This month, we pay testament to the life and work of a Dutch icon, who made his name in this town, which became his home.
At this point in time, in the year 1669, an old man, who had shouldered his fair share of struggle and loss, was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in Amsterdam’s Westerkerk. He had lived his life through the most momentous period his country had ever seen. His work, as it turned out, would carry his name through history, and become one of the defining testaments to this glorious era in Dutch culture. This name, of course, was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and his story is intricately woven into the very fabric of Amsterdam’s Golden Age history.
Rembrandt’s life and work has been under study and discussion for nearly 400 years. He is known as a leader in the Dutch cultural renaissance of the 17th century and is also one of those rare people in history whose reputations are borne by their first name alone. Having lived in Amsterdam for over thirty years, it was here that he forged his name, reputation and a hefty list of clientele, many of which were amongst the city’s elite and powerful. His fortunes rose and fell, arguably in sync with the fortunes of Amsterdam. If not a driver of the Golden Age, he was certainly a major contributor.
Coming here as a 25 year old with an opportunity, Rembrandt entered the city much as many of us have since; not sure what Amsterdam would have in store for him, but ready to find out. He’d been discovered, after spending several years
painting and teaching in his hometown of Leiden. He then married into the realm of Amsterdam’s wealthy merchants and
became very successful as a portraitist.
So what kind of city did Rembrandt walk into here? Well, one of the inspiring things about his work is that you can still walk the same streets, look upon the same canals, and try to muster up for yourself a sense of what Amsterdam was like during this incredible period.
His first big commission came as a result of one of the city’s more odd public events, a human dissection by the chief
anatomist, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. The body of a criminal, Aris Kindt, had been brought to the surgeon’s guild tower in De Waag building, which still stands on the Nieuwemarkt square. These instructive demonstrations, which drew a public, ticket-buying audience, were conducted once a year. The successful reception of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was the trigger for establishing Rembrandt as Amsterdam’s new, emerging talent.
You can still stand in the place where Kindt was executed on the square, before his dissection. On open-day occasions inside De Waag, you can still visit the tower room where the scene was set. It is possible to literally immerse yourself in the same spaces where many of Rembrandt’s visions were born.
It has been argued that Rembrandt’s popularity, wealth and mood all degraded after 1642. Much of the problem with knowing exactly what happened, lies in the humility of Dutch artists who did not write about themselves, each other, or their work. What fragments of information exist about Rembrandt tell a story that has undoubtedly been emphasised and romanticised over the years – The tragic downfall of the greatest artist. However, it does seem that 1642 was a life changing year for him.
He finished his most famous work, The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq, in this year. From the 18th century onwards, this would become widely known as The Night Watch and still hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum today. Probably more importantly for Rembrandt, however, was that his wife Saskia also died in 1942, not long after giving birth to their only surviving son, Titus.
For Amsterdam, this was also a time of regeneration. The Dutch war of independence against the Spanish was drawing to
a close, over half of the world’s trade was carried by Dutch ships, and the world’s most progressive government system was being established by the Dutch Republic. For the country, these were the good times, but for Rembrandt, things were taking a turn for DEATH OF A MAN, BIRTH OF a legend This month, we pay testament to the life and work of a Dutch
icon, who made his name in this town, which became his home. the worse.
It is often remarked about Rembrandt’s portraits that they did not shy from showing the realities of his subject’s faces, incumbent with all their flaws and emotions. Perhaps that is why his self-portraits are so telling (He left around 90 of them). Spanning his thirty years of working and living in Amsterdam, they seem an apt guide to the story of decline that his fortune took, and of his slide out of the public spotlight.
By 1656, Rembrandt had become bankrupt, largely because of financial mismanagement. Simultaneously, his country was
at war with the UK, and had begun its own slide into decline. His house on Sint Antoniesbreestraat, in Amsterdam’s Jewish district, had to be sold, along with his workshop and a full list of his huge collection, which varied from busts of Roman Emperors to full scale Japanese armour and other oriental items. He was forced to move to a house on the Rozengracht, quite far from the city centre, but in pursuit of his wealthier clientele who had begun to relocate to the new elitist neighbourhood (today’s Grachtengordel). While his name still carried weight, and some of Amsterdam’s rich merchant class continued to patronise his work, many others had begun to seek out the skills of his younger contemporaries.
He had remarried a common serving girl, Hendrickje Stoffels, much against general public convention, and continued to paint, etch and draw. However, the painters’ guild of Amsterdam had passed laws which disallowed anyone of such poor financial standing to work as a painter, generally in a response to his circumstances. His new wife and son, Titus, were forced to open an art-dealership, which allowed them to employ him.
In the end, Rembrandt outlived both of them and, after the death of Hendrickje in 1664, was consigned to wandering
the streets, alone but for his sketch pad and pencil. Perhaps the most telling piece of his mind-frame from this period is Elsje Christiaens – a sketch of a young Danish girl who had been executed for murder and strung up over the IJ. When he sketched her, she’d been hanging there for a few days already, as her bloated and stale features so aptly convey.
After his son Titus died in 1668, it seems that Rembrandt had lost everything that was important to him. Less than a year later the great master, whose work and teachings had impressed upon, influenced and given direction to a whole generation of Dutch artists, passed away alone and impoverished. Perhaps it is fitting that his grave, which is still unknown, accepted his body into the realm of the obscure and unremarkable. After all, his life and work was enough to carry his name on through history, for the benefit of the generations that followed him.