Rembrandt: Magnificence and Misery

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69) was the greatest painter of Holland's 17th-century Golden Age, and his greatness as a painter has tended to eclipse the spectacular rags-to-riches-to-rags saga of his life.

Born in Leiden, the fifth child of a miller, Rembrandt quickly became rich from painting. Heralded as a budding genius, the young Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam in 1631 to live with Hendrick van Uylenburgh, an art dealer who helped Rembrandt land his first commissions. Before long, he had married Van Uylenburgh's niece, a rich young lady named Saskia, in 1634. Heady with a large dowry and swamped by patrons, Rembrandt bought an exceedingly handsome merchant's mansion (today, the Museum Het Rembrandthuis) on the Sint Antoniesbreestraat, present-day Jodenbreestraat, eight years after his arrival in the city. At this time, only part of the newly chic Grachtengordel had been built, and Sint Antoniesbreestraat was still home to the city's elite, which included the ruling class, wealthy merchants, and A-listers from the Amsterdam art world.

The young couple moved in on May 1, 1639, along with cartloads of Tournai tablecloths, marble fireplaces, busts of Roman emperors, and one be-ribboned pet monkey. The year 1642 saw the peak of Rembrandt's fame, with The Night Watch unveiled at the Kloveniersdoelen (the guildhall that housed the city's musketeers), but, before long, the peat-burning fireplaces had darkened the canvas—a bad omen. Saskia and Rembrandt had several children but only one, Titus (born in 1641), survived, and on June 14, Saskia died from tuberculosis. Shortly thereafter, Rembrandt's romance with Geertje Dircx, hired as a wet nurse, soured after his broken promise of marriage and her subsequent lawsuit.

In 1654, the Reformed Church fathers declared that Rembrandt's new housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels, "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. Shortly thereafter, Rembrandt wound up at insolvency court, forced to auction his belongings and decamp to a simple house on the Rozengracht canal. Patrons still knocked on his door–-although he had meanwhile become "unfashionable," with the advent of the chic Neoclassical style–-but Hendrickje's death in 1663, Titus's early demise in 1668, and baying 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.

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