Even among the credible sources, facts and dates about Rembrandt van Rijn’s life are varied. Much of the existing information about Rembrandt originates from a 350-word essay published in 1641 by Jan Orlers’ guidebook to Leiden. Some research supports Orlers’ work while others contradict it. No personal letters remain and from the few professional ones, our knowledge of Rembrandt, one of the world’s most famous artists, remains incomplete. Included in this summary are details that appear to be consistent across texts.
Son of a prosperous miller, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden on July 15, 1606. He attended Leiden Latin School from 1615-19 and was enrolled at Leiden University in 1620. He then left the university to study with the Leiden artist Jacob van Swanenburgh.
In 1624, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam to apprentice with the leading history painter in the Netherlands, Pieter Lastman, whose colourful style and narrative approach would be an influence on Rembrandt’s work throughout his life. Rembrandt returned to Leiden six months later and established his own studio.
Rembrandt moved back to Amsterdam permanently in 1631 and partnered with art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh to capitalize on the growing market for history paintings and portraits. Rembrandt was interested in stories from the Old and New Testaments and preferred painting realistic emotion and narrative detail. He quickly became one of the most sought after portrait painters (individual and group) in the Netherlands, introducing more animation, expression and dramatic contrasts of light and dark. During this time, many students came to the van Uylenburgh Academy to study Rembrandt’s style of painting.
In 1634, Rembrandt married van Uylenburgh’s niece, Saskia. At the height of his career in 1639 he bought a large house on the Sint-Anthonisbreestraat that he borrowed heavily to acquire. The artist also liked to spend money, purchasing art and other objects that were beyond his means, a habit that would eventually catch up with him.
In 1642, Saskia died after the third birth and death of another one of their children, leaving Rembrandt to care for their son Titus. Following the complicated end to his common-law relationship with Titus’s nurse, Geertje Dircks, Rembrandt met Hendrickje Stoffels who would be his lifelong companion, and with whom he had his daughter, Cornelia.
By the late 1640s, Rembrandt was receiving fewer portrait commissions and his failed investments resulted in financial strain for the artist. Rembrandt remained well known, but his vigorous, broad brushwork and glowing palette differed from the prevailing taste in the Netherlands for a smooth, elegant style of painting.
This was also a period filled with personal difficulties, including his declaration of insolvency in 1656 and the sale of his house and collections in 1657 and 1658. Rembrandt moved to a smaller house on the Rozengracht in the Jordaan area of Amsterdam, where he continued fulfilling commissions for portraits and other works.
Beyond painting, Rembrandt created about 300 etchings and drypoints. His work as a printmaker ran alongside his career as a painter. He was a great innovator in this medium, often using traditional materials in unconventional ways. His impact on printmaking is still reflected in etchings produced today.
Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje, who died in 1663, and Titus, who died in 1668. Rembrandt died on October 4, 1669 at the age of 63. With no money for a tombstone, he was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk, in Amsterdam.