ARTISTS (1606–1669); LEIDEN, NETHERLANDS
Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the most prolific painters of the Dutch Golden Age, refused to confine himself to one area of expertise. Throughout his career, he covered landscapes, portraits, historical scenes, biblical stories, and even animals. Read on to discover key details about his life and legacy, along with fascinating facts about his most famous artworks.
1. Rembrandt's birth name, Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn, doesn't have a d in it.
As far as names go, Rembrandt’s birth name tells us quite a lot about him. Harmenszoon translates to “son of Harmen,” and van Rijn means Rembrandt’s family lived near the Rhine River, which runs through the town of Leiden, Netherlands, where Rembrandt was born in 1606. What we still don’t know, however, is why Rembrandt decided to add a d in his first name. His early paintings bear several variations of his signature—including “RHL,” the monogram for his Latin name from his school days; “RHL-van Rijn;” and simply “Rembrant”—but he switched to “Rembrandt” in 1633, and stuck with it for the rest of his career.
2. The Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam hosts art classes.
In the early 1630s, Dutch Golden Age poet Constantijn Huygens discovered Rembrandt in Leiden and helped foster connections and generate commissions for him. By the end of the decade, Rembrandt had solidified his reputation as a gifted portraitist and amassed enough money to purchase a beautiful town house in Amsterdam for him and his wife, Saskia. Today, it’s the Rembrandt House Museum. In addition to displaying Rembrandt’s early etchings and hosting exhibits that showcase artists he inspired, the museum also offers classes that delve into Rembrandt’s artistic process—you could learn, for example, how to capture a facial expression on paper just like he did.
3. Rembrandt's painting, The Night Watch, is actually set during the morning.
In 1642, Rembrandt’s largest (nearly 12 feet by 14 feet) and most famous painting was unveiled in the Kloveniersdoelen, the headquarters of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq and his civic militia—the commissioners and subjects of the artwork. Because of its rather verbose title (Militia Company of District II Under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq) and the fact it appears to take place during the night, it became widely known as The Night Watch by the 18th century. However, the scene actually occurs in the morning, as the soldiers prepare to defend the city. It seems so dark for two reasons; one, because Rembrandt used chiaroscuro, a method of contrasting lightness and darkness to create shadows and depth; and two, because the painting was covered in a layer of varnish that made it seem even darker than it was. The varnish was removed in the 1940s, but the nickname still stuck.
4. The Return of the Prodigal Son isn’t Rembrandt’s only painting of the prodigal son.
In 1666, Rembrandt depicted the prodigal son, bereft and poverty-stricken, returning home to a heartfelt embrace from his father. But this wasn’t the first time Rembrandt brought the classic Biblical parable to life: Around 1635, Rembrandt painted a scene that portrayed him as a positively jovial version of the son, brandishing a drink while a beautiful woman—modeled after his wife, Saskia—is perched on his lap. The painting, titled The Prodigal Son in the Brothel, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, or Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is housed in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany.
5. Many of Rembrandt’s paintings were self-portraits.
In addition to landscapes, commissioned portraits, and Biblical and historical scenes, Rembrandt also illustrated himself quite often throughout his career. More than 50 of his self-portraits still exist today, and they shed light on how he saw himself during different phases of life. The wrinkled brow and weathered expression he wears in later portraits, for example, reflect the poverty he experienced in old age.
6. Rembrandt’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen in 1990—and still hasn’t been recovered.
In 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers swiped 13 pieces of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Among the stolen treasures were works by Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Johannes Vermeer, and Rembrandt—including Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only known seascape. The FBI is on the case, but the paintings remain lost to this day.
Rembrandt’s Most Famous Paintings
- The Abduction of Europa (1632)
- The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
- Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)
- Belshazzar’s Feast (1635)
- Danae (1636)
- The Night Watch (1642)
- Aristotle With a Bust of Homer (1653)
- Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654)
- Flora (1654)
- Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph (1656)
- Self-Portrait with Two Circles (1660)
- The Conspiracy of the Batavians Under Claudius Civilis (1661-1662)
- The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (1662)
- The Jewish Bride (1665-1669)
- The Return of the Prodigal Son (1666)