26 August 2014

Rembrandt – A small glimpse of a true Master

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is considered to be one of the greatest painters and etchers in the history of art, and he definitely is the most important from the Netherlands. He is the prevailing artist of what is called the Dutch Golden Age, alongside VermeerJacob van Ruisdael and Frans Hals. Rembrandt prevailed over the other artists of the Baroque movement, the prominent artistic style in Europe at the time, with his unique and simple style.

He began as a professional portraitist and achieved great success; namely, one of his patrons was Prince Frederik Hendrik. He had four children with his first wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, only one of which reached adulthood. His wife is featured heavily in his work, in portraits and etchings, especially during the time of her illness and death. Later in life Rembrandt faced financial difficulties due to unsuccessful investments and financial mismanagement. Having outlived all his children, Rembrandt died in 1669 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Westerkerk.

 The themes of his paintings can be divided in three large categories: paintings with religious and mythological subjects, landscapes and portraits – including his infamous self-portraits. His painting style is distinct, featuring heavy, pronounced brushwork, lavish colours and jagged light, as well as an excellent use of the chiaroscuro technique making evident the influence of Caravaggio and Titian in his works.

In the painting Daniel and Cyrus before the idol Bell (1633) Rembrandt chose to depict the dramatic moment when Daniel exposed to king Cyrus the deception of the pagans. Daniel was brought in front of the king and is presented the shrine of the god Bell. Cyrus insisted that his idol was a living god based on the fact that the food offerings were consumed every night, while Daniel pointed out that a bronze statue cannot eat or drink. The king is taken aback, bewildered by the reveal of Daniel that the god, whom he thought was alive, had been a deception all this time.

The light illuminates the perplexedly, lavishly dressed Cyrus, while it gently highlights the slender body and profile of Daniel drawing attention to his soft, suggestive gestures. Behind them the face of a panicking pagan priest is seen; his lies have been now exposed and his fate is uncertain.

The theatricality of the scene is overwhelming. Rembrandt has cleverly chosen two very different figures as his protagonists. Cyrus is imposing, commanding and luxuriously dressed and his extravagant clothes catch and reflect the rays of light, which enter the temple. His face has a stern expression and he gestures towards the idol at the edge of the painting, which can be hardly seen. On the other hand, Daniel is the exact opposite of the king; he is humble in front of him and his gestures show both respect and determination to carry out his reveal.

The Mill(1645/48) is considered by many to be one of Rembrandt’s greatest landscape artworks. The composition of the painting is simple, yet powerful. The dramatic silhouette of the mill stands on higher ground, in the centre of the painting, creating two different planes on the painting. Behind the mill dark, stormy clouds approach creating a heavy atmosphere, while the sky at the front is clear and the light is reflected on the water of the lake. A few figures are seen at the bottom of the painting minding their business after the storm.

Rembrandt enjoyed painting landscapes in detail and The Mill is a unique celebration of the scenery of his country. Furthermore, his father was a miller and it is suggested that this may have been the mill of his family.

Apart from a realistic landscape representation, the subject of the painting appears to be the calm of nature after the storm; the scene, the mill and the figures are gently shrouded by the light. Moreover, it is evident by his technique, according to X-ray analysis, that he aimed to generate the feeling of serenity. He applied a first layer of bright colouring, which was subsequently muted by a second layer of less bold colouring. Finally, the heavy varnish gave the painting a more tormented look. It is worth mentioning that the overpowering dark, bleak colours led to the assumption that Rembrandt painted this work while he was in a turbulent state of mind due to the financial difficulties that he was facing during that period. However, when the varnish was removed during the 1977-79 restoration, it was revealed that the painting had more vibrant colours, thereby changing the meaning that it had been given for centuries.

Last, but not least of all the categories, is a Self-portrait (1659) painting, one of the many he created in his lifetime. In a way, he produced an “autobiography”, in which he presented himself, in different dresses and at various ages. The viewers are usually confronted directly; the artist holds his gaze and sizes the viewers up. This particular portrait was painted in a time of financial instability and turmoil for Rembrandt; despite his continuous success he lost his house, while some of his possessions and artworks were auctioned – a pattern that would be repeated again during his lifetime. The position that he has assumed is reminiscent of the position, costume and posture of Raphael’s Balthasar Castiglione, a portrait which he saw at an auction in Amsterdam in 1639.

Rembrandt is seated on a fur cloak, his hands around his lap, while he wears a black beret and a brown coat. The dark colours – browns and blacks –, which are heavily featured in the painting, are only contradicted by the face of the artist. There, light has illuminated his head, thus making it the main focus point of the painting; a motif frequently found in the portraits and self-portraits of Rembrandt.


The eyes of the artist are sad, dignified and honest; his brow is furrowed, while he holds a strong, steady gaze towards the viewer. The explosion of light on his head is overwhelming and enhances the palpable surface of the painting. This is not the result of the contrast between the colours, but of the intense, vibrant brushstrokes that create the turbulent areas around the eyes and the forehead.

Rembrandt is watching us, analysing us and making us think of the fragility and frailty of life that comes and goes with age; as my father once said, his self-portraits are not only artworks, they are the gateways to answering fundamental, tormenting questions of life.

Rembrandt experimented with different media and his artworks betray the great sensitivity and spontaneity with which he observed and depicted the world around him. Either it is a landscape, a scene from the Bible or a portrait, Rembrandt manages to draw us in it with the aid of his bold brushwork, vibrant colours and, most importantly, his ability to understand human nature.

Alkistis Dimaki is an art professional with an MA from Goldsmith’s, University of London and a BA in Archaeology & History of Art. Alkistis is an administrator of arts & culture projects and a contributing author for USEUM.