2003: better self-portrait
2009: changed “Man with a Golden Chain” to “Old Man with a Gold Chain”; added link
2009: added link to Danae; correct link for “Woman Bathing”
2010: changed link for Jewish Bride
2010: added etching R2 and drawing R3
2011: corrected link to “Old Man with a Gold Chain”
2013: changed link for Jewish Bride
2016: added detail from “An Old Man in a Military Costume”; corrected link
2017: changed formatting
2017: changed (defunct) link to Wikipedia link