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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Rembrandt is believed to have produced over 300 paintings as well as drawings and etchings throughout his long and distinguished career.

During the seventeenth century, Dutch world power was at its highest. It was a notable time in the history of European art and especially Dutch art. It was a period known as the Dutch Golden Age. An important artist during this period was Rembrandt. Although he was always experimenting with his style, he was able to capture the human figure and their emotion. His works display a sense of freedom and originality. Although Rembrandt died in 1669, his works continued to be a source of inspiration for later artists. Rembrandt's paintings show how his style evolved during his career rather than stay the same. In his early style, they are dynamic with crowds in them. See also his drawings and etchings.

Within his paintings lots of action take place. Often his works will contain many figures that appear in a spotlight. Rembrandt uses a brushstroke on his paintings that was detailed and finished. Even at a young age Rembrandt was an artist who held great confidence and was able to forge his own path when it felt it to be beneficial. Most Dutch artists at this time would make the traditional pilgrimage to Italy in order to study that nation's art at first hand. Rembrandt, however, felt that he would be exposed to enough art within his own native Netherlands to make the necessary developments as an artist. One sacrifice that the artist was willing to make was his move to Amsterdam in 1631 from his sleepy town of Leiden.

This thriving city was awash with cultural influences from around the world due to its renowned port. Wealthy connections could be sought and gained here which would boost the progress of young artists like Rembrandt. Rembrandt's more frequent commissions during this period would be portraits as well as some baroque history artworks. Much of his earnings would be invested in expanding his own collection of art, though he also collected antiquities, props, weapons and other miscellanous items which he would then include in his paintings. As a keen collector he would be forced to work productively in order to continue to indulge this passion. The Dutch master would go through bankruptcy in his later years which resulted in him having to downsize to a cheaper part of town.

At that point he would produce many of his self-portraits, possibly because it was cheaper than hiring models. Several further items from his possessions would also have to be sold on as he sought desperately to keep his head above financial waters. Despite his early insistence on not following the path to Italy as his young colleagues had done, Rembrandt was still able to draw many of these techniques into his work over time. Conversations with others who had made the journey as well as the abundance of Italian prints that could be found around the city of Amsterdam and across the region ensured that he would also start to incorporate methods by the likes of Caravaggio into his ever-developing style.

It is in works such as The Blindness of Samson, c. 1636 and Self-Portrait with Saskia on His Lap, C. 1635 that it is possible to see Rembrandt's early style. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn or Rembrandt as he was better known, was a painter and printmaker. Born in 1606 he grew up in the town of Leiden, Netherlands. From 1620 to about 1624, Rembrandt undertook his training as an artist. Initially, he studied for 3 years in Leiden under the guidance of Jacob van Swananburgh. His second teacher was Pieter Lastman with whom he studied in Amsterdam for a short period of time. Rembrandt's paintings reflect different stages in his career as a Dutch Baroque and Golden Age painter. During his career his works can be grouped into the following periods:

  • The Leiden Period (1625 – 1631)
  • The First Amsterdam Period (1631 – 1635)
  • The Second Amsterdam Period (1635 – 1642)
  • The Third Amsterdam Period (1643 – 1658)
  • The Fourth Amsterdam Period (1658 – 1669)

From around 1643 onwards his style of paintings changed. In his later style, there were no longer many figures in his compositions. Instead, there was just one figure or a few figures. While he still used a spotlight in his composition he had moved away from the use of silhouette visible in his early style. His later style of painting was considered more subdued. The colours appeared dull with more use of muddy browns and golden yellows. The brushstrokes in his later works were thick and much rougher looking. There were none of the detailed strokes that appeared in his earlier style of painting. Unlike his early style, Rembrandt's paintings were no longer dynamic in their composition. His paintings were now quiet, almost contemplative and spiritual in their subject. From his later style, examples of his work include The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1665 and Self-Portrait, c. 1659.

Painting Techniques

When it comes to his use of techniques, Rembrandt was an innovator. Throughout his career, he was always looking for new styles of expression. His development led to his later style which some see as the culmination of his art. As his style changed so did the techniques Rembrandt uses in his paintings. An example of this appears in the brush strokes that he uses. In the early stages, it was smooth and detailed. With his later style, he began adopting a ‘rough’ use of brushstrokes. Another of Rembrandt’s techniques used in his paintings is a practice known as chiaroscuro. An Italian term, the method gave his pictures depth by the use of light and shadows in his compositions. The technique can be seen in Rembrandt’s distinctive portraits. Using a small palette of colours, he was able to bring out the faces and hands in his portraits. Of less importance was what the subjects were wearing as well as their setting. His use of chiaroscuro is clearly demonstrated in his painting The Philosopher in Mediation.

Rembrandt's Paintings

Common themes appear in Rembrandt’s paintings. While we think of his paintings as mainly being of portraits he also painted landscapes as well as narrative paintings. The narrative paintings were pictures depicting biblical and to some degree also historical, mythological and moments in history. Rembrandt produced a large number of paintings, drawings and etchings during his career. It was in his later years that while his paintings still represented a biblical theme, the focus shifted. No longer were his works displaying dramatic group scenes. Instead, they showed more intimate portrait-like figures such as James the Apostle, C. 1661.

Rembrandt's most notable works of art include the likes of:

  • The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
  • Belshazzar's Feast (1635)
  • The Night Watch (1642)
  • Bathsheba at Her Bath (1654)
  • Syndics of the Drapers' Guild (1662)

A turning point in the evolution of Rembrandt’s styles is the painting known as The Night Watch. In the years that followed, his paintings differed in both size, subject and style. The change was a move towards a more classical mode of composition and a rich use of brushwork.