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Rembrandt's Ups and Downs
Seldom in the history of art has an artist had such a roller coaster existence of highs and lows in his life as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Born in Leyden, Holland, in 1606, the son of a middle-class miller of grain; as a teenager, Rembrandt studied Latin at Leyden University for a time before becoming the student of a successful local painter. He moved to Amsterdam in 1631 and was something of an overnight success as a portrait artist and etcher. There, a year later, he painted the first of his famous group portraits, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholas Tulp. The painting is a masterpiece of dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting, illuminating the tense, clinical subject in graphic detail.

In 1634, Rembrandt met and married his beloved Saskia, who bore him four children and was the model for many of his best portraits and religious works of the time. The next eight years were the happiest and most prosperous of his life. He bought a large house in a fashionable part of Amsterdam which he furnished with the best money could buy. His lovely wife and children were always dressed in only the most stylish manner.

Unfortunately, as his popularity soared, he became reckless in his creative zeal. In 1642 he painted his greatest group portrait, commonly known as The Night Watch, but in spite of its massive size and extraordinary composition, the painting proved his undoing. The members of Captain Banning's Militia Company had each contributed a like amount for inclusion in the enormous painting, expecting to be portrayed in a dignified manner in all their glorious and colourfully arrayed uniforms. What they got more closely resembled a mob scene, with some members prominently depicted while others were barely discernible, lost in the background. Rembrandt's popularity plummeted, while in the same year, his wife and three of his four children all died. His huge house was dragging him into debt. The nursemaid he hired to care for his one remaining son became his mistress and bore him a daughter. As if his emotional and financial well being were not bad enough, the resulting scandal very nearly destroyed him. In 1656 he was declared bankrupt and all his possessions were sold. Only a complicated financial trust masquerading as an art dealership saved him from total financial ruin and allowed him to live out the remainder of his 63 years in modest obscurity, during which time he painted some of his most deeply moving portraits.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
10 September 1998

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