Rembrandt and the Dutch masters

Rembrandt . 1632 . The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulip [detail] | Mauritshuis Museum

Rembrandt . 1632 . The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulip [detail] | Mauritshuis Museum

The seventeenth century has gone down in history among other things as the golden age of Holland. The Low Countries became the epicentre of Europe, the great hegemony of the Old Continent which in later times would pass into French and eventually English hands.

Dutch science, trade, culture and politics were at the zenith.  Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Leyden and Utrecht were the birthplaces of great thinkers and artists and the cities where they were nurtured or sheltered. Baroque painting was being developed at the same time during the century and, in contrast to the Italian school, it was more concerned with detail than with colour.  Rembrandt, together with others such as Jan Lievens, Gerrit Dou or Jacob Adriaensz Backer, was one of its most representative artists.

His full name was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn and he was considered as “one of the greatest prophets of civilization” as he portrayed, as no-one else could, the human condition and the passions of the soul using his paint-brushes: joy, sadness, fear, wrath, amazement, etc. The themes of his paintings are not usually religious in character, but they have an air of mysticism and his figures often remind us of biblical subjects or seem to be endowed with moral attributes. An enfolding aura, replete with chiaroscuro, carries us into the very depths of his works, making us “live within” them, not just admiring them. Once again, it is the dramatic factor that particularly fascinates me.

Talking of Rembrandt is like talking of shadows. “The Night Watch” or “The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Tulp” are major examples which show the influence of Caravaggio. Feelings of extreme excitement or movement weigh more heavily than formal precision. Rembrandt is a narrator, a storyteller who sweeps away everything superfluous to get right down to the heart of his tales. In a long story, he shows the exact moment when acomplete change of mind takes place in his characters. Just like a cinema director, the painter focuses on what seems to be scenes from a film, not the flat canvas of a painting. And this factor inevitably influences a photo. In fact Rembrandt's legacy dug itself deep into the art of photography when Cecil B. DeMille christened a new technique:  “Rembrandt” lighting.

For me personally, he was a magician of light and shade, a teller of endless living stories, crammed with emotion, and of course the master of an artistic movement, the baroque. After him, the eighteenth century made its triumphal entry and the shades of mystery were dispelled with a breath of fresh air: light illuminated the whole of Europe.