Life in colours

Life in colours

Nivedita Choudhuri visits the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam to learn about the unknown aspects of the famous painter’s life and his artistic craft. It’s by far the closest one will ever get to Rembrandt.

What was Rembrandt’s life like? Where did Holland’s most renowned artist etch and paint his masterpieces? Where did the most dramatic events of his life take place? Visit Museum Het Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam for all the answers.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 –1669) is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers of the 17th century. He produced about 300 paintings, 300 etchings and 2,000 drawings. Rembrandt’s extraordinary ability to capture the effects of light and shadow, often producing stark contrasts, made it possible for him to create extremely lively and dramatic scenes.

Though Rembrandt achieved success as a portrait painter during his youth, his later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. Yet, his etchings and paintings were popular throughout his lifetime, his reputation as an artist remained high, and for 20 years he taught many important Dutch painters.

Rembrandt bought the house on the Jodenbreestraat in 1639 for a whopping 13,000 guilders. He was then at the height of his fame and he wanted a workshop that would be suitable for him to work on his commission, The Night Watch, for which he was paid 1,600 guilders.

The house where Rembrandt lived for nearly 20 years was constructed in 1606 — the year of his birth. It was built on two lots in the eastern part of the city. Many rich merchants and artists settled in this new part of town in the 1620s. The house is a substantial three-storey, 10-room dwelling with a stepped gable. Around 1627-28, it was given a new façade, a triangular corniced pediment — the height of modernity at the time — and another storey was added. The reconstruction was probably overseen by Jacob van Campen, who was later to make his name as the architect of Amsterdam Town Hall (now the Royal Palace on Dam Square).

The house, unfortunately, proved unlucky for the artist. Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia Van Uylenburgh, died there in 1642 along with three of their children. In 1656, he went bankrupt because of his extravagant lifestyle. Everything of value in the house, including a large collection of art and rare objects, was auctioned. A notary drew up a list of Rembrandt’s possessions — that is why we know how the house was furnished during the artist’s time. The artist moved to a rented house in modest Rozengracht, Amsterdam, in 1658 and he died there in penury in 1669.

Rare collectibles

At Rembrandt’s house, visitors can see his kitchen, furnished rooms, living room, his studio and a room where he kept all kinds of strange objects. The pictures on the walls were painted by Rembrandt, his teacher Pieter Lastman, and by other contemporary artists such as Jan Lievens. The Rembrandt House Museum owns a great many number of important paintings by Lastman such as The Crucifixion and The Mourning for Abel. The Night Watch, Rembrandt’s most well-known painting, is at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Other important paintings such as The Jewish Bride, Titus Reading, The Anatomy Lesson and The Syndics are in museums in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag.

There are many fascinating stories about the house. For instance, the kitchen witnessed a blazing row in 1649 between Rembrandt and his mistress, Geertje Dircx. Geertje lived with Rembrandt for six years in his house and nursed his son Titus. During this time, Rembrandt fell in love with her and gave her a number of rings that had belonged to his deceased wife.

A few years later, Geertje thought Rembrandt would marry her, but the artist discarded her in favour of his housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels. In the end, Rembrandt came to an agreement with Geertje that for the rest of her life he would pay her 200 guilders a year.
However, things went awry after the settlement was reached and Geertje summoned
Rembrandt before the Commissioner of Marital Affairs on charges of breach of promise and took his gifts such as a diamond ring to a pawnbroker’s to fund the case. With the help of Geertje’s relatives, Rembrandt had her locked up in an asylum till her death in 1656.

Print master

In addition to his extensive oeuvre of paintings and drawings, Rembrandt also produced around 300 prints. His mastery in this field is undisputed; he is generally acknowledged as one of the great etchers — if not the greatest — of all time. 

Rembrandt’s free use of line, the unique deep black of many of his etchings and his masterly use of the drypoint were very popular and his work was much sought after by the print collectors of the time.

Etching was not a sideline where Rembrandt was concerned. His prints cannot be regarded as inferior by-products of his paintings. Rembrandt took his graphic art seriously for almost the whole of his working life — during the early years as a young artist in Leiden, the town where he was born, and while he was in his prime as a successful master in Amsterdam. It was not until he was approaching the end of his life that he gradually gave up etching. The Rembrandt House Museum owns almost all of Rembrandt’s etchings.

Between 1660 and ’62, Rembrandt’s former house was shored up and split into two. It was to house several families up to the end of the 19th century. During this period, the house was altered several times and its condition deteriorated over the years. The house might well have been demolished, had it not once had such a famous occupant. Action was taken in 1906 when the City of Amsterdam bought the dilapidated building and handed it over to a foundation set up in 1907.

The trustees of the foundation wanted to restore Rembrandt’s former home as accurately as possible to the state it was in around the middle of the 17th century. The restoration of the house was completed a few years later, and Queen Wilhelmina of Holland opened the museum in 1911.

Rembrandthuis is a shrine to one of the greatest painters the world has ever known. If you want to find out more about 17th century Amsterdam’s most fashionable portrait painter, you know where to head.

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