August 30, 2009
By The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird
How do you feel about the world-famous Mr. Van Rijn’s paintings?
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn is one of the few men or women in history recognizable from just his first name. Others are Napoleon, Michaelangelo, and Cleopatra. Today Rembrandt is known to hundreds of millions of people in all parts of the world. Many art experts see him as the greatest of all Dutch painters, indeed as one of the greatest artists who ever lived.
By his subtle contrasts of light and dark, Rembrandt caused the people he painted to seem alive. Theatre people often call Rembrandt the Shakespeare of painting –for his capacity to probe personality, his compassion for each person he depicts, and his feeling for grasping the dramatic moment and displaying it with moving effect.
On July 15, 1606, Rembrandt was born as the ninth child of a well-to-do couple in Leiden, Holland. While in his early 20’s, he developed an overnight celebrity status somewhat akin to the rise of the Beatles. This brief time of prosperity and popularity,however, was followed by much sorrow and rejection. Championed as the Netherlands alternative to Peter Paul Ruben in Belgium, Rembrandt became very wealthy and over-extended. Taking out an enormous mortgage on a beautiful house, he was accused of wasting his inheritance and living an indulgent lifestyle.
Rembrandt responded by painting himself with his wife Saskia, as a Prodigal Son/wealthy playboy with his latest female conquest. As a young person, Rembrandt had all the attributes of the Prodigal Son: brash, overconfident, spendthrift, hedonistic, and very arrogant. Money dominated and crippled much of his life. He earned a lot; he consumed a lot; he wasted a lot. Sadly, much of his energy and talent was depleted in protracted court cases about financial disputes and bankruptcy affairs.
Rembrandt’s best-known painting, the so-called Night Watch, was both his greatest success artistically and his worst failure relationally. While painting the Night Watch, he made many people angry who would no longer buy his paintings. The soldiers, who paid to be in the picture, all wanted to be front and centre. Instead of painting a typical group portrait, Rembrandt created a masterpiece where some soldiers were prominent and others were hardly visible.
Around that time, his wealthy heiress wife Saskia, whom he deeply loved and admired, died, leaving Rembrandt to care for his nine-month-old son, Titus. Rembrandt had already lost his son Rumbartus in 1635, his first daughter Cornelia in 1638, and his second daughter Cornelia in 1640. Ten days before Saskia died, she changed her will so that Rembrandt would never be able to remarry without being disinherited.
After Saskia’s death, things worsened. Rembrandt became involved in a very unhappy relationship with his housekeeper, Geertje Dircx. When he refused to marry her, she took Rembrandt to court and won a settlement. In response, Rembrandt and Geertje’s own brother had Geertje confined to an insane asylum for the next five years.