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Rembrandt, The Great Dutch Master


Rembrandt earned a living painting portraits and group portraits, like his Night Watch. He told Bible stories with a subtle brilliance and mastery of drama. And with candid self-portraits, he captured the hard lessons of his own life on canvas.

Complete Video Script

[73, Rembrandt, 1606–1669] The great Dutch painter, Rembrandt — this is him at age 22 — started out earning a living by painting portraits.

[74, De Staalmeesters (aka "The Dutch Masters"), 1662, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] He brought a relaxed naturalism to the standard group portrait. These businessmen, wearing the power suit of the day, gather to look over the books. Though every face is portrait-perfect, the scene doesn't look posed. It's as if someone just walked in and grabbed their attention — and Rembrandt captures them, candid as a snapshot.

[75, The Night Watch, 1642, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] With The Night Watch, Rembrandt took the group portrait to a whole new level. He portrayed the local bigwigs — a kind of 17th-century National Guard/Rotary Club. But rather than the standard stiff soccer team pose, this canvas bursts with energy. The men tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn, ready to defend their city. Rembrandt added theatrical drama with his distinctive use of light: lots of dark moody shadows contrasted with a bright spotlight that directs your eye to the main characters.

[76, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes, 1634, Rembrandt, Prado Museum, Madrid] Rembrandt could tell the Old Testament story of Judith beheading an enemy general, not with the gory decapitation, but with a few psychologically suspenseful details: the heroine's intelligent face as she plots her plan…her sumptuous clothes to seduce the villain…the wine, to get him drunk…her accomplice like a distant thought…and her maid, who holds the goblet with the bag that will carry the severed head. By letting the viewer connect the dots, Rembrandt delivers a powerful psychological punch.

[77, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Here's another example of the master's subtle brilliance. Only Rembrandt could show the burning of Jerusalem not with the predictable flames but by throwing his light of truth on the worried brow of Jeremiah, the man who predicted it.

[78] Rembrandt became rich and famous. But as the years passed, his beloved wife died, he went bankrupt, and his life darkened. But all that heartache only added deeper wisdom to his work.

[79, The Jewish Bride, 1669, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam] Rembrandt drew from the well of his own life experience for his portraits. This couple is clearly in love — a deep, quiet love. The man gently draws the woman close, while she reaches up to return his touch. Using thick paint, Rembrandt adds character to their faces and a rich texture to their elaborate clothing. The couple forms a powerful pyramid of love, with their touching hands at the center.

[80] Rembrandt's greatest subject was himself. His self-portraits are made with ever-thicker layers of paint, piled on like the hard experiences of life. They show the determination of a stubborn independent artist…a proud man surveying the wreckage of his life…a man who's lived through the ups and downs of the Golden Age and woven those experiences together to create great art.