Onno Blom – Young Rembrandt
A few scenes
The play of the sun on the River Rhine – that must have been the first light to catch Rembrandt’s eyes. At the house in Weddesteeg, the narrow side street where he was born, you could open the front door and hear the water splash and gurgle along the riverbanks. And from the upper window, you could see the sunlight glitter and sparkle over an endless pattern of dancing green swells. Through the stained glass pane full of air bubbles, the panorama seemed to bob and sway like a vision in a dream.
The view from that window also included his father’s mill, on the western city wall where the Rhine flowed into Leiden. The sight was only too familiar to the boy, as was the sound that the mill made when set in motion by the wind. When Rembrandt heard its sails whirring and whistling, the wooden cogwheels crunching and creaking and the millstones scraping together as they ground coarse malt for the brewers, it was like listening to the workings of his own mind.
Strolling into Leiden from the reclaimed land around the city, or gliding in on a horse-drawn barge, you would have spied from a distance the seven mills on the city wall turning their sails. Just a year before Rembrandt’s birth, the inventive nobleman Don Quixote had sprung from the fertile imagination of Miguel de Cervantes and onto the parchment of the first great European novel. It’s not surprising that the Don mistook mills for giants, spectral knights who could slice off your head with one mighty sweep of the arms.
The importance of mills to the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands can hardly be overestimated. God created the world, but the Dutch made the Netherlands, they say. It was the mills, pumping away the water, that reclaimed the land from the sea. And in wartime – for the threat of war was never distant in the young Republic – the Dutch cities needed their mills more than ever.
Back in 1574, before the siege of Leiden, the mill – which then belonged to Rembrandt’s grandfather Gerrit Roelofszoon – had stood in the countryside beyond Leiden’s walls. It was disassembled in haste as the forces of the Spanish commander Francisco de Valdés drew near. Several mills were placed on wooden platforms and moved to the city wall, where they could grind grain and malt for Leiden’s bread and beer under the protection of the civic guard. Without the mills, famine would have struck in the early days of the siege.
Within Leiden’s wall – where the seven mills stood, with names like ‘The Ark’ and ‘The Pelican’ – the perfect circle of the medieval keep stood high on a hilltop in the centre of town. Two great churches, the Hooglandsekerk and the Pieterskerk, floated around the keep like massive stone ships on a sea of rooftops. As you approached the city, their two silhouettes, up in the skies, seemed to slowly turn their prows.
Leiden was the place where Rembrandt first opened his eyes. As unbelievable as it may seem, it is the undeniable truth: history’s most famous painter was born in a small house overlooking the Rhine – the source of his surname Van Rijn.
Rembrandt was the ninth of ten children in the household of the miller Harmen Gerritszoon. A miller’s son – that may sound like a humble beginning, but tax records in the Leiden city archives show that Rembrandt’s father was far from being a pauper. Besides the reasonable income from the mill, both Harmen Gerritszoon and his wife, the baker’s daughter Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuydbrouck, received inheritances from their families. They lived in comfort and could afford to have their children educated. Rembrandt would later portray both his father and his mother in drawings and paintings.
Rembrandt attended the local Latin school and matriculated at Leiden University on 20 May 1620, as a student of letters. This was a remarkably early start, at the tender age of fourteen. The university, too, was still very young. After the city was relieved in 1574, Willem van Oranje, the Father of the Nation, designated Leiden as the location for the first University of the Northern Netherlands. Not so much as the reward for what the city had been through, as the historian Johan Huizinga wrote, but rather as the culmination.
The failure of the Spanish to capture Leiden had been critical to the success of the Dutch Revolt against the Catholic King Philip II, of the Spanish Habsburg line, and his governor-general the Duke of Alva, known as ‘The Iron Duke’. Alva had meted out such draconian punishment to iconoclasts (Calvinist rioters who destroyed church interiors) and imposed such hefty taxes that some towns, cities and nobles had rebelled. Alva sent mercenaries to crush the revolt and force the towns and cities to their knees.
Leiden had just barely survived the siege. Twice in close succession, the Spanish fury had held the city in an iron grip. The second time, famine and plague broke out, and 6,000 of the 15,000 inhabitants died.
Yet Leiden did not surrender. Relief came when the geuzen, the guerrilla forces led by William of Orange, had broken the dikes by Delft and Rotterdam. A strong western wind swept the sea water deep into the lowlands by the Rhine. The Spanish troops fled for their lives as the waters rose around them.
On 3 October 1574, Leiden was rescued. The geuzen crossed the water in their flat-bottomed boats, bringing herring and white bread. Since then, 3 October has been a holiday in Leiden; the local authorities distribute herring and white bread to all the city’s people. In retrospect, the Relief of Leiden was a turning point in the revolt: from then on, the armies of the Spanish king never managed to tame the Dutch cities. The Republic of the Seven United Netherlands was founded in 1588; despite the continued threat of war and all sorts of internal political and religious conflicts, its cities could develop in greater freedom and independence.
Leiden also benefited from two smart, courageous city leaders, Janus Doeza and Jan van Hout – one elegant and eloquent, the other stalwart and taciturn. They had refused to give in to the Spanish during the siege, and in the years that followed, they had persuaded numerous scholars to come to Leiden and teach at the new university. As students and thinkers poured into the city from near and far, it grew into a bustling centre of intellectual life.
After closing the door of the house in Weddesteeg behind him, Rembrandt would cross the picturesque Rapenburg canal on his way to the Latin school – a tall, graceful building with a stepped gable on Gerecht Square. On the other side of the Rapenburg, he could see scholars and students in austere black robes with bright white collars passing through the gate of the former convent where the young academy had found a home. The rich foliage along the canalsides rustled with Latin.
It’s quite possible that Rembrandt never visited the university in his student days but had registered there because of the privileges it would bring. Maybe Rembrandt’s heart was not in his Latin lessons either – although many of his later paintings bespeak his deep familiarity with the Bible and mythological tales. His parents, who had seen a future for him as a clerk or public administrator, removed him from the university after just one year, in 1621. Rembrandt’s very first biographer, the city chronicler J.J. Orlers, suggests that the boy’s sole interest was in drawing, and that he dreamed of becoming a painter.
For his parents, that was no tragedy. Painting was a profession with good prospects and growing prestige. The Last Judgment by Lucas van Leyden, the greatest master the city had ever known, was on display at the city hall in Breestraat, and the locals liked to go there and admire it. As a boy, Rembrandt probably stood breathless in front of the triptych, his eyes roaming the sky, his nostrils taking in the smell of paint. Lucas’s heavenly scene must have come as a revelation to him.
Not only the impression of vast space, but also Lucas’s dead souls must have struck Rembrandt like a bolt from the blue. They were naked, fleshy, tangible. On the left panel, the saved are carried up to heaven. One angel slyly fondles a bare buttock. On the right-hand panel, sinners are cast into the ‘pool of fire’ described in Revelations.
Lucas had made the most of his devils, giving them goats’ heads, sharp claws and bat wings. One of the monsters is bellowing, a single fat breast with a nipple like a gherkin dangling from his belly. Another is sticking out his tongue, but in the place where his genitals should be, a phenomenon known as fellatio reversibile. Shitting, screeching and roaring with laughter, the devils drive the dead into the fiery mouth of hell with their pitchforks.
It was a minor miracle that Lucas’s masterpiece had been preserved. The children of the wealthy Leiden wood merchant Claes Dirksz van Swieten had ordered it for their father’s grave on 26 August 1526. A couple of decades after it was completed and brought to the Pieterskerk in a solemn procession, the Iconoclastic Fury broke out. Furious Protestants went from church to church in a frenzy, leaving a trail of destruction, because images of God were incompatible with their interpretation of the Bible.
The Last Judgment was rushed to a hiding place in the Catharinaklooster. In 1577, after Leiden’s Protestant administration had ordered the removal of art works from churches, the painter and later mayor Isaac Claeszoon Van Swanenburg had Lucas’s triptych hung in the mayoral office at city hall. He did, however, feel obliged to paint out the Holy Father with his colourful aura and replace him with the name of God, Jahwe. Only centuries later, during a restoration, was He rediscovered.
In the mayor’s office, the triptych drew attention not only from the locals, but also from foreign visitors. In 1602, the art-mad Emperor Rudolf II had tried to buy it. He was willing to pay enough gold ducats for The Last Judgment to cover its entire surface with gold. His offer was summarily dismissed by the city authorities, who explained that Leiden could not do without the painting, ‘no matter what vast sums of money may be offered’.
A painter was a craftsman, but the greatest sixteenth-century painters had also become artists, men credited with exceptional gifts. Rembrandt knew that and was determined to reach the same heights. At the age of fifteen, he became a pupil of Jacob Swanenburg, the son of the painter who had rescued The Last Judgment. Jacob had left Leiden at an early age to live and work in Rome and Naples. After a twenty-five year absence from Leiden, he had returned with his Neapolitan wife to take over the studio after his father’s death in 1614.
In Swanenburg’s atelier on Lange Brug, a canal house with deep, narrow rooms just off Breestraat near the city hall, Rembrandt got his first taste of the trade. Nothing too rarefied, mind you; most of his working time was spent not on sketching, drawing and painting, but on menial chores of all varieties. He rinsed brushes, mixed paint and applied ground layers of paint to oak panels for his master’s convenience.
Swanenburg – who tried to outdo Lucas in his own vision of the maw of hell – had hardly any visible influence on Rembrandt’s early work. The same cannot be said of the young man’s next teacher. In 1625 Rembrandt became an assistant in the studio of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, one of the country’s best known and most accomplished painters. Lastman was renowned for his history paintings, theatrical compositions of momentous scenes from history, mythology and the Bible.
After only six months, Rembrandt left Lastman’s studio. It remains unclear why he moved on so quickly. Lastman may have charged more for the young painter’s training than his parents were willing to pay. Or Rembrandt may have decided to return to Leiden because his sister Machteld had died in the city’s plague epidemic. Whatever the case may be, Rembrandt was back in Leiden by the autumn of 1625 and, as Orlers tells us, ‘went on with Art daily on his own in the home of his Parents, with dedication and great zeal’.
Rembrandt established himself as an independent painter in Leiden, where his work did not go unnoticed. He soon received several commissions. The painter and author Arnold Houbraken – whose anecdotes should always be taken with a grain of salt – told the story in his great survey of Dutch painters of the time when Rembrandt, on an art lover’s advice, presented a piece he’d just completed to a gentleman in The Hague. ‘Rembrandt went to that city on foot and sold the work for one hundred guilders. Since that was more money than he was used to having about him, he was in excellent spirits. He wanted to get home as quickly as he could so that his parents could share in his happiness.’
So Rembrandt chose not the most expensive means of transport for his return trip, but the fastest: the coach. Halfway between The Hague and Leiden, all the passengers alighted for a drink. But not Rembrandt – he stayed in his seat, keeping a tight grip on his money. Suddenly, something made the horses bolt. ‘Paying no heed to the tugging at the reins, they galloped on, carrying Rembrandt through the walls of Leiden, where they stopped, with the carriage, in front of their usual inn.’
To the astonishment of the onlookers, only one passenger stepped out: young Rembrandt, who hurried straight home. Houbraken tells this story mainly to suggest that even at a very young age Rembrandt was money-hungry and stingy: ‘He was very pleased that he’d been conveyed to Leiden without paying a thing, and even more quickly than usual.’
Similar stories are told about Rembrandt in his later years: money burned a hole in his pocket, and he was declared bankrupt in 1656 partly because of his lavish spending habits. Schoolboy taunts in the guise of biography. One of Rembrandt’s apprentices is said to have painted a coin on the floor of his studio. And his master fell for the trick, stooping to pick up the coin as his pupils snorted with laughter.
Be that as it may, from the moment Rembrandt set up shop as an independent painter in Leiden, clients and dealers came to him for drawings and paintings. His marvellous etchings were sold on the art markets from the late 1620s onwards. Since multiple impressions of these etchings were printed, they soon found their way throughout Europe, and young Rembrandt’s fame spread faster than a runaway coach.
One man in particular made an incalculable contribution to Rembrandt’s fame: Constantijn Huygens, Stadthouder Frederik Hendrik’s private secretary in The Hague. Huygens was a genius, a true Renaissance man – an architect, composer, scholar and polished diplomat. He translated the poems of John Donne and wrote his own poetry in Latin. And he was passionate about art.
In 1628, when he heard that there were two promising young painters living in Leiden – Rembrandt and Jan Lievens, who was two years younger – he went there to meet them.
In his autobiography, Huygens described Lievens and Rembrandt in the same breath, as ‘a young and noble pair of Leiden painters’. He was thoroughly convinced of their talent: ‘One of our two young painters was the son of an ordinary townsman, a needleworker. The other was the son of a miller, though definitely not baked from the same flour. Whose mouth would not drop open, seeing the miracles of skill and talent shoot up from the furrows behind such ploughs?
‘If I say they are the only ones who can compete with the absolute geniuses among the many great names I have mentioned, even then I am not doing complete justice to the achievements of those two. And if I say that they will swiftly surpass those geniuses, then I am merely voicing the expectations cherished by the greatest experts on the basis of their astounding debut.’
There has been much speculation about the friendship and professional relationship between Rembrandt and Lievens. Some have believed that they shared a studio in Leiden, an idea with tremendous appeal. Evidence for the claim is lacking, but there’s no denying that in the 1620s they were near each other a good deal of the time. Lievens grew up in the shadow of the Pieterskerk and became a pupil of the Leiden master Joris van Schooten at the tender age of eight. After that he, like Rembrandt, studied with Lastman. In mid-1628 Lievens moved to Noordeinde in Leiden, around the corner from Rembrandt’s parents in the Weddesteeg.
The work of the two young men attests to their constant influence on each other, their collaboration and their rivalry. It makes an interesting game to try to spot how often the same person, object or background element pops up in paintings by both of them. Take, for instance, the moneybag found both in Rembrandt’s The Rich Fool and in Jan Lievens’s Man Sharpening His Quill. The two painters also appear as each other’s models: Lievens painted Rembrandt’s portrait in 1629, and the young Lievens can be found in Rembrandt’s Music Lesson (1626).
In the mid-1620s, Lievens could still lord it over his rival. At that stage, his work was much more popular in his city than Rembrandt’s was. Estate inventories from seventeenth-century Leiden list numerous paintings by Lievens and almost none by Rembrandt. But as time went on, Rembrandt’s reputation grew. ‘Off the cuff, I dare say Rembrandt is Lievens’s superior in the lively and accurate depiction of emotions,’ Huygens wrote. ‘On the other hand, the latter excels in inventiveness and in daring choices of subject and form.’
In the late 1620s, when Leiden fell into recession, something came between the two painters. They broke off their professional relationship and perhaps their friendship too. No one knows exactly what happened, but jealousy about commissions from patrons in Leiden or the court in The Hague may well be what pushed them apart. Or perhaps it was pride.
Although Huygens secured commissions from Frederik Hendrik for both of them, he later appears to have grown somewhat weary of the two young men. He had advised them to raise their work to a new level by going to Italy to study art, but they had shrugged off his words of wisdom. Rembrandt would never visit the land where the lemon trees bloom. Instead, he would glean his most vivid impressions of Italy as an avid collector of the etchings of Raphael and Michelangelo – two world-famous artists who, like him, would go down in history under their personal names.
Around 1630, Huygens was somehow estranged from the ‘young and noble pair of painters’. It is easy to imagine that their ‘inflexibility, stemming from excessive self-confidence’ had alienated the stadholder’s secretary. Huygens described Lievens as sour, ‘like sourdough’, and Rembrandt’s headstrong arrogance sometimes made him impossible to stomach.
Who commissioned the painting from 1626 with the monogram ‘R’, known under the vague title of The Leiden History Painting? We cannot be certain. Some have put forward the name of Matthijs Overbeeke, a fantastically wealthy merchant, originally from Germany, who owned two buildings on the Rapenburg, numbers 65 and 67, and was a fanatical art collector. But that is no more than an educated guess. The man in the centre of the painting, dressed in the fashionable clothing of his time, may well be Overbeeke. His features are somewhat reminiscent of a print of Overbeeke made by the Leiden portrait painter David Bailly.
The scene shown in this painting has fuelled a war of words among art historians. Some see it as taking place in classical antiquity: Palamedes before Agamemnon, inspired by a play by the great Dutch Golden Age playwright Joost van den Vondel, Palamedes, or the Murdered Innocent, which had premiered in Amsterdam in 1625, a year before Rembrandt painted the scene. In this play, Vondel criticises the execution of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, ordered by Prince Maurice. Agamemnon clearly represents Prince Maurice and Palamedes Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. If this theory about Rembrandt’s history painting is correct, it had a powerful political message that would not have escaped his contemporaries.
What we know for certain is that Rembrandt’s composition was strongly influenced by a history painting by Lastman from 1625, Coriolanus and the Roman Women. Lastman’s imaginary city in the background and the way the figures are arranged around the stairs were copied by Rembrandt. Some details correspond precisely. The shoes worn by Rembrandt’s emperor and Lastman’s Coriolanus are exactly the same. It is even possible that Rembrandt filled in those sandals on his master’s panel as an assistant and, a year later, re-used them in his own work.
Above all, in this history painting, Rembrandt displays his technical range – in other words, he flexes his muscles. Twenty years old and burning with ambition, he was raring to show the world what he had to offer. He revels in the challenge of rendering textures and materials, or the fall of light on the general’s brocade coat and smooth, gleaming shield – an element that returns in his own later works, as well as in those of his friend Jan Lievens and his pupil Gerrit Dou.
Rembrandt also put himself in the picture. To the left of the portly adviser with the fur coat, behind the emperor’s sceptre, we find the very earliest known self-portrait of the painter: a young, clean-shaven fellow with a full head of curly hair. It must have been a magical moment; in a flash of inspiration, he decided to turn his brush around. With the hard end, he scratched his curls directly into the wet paint on the panel. So there we see him, a proud, stubborn young man on the verge of conquering the world.
In 1629, as the ongoing war with Spain sent Leiden into recession, Rembrandt spread his wings. He left for Amsterdam in 1631 and was added to the city’s civil register the following year. He found a studio in the spacious building in Sint Anthoniebreestraat belonging to art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh, next to the home of his former teacher Lastman. A year later Rembrandt married Uylenburgh’s niece, the wealthy orphan Saskia.
By then Rembrandt had outgrown the city of his youth once and for all. His father had died at home in 1630, and he was now the head of his own household. In Amsterdam he commanded high prices for his portraits of regents and merchants, painted in an ever looser style, with rougher brushwork and thick daubs of paint. He would never lose his bravura. Until his death, he would go on reinventing himself as a painter.
After leaving for Amsterdam, he no longer signed his portraits ‘RHL’, for ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon Leydensis’, as he often had in the previous years, but with the simple phrase ‘Rembrandt fecit’: Rembrandt made this.
Translation by David McKay