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Educating Rembrandt

In the city of Leiden, the budding artist was surrounded with industrious craftsmen, freethinking printers and cutting-edge science

This year (2019) commemorates the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. It has been marked by numerous exhibitions. “Young Rembrandt: Rising Star”, now showing at the Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, will come to the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, in February 2020. Both the exhibition and this book pose the same question: how did Rembrandt become Rembrandt? How did a miller’s son from a provincial city in Holland, born at the dawn of the 17th century, become one of the most famous painters in the world? Both seek the answer in his native city of Leiden.

A great deal is known about Rembrandt’s life and work after he moved to Amsterdam and set up a large studio, taking on pupils and enjoying immediate success. Very little is known up to then. “How,” marvelled a contemporary, “could a youth, a Dutchman, a beardless miller produce work that compares to all the beauty that has been produced through the ages?” All we really know about Rembrandt’s first quarter century is that it was spent in Leiden. He never took the journey to Rome that shaped the art and sensibilities of many 17th-century artists, and yet he succeeded in rivalling his contemporaries and predecessors – even the great Rubens – in his grasp of the Italianate Grand Manner, and surpassed them in psychological profundity and originality.

Onno Blom, the author of this book, is a newspaper columnist and television presenter. A native of Leiden, he is ideally qualified to investigate the backstory. Blom’s problem is that there is “so little to know, so little to visit”. Only “a few dozen documents have survived: entries in administrative registers (bonboeken) relating to his family, the house and the mill… in which he was raised and notarial instruments. We have not a single letter, diary or notebook.” Given the paucity of material, Blom says, “I made it personal, I made it completely different to how an art historian would do it.” This is indeed true. The book’s strength does not lie in art historical investigation. It is at its best when describing the city of Leiden and providing a wide background panorama to Rembrandt’s early life.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was probably born in 1606 (the birth date might vary a year either way), the ninth of ten children of a family of millers whose surname derives from the river Rijn running past their mill. Though Leiden was considerably smaller than Amsterdam, it eclipsed the capital as an intellectual destination – a magnet for Enlightenment scholars and freethinkers. The city’s glory moment had come during the religious wars of the previous century, when Leiden was besieged in 1573-74 by Catholic Habsburg troops and seemingly miraculously relieved, causing Protestants to compare it to the siege of Jerusalem. And so the city came to symbolise God’s love for plain, scriptural Protestantism over Popish wantonness, dissipation and idolatry.

The year following its relief, William of Orange founded the first Protestant university of the Netherlands there “for the firm support and preservation of liberty”. Religio-political refugees, freethinking scholars and scientists poured in from all over Europe. Between Rembrandt’s birth and his probable 16th birthday in 1662, the population increased from 25,000 to 45,000.

Rembrandt grew up in a neighbourhood consisting almost entirely of craftsmen. Property deeds attest to a community of coppersmiths, glue makers, cobblers, farriers, waggon makers and saddle makers. Cloth merchants and fullers discharged their chemicals into the canals, dyeing them surreal bright colours. On the corner of his street, horses were shod. The weekly pig market was held there. The area swarmed with beggars, tramps and exotic foreign travellers, miscellaneously known as “orientals”. “Better Turkish than Popish” was a saying among Leiden’s Calvinists, who saw even Islam as preferable to Catholicism. The Eastern robes and headdresses he painted so fluently in his biblical pictures were a familiar sight from his childhood.

In 1613, aged about seven, Rembrandt was registered at the Latin school, where his education would have been based on a thorough knowledge of classical authors and the Bible. Lessons included art, cultural civilisation and religion, but a standard curriculum was not introduced until 1625, so we do not know which authors he read or which textbooks he used. The name of the drawing master was Henricus Rieverdincke. We are told nothing more.

In 1620, he was enrolled at the university of Leiden. Students were exempted from serving in the civic militia, which becomes the subject of his famous, and much later, painting The Night Watch (1642). His father served in such a militia. Up till now, the legend has persisted that Rembrandt enrolled at university simply to avoid military service and left pretty quickly, but during the writing of this book, two curators of the university library discovered that Rembrandt had re-enrolled for the following year – and possibly the year after that (the register is missing). Whether he was just draft-dodging, signing in and bunking off, or participating fully as a student during those years we do not know, and we are given no outline of his likely studies. However, the book is at its best speculating on this three-year gap. Blom explores the idea that Rembrandt spent the time gaining an education in Leiden’s three ambulatory public classrooms: the anatomy theatre, the botanic garden and the local bookshops.

The university library held a marvellous collection of books and manuscripts, but by Rembrandt’s time so many books had been stolen that it was locked up. However, dozens of Europe’s freethinking printers, publishers and booksellers clustered round the Praesidium Libertatis – the Bastion of Liberty – as the university was known. Here they were free to print without fear of religious censorship and persecution. Apart from travelling abroad – and there is no evidence young Rembrandt even left his city, let alone his country during his youth – illustrated volumes and loose sets of prints were the only way of gaining a really wide knowledge of what we now call the history of art. Rembrandt was to own an enormous collection of prints, and himself become one of the greatest masters of the art. Although his earliest etching is dated 1625, it is not over-fanciful to imagine booksellers’ stock playing a vital part in his visual education. 

The second public resource he might have benefited from was Leiden’s anatomy theatre. Established in 1593, it was the first in the Dutch Republic. Even for scientifically-minded Protestants, cutting up the human body constituted a terrifying Faustian trespass into God’s territory. Rembrandt’s early masterpiece The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632) was painted in Amsterdam a year or so after he had left Leiden. Given the importance of the picture, it would be invaluable to know whether he ever set foot in Leiden’s anatomy theatre. If he had, it would have been immensely useful in gaining knowledge of the structure of the human animal. Around the revolving dissection table, skeletons were arranged in tableaux morts depicting well-known admonitory subjects. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden showed Adam’s bony hands correctly curled around a real spade. Skeleton Eve demonstrated the reaching posture as she picked the forbidden apple.

The third public classroom that this book puts forward is Leiden’s botanic garden. Its curator, Clusius, was famous for his classification of the natural world, set out in the garden’s planted quartiles. These days his fame rests on introducing the tulip. Tulip mania reached its giddy height in 1636-37 but already, during these three years of Rembrandt’s student life, bulbs were changing hands for great sums. The botanic garden was an outdoor wunderkammer whose purpose, like the anatomy theatre, was to gain a better understanding of God’s marvellous world. Stuffed crocodiles were displayed alongside the bill of a sea pig, a mermaid’s skin, and even a dragon. Visual anthologies of things were a badge of wealth and discernment during this time, when the world was wavering between medieval credulity and Enlightenment scientific certainty. Rembrandt, caught at the cusp, would become the proud possessor of his own wunderkammer of some 363 objects. They came in useful as props in his pictures.

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The three blank years come to an end in 1623. The rest of Rembrandt’s life is well known. He was apprenticed to Jacob van Swanenburgh, a mediocre local painter given to gleefully apocalyptic subjects with overdone Caravaggesque lighting effects. Rembrandt served three years in Swanenburgh’s studio, learning his craft: grinding colours, cleaning brushes, preparing wood panels, drawing from plaster casts and imitating his master. Apprentices were only rarely permitted to draw from models. The term self-portrait had not then been coined, but he began recording his own face in the mirror. This was the start of Rembrandt’s lifelong exploration of the range and depth of human emotion through pitiless self-examination, which saw him become one of world’s greatest portrayers of raw, universal psychological states.

In 1625, he moved to Amsterdam to study under Pieter Lastman, a prestigious painter who specialised in religious, historical and mythological scenes. Rembrandt left after six months for reasons unknown. Returning to Leiden, he took his own studio and it is easy to trace his growing artistic independence as he reworks four Lastman compositions: The Stoning of St Stephen, Balaam and the Ass, The Baptism of the Eunuch, and The Leiden History Painting of 1526. They show him developing his gift for chiaroscuro as he dulls down Lastman’s bright hues to his own characteristic palette of lead white, browns and blacks, while upping the emotional punch by editing out swathes of Lastman’s landscape context and closing tighter in on the figures, heightening both the drama and the emotional impact.

In 1631-32 he moves to Amsterdam. He becomes a successful portraitist and begins to execute narrative paintings on a large scale. The artist has left Leiden; the book ends. Has the author explained how Rembrandt became Rembrandt? We are left knowing a great deal about Leiden. Not so much about Rembrandt. We learn nothing about his early artistic development. This is not the author’s fault, there is nothing for him to build on. What is added to the real sum of knowledge about Rembrandt? That he probably attended university longer than hitherto supposed.

There are some translational oddities in the book, and some wince-making clichés: “Rembrandt’s self-portraits are windows into his soul”, etc. The author can be irritating, as when he refers to Rembrandt’s drawing of his mistress Hendrickje Stoffels as Flora, the Roman goddess of spring, as; “perhaps the most beautiful drawing in the world”, without giving us the date or any other reference to identify it by. As Flora was a recurrent theme, there are a lot of depictions to choose from. However, Young Rembrandt is well researched and it certainly widens our understanding of the local historical context. The illustrations are beautiful. 

Sue Prideaux’s books include “I Am Dynamite!: A Life of Friedrich Nietzsche” (Faber & Faber)

Young Rembrandt
Onno Blom, translated by Beverley Jackson
Pushkin Press, 278pp, £20

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special