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The Life of Rembrandt

Dutch art speaks with many voices, but in the case of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69)—the greatest painter of Holland's 17th-century Golden Age—it is often magically silent. Standing before his reticent and meditative masterpieces, one is aware of a painter who grew great at the art of suggesting rather than laying bare on canvas. Born in Leiden, the fifth child of a miller, Rembrandt quickly became rich from painting.

As the years went by, he dug deeper and deeper into the essence of his subjects and portrayed the incessant metaphysical struggle for inner beauty and reason. When his whole material world crashed about him, he unaccountably continued to turn out art that grew bolder and stronger. His greatness as a painter has tended to eclipse the spectacular rags-to-riches-to-rags saga of his life.

Heralded as a budding genius, the young Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam in 1632 to live with Hendrich van Ulyenburgh, an art dealer who helped Rembrandt land his first commissions. Before long, he had married Ulyenburgh's cousin, a rich lass named Saskia, in 1634. Heady with her large dowry and swamped by patrons, Rembrandt announced his "arrival" by buying an exceedingly patrician mansion on the Breestraat (today the Museum het Rembrandthuis).

The aristocrats of the area had decamped for the newly chic district of the Grachtengordel, allowing the immigrant set, mostly Portuguese Jews, to colonize the quarter. If Rembrandt's patrons were clamoring for biblical scenes, what better place to set up shop than in the midst of this "New Jerusalem"?

The young couple moved in on May 1, 1639, along with cartloads of Tournai tablecloths, marble fireplaces, busts of Roman emperors, and one beribboned pet monkey. The year 1642 saw the peak of Rembrandt's fame, with The Night Watch unveiled at the Kloveniersdoelen but, before long, its peat-burning fireplaces had darkened the canvas—a bad omen. Then, on June 14, Saskia died from tuberculosis and the 1641 birth of their son, Titus. Shortly thereafter, Rembrandt's romance with Geertje Dircx, hired as a babysitter, soured with her lawsuit against his broken promise of marriage.

As for his new housekeeper, Hendrikje Stoffels, by 1654, the Reformed Church fathers had declared that she "confesses that she has engaged in fornication with Rembrandt the painter, is therefore severely reprimanded, and is forbidden to take part in the Lord's Supper." Unmarried though they stayed, a child was born, and Amsterdam was scandalized.

Then Rembrandt wound up at insolvency court, forced to auction his belongings and decamp to a simple house on the Rozengracht canal. While patrons still knocked on his door (although he had become "unfashionable" with the chic new Neoclassical style), Hendrikje's death in 1663, Titus's early demise in 1668, and pressing creditors meant Rembrandt spent his last years in penury. What he would have made of the fact that one of his smaller, minor portraits of a dour old lady was auctioned several years ago for nearly $24 million we will never know.

Updated: 11-2013

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