Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, originally spelled Rembrant (born July 15, 1606, Leiden, Netherlands—died October 4, 1669, Amsterdam), was a Dutch painter and printmaker, one of the greatest storytellers in the history of art, possessing an exceptional ability to render people in their various moods and dramatic guises. Rembrandt is also known as a painter of light and shade and as an artist who favoured an uncompromising realism that would lead some critics to claim that he preferred ugliness to beauty.
Rembrandt was the son of a miller. Despite the fact that he came from a family of relatively modest means, his parents took great care with his education. Rembrandt began his studies at the Latin School, and at the age of 14 he was enrolled at the University of Leiden. The program did not interest him, and he soon left to study art - first with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch, and then, in Amsterdam, with Pieter Lastman, known for his historical paintings. After six months, having mastered everything he had been taught, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he was soon so highly regarded that although barely 22 years old, he took his first pupils. One of Rembrandt’s students was the famous artist Gerrit Dou.
Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in 1631; his marriage in 1634 to Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of a successful art dealer, enhanced his career, bringing him in contact with wealthy patrons who eagerly commissioned portraits. An exceptionally fine example from this period is the “Portrait of Nicolaes Ruts” (1631, Frick Collection, New York City). In addition, Rembrandt’s mythological and religious works were much in demand, and he painted numerous dramatic masterpieces such as “The Blinding of Samson” (1636, Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Because of his renown as a teacher, his studio was filled with pupils, some of whom (such as Carel Fabritius) were already trained artists. In the 20th century, scholars have reattributed a number of his paintings to his associates; attributing and identifying Rembrandt’s works is an active area of art scholarship.
Rembrandt produced many of his works in this fashionable town house in Amsterdam. Purchased by the artist in 1639, when he was 33, it proved to be the scene of personal tragedy: His wife and three of his children died here. The house became a financial burden, and in 1660 Rembrandt was forced to move. A new owner added the upper story and roof, giving it the appearance it still bears. In 1911 the Dutch movement made it a Rembrandt museum -preserving it both as a shrine of a revered national artist and as an imposing example of 17th Century Dutch architecture.
In contrast to his successful public career, however, Rembrandt’s family life was marked by misfortune. Between 1635 and 1641 Saskia gave birth to four children, but only the last, Titus, survived; her own death came in 1642- at the age of 30. Hendrickje Stoffels, engaged as his housekeeper about 1649, eventually became his common-law wife and was the model for many of his pictures. Despite Rembrandt’s financial success as an artist, teacher, and art dealer, his penchant for ostentatious living forced him to declare bankruptcy in 1656. An inventory of his collection of art and antiquities, taken before an auction to pay his debts, showed the breadth of Rembrandt’s interests: Ancient sculpture, Flemish and Italian Renaissance paintings, Far Eastern art, contemporary Dutch works, weapons, and armour. Unfortunately, the results of the auction - including the sale of his house - were disappointing.
These problems in no way affected Rembrandt’s work; if anything, his artistry increased. Some of the great paintings from this period are “The Jewish Bride” (1665), “The Syndics of the Cloth Guild” (1661, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), “Bathsheba” (1654, Louvre, Paris), “Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph” (1656, Staatliche Gemäldegalerie, Kassel, Germany), and a self-portrait (1658, Frick Collection). His personal life, however, continued to be marred by sorrow. His beloved Hendrickje died in 1663, and his son, Titus, in 1668 - only 27 years of age. Eleven months later, on October 4, 1669, Rembrandt died in Amsterdam.
The painting above, in the Prado Museum, Madrid, is “Artemisia” painted in 1634 and shows Rembrandt’s style of chiaroscuro (light-and-dark), masterly use of colour, composition and form, as well as his image of a perfect female figure. The full title is “Artemisia Receiving Mausolus’ Ashes” but it is also known as “Sophonisba Receiving the Poisoned Cup”. The subject of the picture is still unclear. It portrays a young woman, variously identified as Sophonisba or Artemisia, or a generic queen due to her jewels and rich garments, receiving a cup from a maiden. The cup could contain the ashes of Artemisia’s husband, King Mausolus, or, in the case of Sophonisba, the poison, which killed her. For the woman, Rembrandt probably used his wife Saskia as model.
Queen Artemisia (died 350 BC) is renowned in history for her extraordinary grief at the death of her husband (and brother) Mausolus. She is said to have mixed his ashes in her daily drink, and to have gradually pined away during the two years that she survived him. She induced the most eminent Greek rhetoricians to proclaim his praise in their oratory; and to perpetuate his memory she built at Halicarnassus the Mausoleum, a celebrated majestic monument, listed by Antipater of Sidon as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and whose name subsequently became the generic term for any splendid sepulchral monument (mausoleum, Greek: μαυσωλεῖον).
Sophonisba (fl. 203 BC) was a Carthaginian noblewoman who lived during the Second Punic War, and the daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco Gisgonis (son of Gisco). In an act that became legendary, Sophonisba poisoned herself rather than be humiliated in a Roman triumph.