The single most important artist in seventeenth century Amsterdam was Rembrandt. It is no surprise that this painter became so famous as to only need to speak, or sign, his first name and receive immediate recognition, in his own time as well as today. Rembrandt was a very intelligent man, enrolling at the University of Leiden at the young age of fourteen. However, it wasn’t long afterwards that Rembrandt dropped out of the University and began to study painting. The rest, as they say, was history.
Rembrandt painted a very wide variety of subjects and themes throughout his life. During the early years we see many religious themes as well as various historical scenes, both of which sold well at the time. As he gets older Rembrandt begins to paint more and more portraits of various types, whether single portraits, group portraits, or the vast array of self portraits Rembrandt is particularly well known for.
A practice of the day was the group portrait. These often look like simple scenes, parties or the everyday life of certain individuals. One such work by Rembrandt is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. Nicolaes Tulp was a famous doctor of the day that advanced scientific knowledge of anatomy and the human body. He is the individual to the right, clasping the muscles of the cadavers arm in a pair of surgical tools. Light shines from an unknown source on the body and the faces of Tulp’s contemporaries. Unlike other group portraits of the time, none of the sitters are static, staring straight ahead at the viewer or one another. They are absorbed in their work, watching Tulp and taking notes. A few look up distractedly, as if the presence of the viewer has disturbed their meeting.
There are scores of paintings Rembrandt painted of himself. From the time he was very young and only just beginning to paint until the time that he was very old and at the tail end of his career, Rembrandt painted self-portraits. Age, dress, and setting differed from painting to painting, but certain qualities do not. The background is always minimal, forcing the attention on the long figure. In most of his self-portraits, Rembrandt looks out at the viewer, his bright, intelligent dark eyes engaging the viewer as if he could see out of the painting and across time, right into a person’s very soul.
Rembrandt is a master at portraiture, no longer making it seen boring and flat like so many other painters who simply couldn’t bring the figures to life. They were just that – likeness in a painting. Rembrandt’s figures, however, are people, very real and very alive. The personalities of the individuals come to life from within the canvas. Rembrandt’s self-portraits are no different. Not many people have mastered the ability to capture not only human likeness but their spirit as well. Rembrandt is quite singular in this ability, in his age and beyond.