The eyes and the mouth are the supremely significant features of the human face. In Rembrandt's portraits the eye is the center wherein life, in its infinity of aspect, is most manifest. Not only was his fidelity absolute, but there is a certain mysterious limpidity of gaze that reveals the soul of the sitter. A "Rembrandt" does not give up its beauties to the casual observer—it takes time to know it, but once known, it is yours forever.—Emile Michel
Swimming uneasily in my ink-bottle is a small preachment concerning names, and the way they have been evolved, and lost, or added to. Some day I will fish this effusion out and give it to a waiting world. Those of us whose ancestors landed at Plymouth or Jamestown are very proud of our family names, and even if we trace quite easily to Castle Garden we do not always discard the patronymic.
Harmen Gerritsz was a young man who lived in the city of Leyden, Holland, in the latter part of the Sixteenth Century. The letters "sz" at the end of his name stood for "szoon" and signified that he was the szoon of Mynheer Gerrit.
Now Harmen Gerritsz duly served an apprenticeship with a miller, and when his time expired, being of an ambitious nature, he rented a mill on the city wall, and started business for himself. Shortly after he very naturally married the daughter of a baker.
All of Mr. Harmen Gerritsz's customers called him Harmen, and when they wished to be exact they spoke of him as Harmen van Ryn—that is to say, Harmen of the Rhine, for his mill was near the river. "Out West," even now, if you call a man Mister, he will probably inquire what it is you have against him.
Mr. and Mrs. Harmen lived in the mill, and as years went by were blessed with a nice little family of six children. The fifth child is the only one that especially interests us. They named him Rembrandt.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Ryn, he called himself when he entered at the grammar-school at Leyden, aged fourteen. His father's first name being Harmen, he simply took that, and discarded the Gerrit entirely, according to the custom of the time. In fact, all our Johnsons are the sons of John, and the names Peterson, Thompson and Wilson, in feudal times, had their due and proper significance. Then when we find names with a final ending of "s," such as Robbins, Larkins and Perkins, we are to understand that the owner is the son of his father. And so we find Rembrandt Harmenszoon in his later years writing his name Harmensz and then simply Harmens.
Mynheer Harmen Gerritszoon's windmill ground exceeding small, and the product found a ready market. There were no servants in the miller's family—everybody worked at the business. In Holland people are industrious. The leisurely ways of the Dutch can, I think, safely be ascribed to their environment, and here is an argument Buckle might have inserted in his great book, but did not, and so I will write it down.
There are windmills in Holland (I trust the fact need not longer be concealed) and these windmills are used for every possible mechanical purpose. Now the wind blows only a part of the time—except in Chicago—and there may be whole days when not a windmill turns in all Holland. The men go out in the morning and take due note of the wind, and if there is an absolute calm many of them go back to bed. I have known the wind to die down during the day and the whole force of a windmill troop off to a picnic, as a matter of course. So the elements in Holland set man the example—he will not rush himself to death when not even the wind does.
Then another thing: Holland has many canals. Farmers load their hay on canal-boats and take it to the barn, women go to market in boats, lovers sail, seemingly, right across the fields—canals everywhere.
Traveling by canal is not rapid transit. So the people of Holland have plenty of precedent for moving at a moderate speed. There are no mountains in Holland, so water never runs; it may move, but the law of gravitation there only acts to keep things quiet. The Dutch never run footraces—neither do they scorch.
In Amsterdam I have seen a man sit still for an hour, and this with a glass of beer before him, gazing off into space, not once winking, not even thinking. You can not do that in America, where trolley-cars whiz and blizzards blow—there is no precedent for it in things animate or inanimate. In the United States everything is on the jump, art included.
Rembrandt Harmens worked in his father's mill, but never strained his back. He was healthy, needlessly healthy, and was as smart as his brothers and sisters, but no smarter, and no better looking. He was exceedingly self-contained, and would sit and dream at his desk in the grammar-school, looking out straight in front of him—just at nothing.
The master tried flogging, and the next day found a picture of himself on the blackboard, his face portrayed as anything but lovely. Young Rembrandt was sent home to fetch his father. The father came.
"Look at that!" said the irate teacher; "see what your son did; look at that!"
Mynheer Harmen sat down and looked at the picture in his deliberate Dutch way, and after about fifteen minutes said, "Well, it does look like you!"
Then he explained to the schoolmaster that the lad was sent to school because he would not do much around the mill but draw pictures in the dust, and it was hoped that the schoolmaster could teach him something.
The schoolmaster decided that it was a hopeless case, and the miller went home to report to the boy's mother.
Now, whenever a Dutchman is confronted by a problem too big to solve, or a task too unpleasant for him to undertake, he shows his good sense by turning it over to his wife. "You are his mother, anyway," said Harmen van Ryn, reproachfully.
The mother simply waived the taunt and asked, "Do you tell me the schoolmaster says he will not do anything but draw pictures?"
"Not a tap will he do but make pictures—he can not multiply two by one."
"Well," said the mother, "if he will not do anything but draw pictures, I think we'd better let him draw pictures."
At that early age I do not think Rembrandt was ambitious to be a painter. Good healthy boys of fourteen are not hampered and harassed by ambition—ambition, like love, camps hot upon our trail later. Ambition is the concomitant of rivalry, and sex is its chief promoter—it is a secondary sex manifestation.
The boy simply had a little intuitive skill in drawing, and the exercise of the talent was a gratification. It pleased him to see the semblance of face or form unfold before him. It was a kind of play, a working off of surplus energy.
Had the lad's mind at that time been forcibly diverted to books or business, it is very probable that today the catalogs would be without the name of Rembrandt.
But mothers have ambitions, even if boys have not—they wish to see their children do things that other women's children can not do. Among wild animals the mother kills, when she can, all offspring but her own. Darwin refers to mother-love as, "that instinct in the mind of the female which causes her to exaggerate the importance of her offspring—often protecting them to the death." Through this instinct of protection is the species preserved. In human beings mother-love is well flavored with pride, prejudice, jealousy and ambition. This is because the mother is a woman. And this is well—God made it all, and did He not look upon His work and pronounce it good?
The mother of Rembrandt knew that in Leyden there were men who painted beautiful pictures. She had seen these pictures at the University, and in the Town Hall and in the churches; and she had overheard men discussing and criticizing the work. She herself was poor and uneducated, her husband was only a miller, with no recreation beyond the beer-garden and a clicking reluctantly off to church in his wooden shoes on Sunday. They had no influential friends, no learned patrons—the men at the University never so much as nodded to millers. Her lot was lowly, mean, obscure, and filled with drudgery and pettiness. And now some one was saying her boy Rembrandt was lazy; he would neither work nor study. The taunt stung her mother-pride—"He will do nothing but make pictures!"
Ah! a great throb came to her heart. Her face flushed, she saw it all—all in prophetic vision stood out like an etching on the blankness of the future. "He will do nothing but draw pictures? Very well then, he shall draw pictures! He will draw so well that they shall adorn the churches of Leyden, and the Town Hall, and yes! even the churches of Amsterdam. Holland shall be proud of my boy! He will teach other men to draw, his pictures will command fabulous prices, and his name shall be honored everywhere! Yes, my boy shall draw pictures! This day will I take him to Mynheer Jacob van Swanenburch, who was a pupil of the great Rubens, and who has scholars even from Antwerpen. I will take him to the Master, and I will say: 'Mynheer, I am only a poor woman, the daughter of an honest baker. My husband is a miller. This is my son. He will do nothing but draw pictures. Here is a bag of gold—not much, but it is all good gold; there are no bad coins in this bag; I've been ten years in saving them. Take this bag—it is yours—now teach my son to paint. Teach him as you taught Valderschoon and those others—my memory is bad, I can not remember the names—I'm only a poor woman. Show my boy how to paint. And when I am dead, and you are dead, men will come to your grave and say, "It is here that he rests, here—the man who first taught Rembrandt Harmenszoon to use a brush!" Do you hear, Mynheer Van Swanenburch? The gold—it is yours—and this is my boy!'"
The Van Swanenburches were one of the most aristocratic families of Leyden. Jacob van Swanenburch's father had been burgomaster, and he himself occupied from time to time offices of importance. He was not a great painter, although several specimens of his work still adorn the Town Hall of his native city.
Rembrandt was not very anxious to attend Swanenburch's classes. He was a hesitating, awkward youth, and on this account was regarded as unsocial. For a year the boy looked on, listened, and made straight marks and curves and all that. He did not read, and the world of art was a thing unknown to him.
There are two kinds of people to be found in all studios: those who talk about art, and the fellows who paint the pictures.
However, Rembrandt was an exception, and for a time would do neither. He would not paint, because he said he could not—anyway he would not; but no doubt he did a deal of thinking. This habit of reticence kept him in the background, and even the master had suspicions that he was too beefy to hold a clear mental conception.
The error of the Swanenburch atelier lay in the fact that quiet folks are not necessarily stupid. It is doubtless true, however, that stupid men by remaining quiet may often pass for men of wisdom: this is because no man can really talk as wisely as he can look.
Young Rembrandt was handicapped by a full-moon face, and small gray eyes that gave no glint, and his hair was so tousled and unruly that he could not wear a hat.
So the sons of aristocrats who cracked sly jokes at the miller's boy had their fun.
Rembrandt usually came in late, after the master had begun his little morning lecture. The lad was barefoot, having left his wooden shoon in the hallway "so as not to wear out the floor." He would bow awkwardly to the professor, fall over a chair or two that had been slyly pushed in his way, and taking his seat chew the butt end of a brush.
"Why are you always late?" asked the master one day.
"Oh, I was working at home and forgot the time."
"And what are you working at?"
"Me? I'm—I'm drawing a little," and he colored vermilion to the back of his neck.
"Well, bring your work here so we can profit by it," exclaimed a joker, and the class guffawed.
The next morning the lad brought his picture—a woman's face—a picture of a face, homely, wrinkled, weather-beaten, but with a look of love and patience and loyalty beaming out of the quiet eyes.
"Who did this?" demanded the teacher.
Rembrandt hesitated, stuttered, stammered, and then confessed that he did it himself—he could not tell a lie.
He was sure the picture would be criticized and ridiculed, but he had decided to face it out. It was a picture of his mother, and he had sketched her just as she looked. He would let them laugh, and then at noon he would wait outside the door and smash the boy who laughed loudest over the head with a wooden shoe—and let it go at that.
But the scholars did not laugh, for Jacob van Swanenburch took the boy by the hand and leading him out before the class told those young men to look upon their master.
From that time forth Rembrandt was regarded by the little art world of Leyden as a prodigy.
Like William Cullen Bryant, who wrote "Thanatopsis" when scarcely eighteen, and writing for sixty years thereafter never equaled it, or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who wrote "The Blessed Damozel" at the same age, Rembrandt sprang into life full-armed.
It is probably true that he could not then have produced an elaborate composition, but his faces were Rembrandtesque from the very first.
Rembrandt is the king of light and shade. You never mistake his work. As the years passed, around him clustered a goodly company of pupils, hundreds in all, who diligently worked to catch the trick, but Rembrandt stands alone. "He is the only artist who could ever paint a wrinkle," says Ruskin. All his portraits have the warts on. And the thought has often come to me that only a Rembrandt—the only Rembrandt—could have portrayed the face of Lincoln. Plain, homely, awkward, eyes not mates, sunken cheeks, leathery skin, moles, uncombed hair, neckcloth askew; but over and above and beyond all a look of power—and the soul! that look of haunting sorrow and the great, gentle, compassionate soul within!
And so there is a picture of Rembrandt's mother which this son painted that must ever stand out as one of the world's masterpieces. Let who will, declare that the portrait by Richter in the Gallery at Cologne, of Queen Louise, is the handsomest portrait ever painted; yet the depth of feeling, the dignity and love in the homely old mother's face, pale not in comparison, but are things to which the proud and beautiful Queen herself paid homage.
Rembrandt painted nearly a hundred pictures of his mother that we can trace. In most of them she holds in her hands a little Bible, and thus did the son pay tribute to her devoted piety. She was a model of which he never tired. He painted her in court dress, and various other fantastic garbs, that she surely never wore. He painted her as a nun, as a queen, a court beauty, a plain peasant, a musician; and in various large pictures her face and form are introduced. And most of these pictures of his mother are plainly signed with his monogram. He also painted his sister as the Madonna, and this is signed; but although he doubtless painted his father's face, yet he did not sign such pictures, so their authenticity is a hazard. This fact gives a clue to his affections which each can work out for himself.
Rembrandt remained with Swanenburch for three years, and the master proved his faithful friend. He gave him an introduction into the aristocratic art world which otherwise might have barred its doors against so profound a genius, as aristocracy has done time and again.
The best artists are not necessarily the best teachers. If a man has too much skill along a certain line he will overpower and kill the individuality in his pupil. There are teachers who smother a pupil with their own personality, and thus it often happens that the strongest men are not the most useful as instructors. The ideal teacher is not the one who bends all minds to match his own; but the one who is able to bring out and develop the good that is in the pupil—him we will crown with laurel.
Swanenburch was pretty nearly the ideal teacher. His good nature, the feminine quality of sympathy in his character, his freedom from all petty, quibbling prejudice, and his sublime patience all worked to burst the tough husk, and develop that shy and sensitive, yet uncouth and silent youth, bringing out the best that was in him. A wrong environment in those early years might easily have shaped Rembrandt into a morose and resentful dullard: the good in his nature, thrown back upon itself, would have been turned to gall.
The little business on the city wall had prospered, and Harmen van Ryn moved, with his family, out of the old mill into a goodly residence across the street. He was carrying his head higher, and the fact that his son Rembrandt was being invited to the homes of the professors at the University was incidentally thrown off, until the patrons at the beer-garden grew aweary and rapped their glasses on the table as a signal for silence.
Swanenburch had given a public exhibition of the work of his pupils, at which young Rembrandt had been pushed forward as an example of what right methods in pedagogics could do.
"Well, why can not all your scholars draw like that, then?" asked a broad-beamed Dutchman.
"They certainly could, if they would follow the principles I lay down," answered the master severely.
But admiration did not spoil Rembrandt. His temperature was too low for ebullition—he took it all quite as a matter of course. His work was done with such ease that he was not aware it was extraordinary in quality; and when Swanenburch sold several of his sketches at goodly prices and put the silver in the lad's hand, he asked who the blockheads were who had invested.
Swanenburch taught his pupils the miracle of spreading a thin coat of wax on a brass plate, and drawing a picture in the wax with a sharp graver; then acid was poured over it and the acid ate into the brass so as to make a plate from which you could print. Etching was a delight to Rembrandt. Expert illustrators of books were in demand at Leyden, for it was then the bookmaking center of Northern Europe. The Elzevirs were pushing the Plantins of Antwerp hard for first place.
So skilfully did Rembrandt sketch, that one of the great printers made a proposition to his father to take the boy until he was twenty-one, and pay the father a thousand florins a year for the lad's services as an illustrator. The father accepted the proposition; and the next day brought around another Harmenszoon, who he declared was just as good. But the bookmaker was stubborn and insisted on having a certain one or none. So the bargain fell through.
It was getting near four years since Swanenburch had taken Rembrandt into his keeping, and now he went to the boy's parents and said: "I have given all I have to offer to your son. He can do all I can, and more. There is only one man who can benefit him and that is Pieter Lastman, of Amsterdam. He must go and study with the great Lastman—I myself will take him."
Lastman had spent four years in Italy, and had come back full to overflowing with classic ideas. His family was one of the most aristocratic in Amsterdam, and whatever he said concerning art was quoted as final. He was the court of last appeal. His rooms were filled with classic fragments, and on his public days visitors flocked to hear what he might have to say about the wonders of Venice, Florence and Rome. For in those days men seldom traveled out of their own countries, and those who did had strange tales to tell the eager listeners when they returned.
Lastman was handsome, dashing, popular. His pictures were in demand, principally because they were Lastman's. Proud ladies came from afar and begged the privilege of sitting as his model. In Italy, Lastman had found that many painters employed 'prentice talent. The great man would sketch out the pictures, and the boys would fill in the color. Lastman would go off about his business, and perhaps drop in occasionally during the day to see how the boys got on, adding a few touches here and there, and gently rebuking those who showed too much genius. Lastman believed in genius, of course; but only his own genius filled his ideal. As a consequence all of Lastman's pictures are alike—they are all equally bad. They represent neither the Italian school nor the Dutch, being hybrids: Italian skies and Holland backgrounds; Dutchmen dressed as dagoes.
Lastman was putting money in his purse. He closely studied public tastes, and conformed thereto. He was popular, and there is in America today a countryman of his, of like temperament, who is making much moneys out of literature by similar methods.
Into Lastman's keeping came the young man, Rembrandt Harmens. Lastman received him cordially, and set him to work.
But the boy proved hard to manage: he had his own ideas about how portraits should be painted.
Lastman tried to unlearn him. The master was patient, and endeavored hard to make the young man paint as he should—that is, as Lastman did; but the result was not a success. The Lastman intellect felt sure that Rembrandt had no talent worth encouraging.
Lastman produced a great number of pictures, and his name can be found in the catalogs of the galleries of Amsterdam, Munich, Berlin and Antwerp; and his canvases are in many of the old castles and palaces of Germany. In recent years they have been enjoying a vogue, simply because it was possible that Rembrandt had worked on them. All the "Lastmans" have been gotten out and thoroughly dusted by the connoisseurs, in a frantic search for earmarks.
The perfect willingness of Lastman to paint a picture on any desired subject, and have it ready Saturday night, all in the colors the patron desired, with a guarantee that it would give satisfaction, filled the heart of Rembrandt with loathing.
At the end of six months, when he signified a wish to leave, it was a glad relief to the master. Lastman had tried to correct Rembrandt's vagaries as to chiaroscuro, but without success. So he wrote an ambiguous letter certifying to the pupil's "having all his future before him," gave him a present of ten florins in jingling silver, and sent him back to his folks.
Rembrandt had been disillusioned by his stay in the fashionable art-world of Amsterdam. Some of his idols had crumbled, and there came into his spirit a goodly dash of pessimism. His father was disappointed and suggested that he get a place as illustrator at the bookmakers, before some one else stepped in and got the job.
But Rembrandt was not ambitious. He decided he would not give up painting, at least not yet—he would keep at it and he would paint as he pleased. He had lost faith in teachers. He moped around the town, and made the acquaintance of the painter Engelbrechtsz and his talented pupil, Lucas van Leyden. Their work impressed him greatly, and he studied out every detail on the canvases until he had absorbed the very spirit of the artist. Then, when he painted, he very naturally took their designs, and treated them in his own way. Indeed, the paucity in invention of those early days must ever impress the student of art.
In visiting the galleries of Europe, I made it my business to secure a photograph of every "Madonna and Babe" of note that I could find. My collection now numbers over one hundred copies, with no two alike.
The Madonna, of course, is the extreme example; but there are dozens of "The Last Supper," "Abraham's Sacrifice," "The Final Judgment," "The Brazen Serpent," "Raising of Lazarus," "The Annunciation," "Rebekah at the Well" and so on.
If one painter produced a notable picture, all the other artists in the vicinity felt it their duty to treat the same subject; in fact, their honor was at stake—they just had to, in order to satisfy the clamor of their friends, and meet the challenges of detractors.
This "progressive sketching" was kept up, each man improving, or trying to improve, on the attempts of the former, until a Leonardo struck twelve and painted his "Last Supper," or a Rubens did his "Descent From the Cross"—then competitors grew pale, and tried their talent on a lesser theme.
One of the most curious examples of the tendency to follow a bellwether is found in the various pictures called "The Anatomy Lesson." When Venice was at its height, in the year Fourteen Hundred Ninety-two—a date we can easily remember—an unknown individual drew a picture of a professor of anatomy; on a table in the center is a naked human corpse, while all around are ranged the great doctor's pupils. Dissection had just been introduced into Venice at that time, and in a treatise on the subject by Andrea Vesali, I find that it became quite the fad. The lecture-rooms were open to the public, and places were set apart for women visitors and the nobility, while all around the back were benches for the plain people. On the walls were skeletons, and in cases were arranged saws, scalpels, needles, sponges and various other implements connected with the cheerful art.
The Unknown's picture of this scene made a sensation. And straightway other painters tried their hands at it, the unclothed form of the corpse affording a fine opportunity for the "classic touch." Paul Veronese tried it, and so did the Bellinis—Titian also.
Then a century passed, as centuries do, and the glory of Venice drifted to Amsterdam—commercially and artistically. Amsterdam painters used every design that the Venetians had, and some of their efforts were sorry attempts. In Sixteen Hundred Twenty, following Venetian precedent, dissection became a fad in Leyden and Amsterdam. Swanenburch engraved a picture of the Leyden dissecting-room, with a brace of gallant doctors showing some fair ladies the beauties of the place. The Dutch were ambitious—the young men, Rembrandt included, drew pictures entitled, "The Lesson in Anatomy." Doctors who were getting on in the world gave orders for portraits, showing themselves as about to begin work on a subject. One physician, with intent to get even with his rival, had the artist picture the rival in the background as a pupil. Then the rival ordered a picture of himself, proud and beautiful, giving a lesson in anatomy, armed and equipped for business, and the cadaver was—the other doctor.
At the Chicago Fair, in Eighteen Hundred Ninety-three, there was shown a most striking "Anatomy Lesson" from the brush of a young New York artist. It pictures the professor removing the sheet from the face of the corpse, and we behold the features of a beautiful young woman.
Some day I intend to write a book entitled, "The Evolution and Possibilities of the Anatomy Lesson." Keep your eye on the subject—we are not yet through with it.
Swanenburch offered to give Rembrandt a room in his own house, but he preferred the old mill, and a wheat-bin was fitted up for a private studio. The fittings of the studio must have cost fully two dollars, according to all accounts; there were a three-legged stool, an easel, a wooden chest, and a straw bed in the corner. Only one window admitted the light, and this was so high up that the occupant was not troubled by visitors looking in.
Our best discoveries are the result of accident.
This single window, eight feet from the ground, allowed the rays of light to enter in a stream. On cloudy days and early in the mornings or in the evenings, Rembrandt noted that when the light fell on the face of the visitor the rest of the body was wholly lost in the shadow. He placed a curtain over the window with a varying aperture cut in it, and with his mother as model made numerous experiments in the effects of light and shade. He seems to have been the very first artist who could draw a part of the form, leaving all the rest in absolute blackness, and yet give the impression to the casual onlooker that he sees the figure complete. Plain people with no interest in the technique of art will look upon a "Rembrandt," and go away and describe things in the picture that are not there. They will declare to you that they saw them—those obvious things which one fills in at once with his inward eye. For instance, there is a portrait of a soldier, by Rembrandt, in the Louvre, and above the soldier's head you see a tall cockade. You assume at once that this cockade is in the soldier's hat, but no hat is shown—not the semblance nor the outline of a hat. There is a slight line that might be the rim of a hat, or it might not. But not one person out of a thousand, looking upon the picture, but would go away and describe the hat, and be affronted if you should tell them there is no hat in the picture. Given a cockade, we assume a hat.
By the use of shadows Rembrandt threw the faces into relief; he showed the things he wished to show and emphasized one thing by leaving all else out. The success of art depends upon what you omit from your canvas. This masterly effect of illusion made the son of the miller stand out in the Leyden art-world like one of his own etchings.
Curiously enough, the effect of a new model made Rembrandt lose his cunning; with strangers he was self-conscious and ill at ease. His mother was his most patient model; his father and sisters took their turn; and then there was another model who stood Rembrandt in good stead. And that was himself. We have all seen children stand before a mirror and make faces. Rembrandt very early contracted this habit, and it evidently clung to him through life. He has painted his own portrait with expressions of hate, fear, pride, mirth, indifference, hope and wrath shown on his plastic features.
There is also an old man with full white beard and white hair that Rembrandt has pictured again and again.
This old man poses for "Lot," "Abraham," "Moses," "A Beggar," "A King," and once he even figures as "The Almighty." Who he was we do not know, and surely he did not realize the honor done him, or he would have written a proud word of explanation to be carved on his tomb.
In the Stuttgart Museum is a picture entitled, "Saint Paul in Prison," signed by Rembrandt, with the date Sixteen Hundred Twenty-seven. "The Money-Changers" in the Berlin Gallery bears the same signature and date. Rembrandt was then twenty years of age, and we see that he was doing good work. We also know that there was a certain market for his wares.
When twenty-two years of age his marvelous effects of light and shade attracted people who were anxious to learn how to do it. According to report he had sixteen pupils in Sixteen Hundred Twenty-eight, each of whom paid him the fixed sum of one hundred florins. This was not much, but it gave him an income equal to that of his father, and tended to confirm his faith in his own powers.
His energy was a surprise to all who had known him, for besides teaching his classes he painted, sketched and etched. Most of his etchings were of his own face—not intended as portraits, for they are often purposely disguised. It seemed to be the intent of the artist to run the whole gamut of the passions, portraying them on the human face. Six different etchings done in the year Sixteen Hundred Twenty-eight are to be seen in the British Museum.
His most intimate friend at this time was Jan Lievens. The bond that united them was a mutual contempt for Lastman of Amsterdam. In fact, they organized a club, the single qualification required of each candidate for admittance being a hatred for Lastman. This club met weekly at a beer-hall, and each member had to relate an incident derogatory to the Lastman school. At the close of each story, all solemnly drank eternal perdition to Lastman and his ilk. Finally, Lastman was invited to join; and in reply he wrote a gracious letter of acceptance. This surely shows that Lastman was pretty good quality, after all.
Rembrandt was making money. His pupils spread his praise, and so many new ones came that he took the old quarters of Swanenburch.
In Sixteen Hundred Thirty-one, there came to him a young man who was to build a deathless name for himself—Gerard Dou. Then to complete the circle came Joris van Vliet, whose reputation as an engraver must ever take a first rank. Van Vliet engraved many of Rembrandt's pictures, and did it so faithfully and with such loving care that copies today command fabulous prices among the collectors. Indeed, we owe to Van Vliet a debt for preserving many of Rembrandt's pictures, the originals of which have disappeared. With the help of Van Vliet the Elzevirs accomplished their wishes, and so made use of the talent of Rembrandt.
Rembrandt lived among the poor, as a matter of artistic policy, mingling with them on an absolute equality. He considered their attitudes simpler, more natural, and their conduct less artificial, than the manners of those in higher walks.
About Sixteen Hundred Twenty-nine, there came into his hands a set of Callot's engravings, and the work produced on his mind a profound impression. Callot's specialty was beggardom. He pictured decrepit beggars, young beggars, handsome girl-beggars, and gallant old beggars who wore their fluttering rags with easy grace.
The man who could give the phlegmatic Rembrandt a list to starboard must have carried considerable ballast. Straightway on making Callot's acquaintance he went forth with bags of coppers and made the acquaintance of beggars. He did not have to travel far—"the Greeks were at his door." The news spread, and each morning, the truthful Orles has told us, "there were over four hundred beggars blocking the street that led to his study," all willing to enlist in the cause of art. For six months Rembrandt painted little beside "the ragged gentry." But he gradually settled down on about ten separate and distinct types of abject picturesqueness.
Ten years later, when he pictured the "Healing Christ," he introduced the Leyden beggars, and these fixed types that he carried hidden in the cells of his brain he introduced again and again in various pictures. In this respect he was like all good illustrators: he had his properties, and by new combinations made new pictures. Who has not noticed that every painter carries in his kit his own distinct types—sealed, certified to, and copyrighted by popular favor as his own personal property?
Can you mistake Kemble's "coons," Denslow's dandies, Remington's horses, Giannini's Indians, or Gibson's "Summer Girl"? These men may not be Rembrandts, but when we view the zigzag course art has taken, who dare prophesy that this man's name is writ in water and that man's carved in the granite of a mountain-side! Contemporary judgments usually have been wrong. Did the chief citizens of Leyden in the year Sixteen Hundred Thirty regard Rembrandt's beggars as immortal? Not exactly!
In Sixteen Hundred Thirty-one, Rembrandt concluded that his reputation in the art-world of Holland was sufficient for him to go to Amsterdam and boldly pit himself against De Keyser, Hals, Lastman and the rest. He had put forth his "Lesson in Anatomy," and the critics and connoisseurs who had come from the metropolis to see it were lavish in their praise. Later we find him painting the subject again with another doctor handling the tweezers and scalpel.
Rembrandt started for Amsterdam the second time—this time as a teacher, not as a scholar. He rented an old warehouse on the canal for a studio. It was nearly as outlandish a place as his former quarters in the mill at Leyden. But it gave him plenty of room, was secluded, and afforded good opportunity for experiments in light and shade.
He seemed to have gotten over his nervousness in working with strange models; for new faces now begin to appear. One of these is that of a woman, and it would have been well for his art had he never met her. We see her face quite often, and in the "Diana Bathing" we behold her altogether.
Rembrandt shows small trace of the classic instinct, for classic art is founded on poetic imagination. Rembrandt painted what he saw; the Greeks portrayed that which they felt; and when Rembrandt paints a Dutch wench and calls her "Diana," he unconsciously illustrates the difference between the naked and the nude. Rembrandt painted this same woman, wearing no clothes to speak of, lolling on a couch; and evidently considering the subject a little risky, thought to give it dignity by a Biblical title: "Potiphar's Wife." One good look at this picture, and the precipitate flight of Joseph is fully understood. We feel like following his example.
Rembrandt had simply haunted the dissecting-rooms of the University at Leyden a little too long.
The study of these viragos scales down our rating of the master. Still, I suppose every artist has to go through this period—the period when he thinks he is called upon to portray the feminine form divine—it is like the mumps and the measles.
After a year of groping for he knew not what, with money gone, and not much progress made, Rembrandt took a reef in his pride and settled down to paint portraits, and to do a little good honest teaching.
Scholars came to him, and commissions for portraits began to arrive. He renounced the freaks of costume, illumination and attitude, and painted the customer in plain, simple Dutch dress. He let "Diana" go, and went soberly to work to make his fortune.
Holland was prosperous. Her ships sailed every sea, and brought rich treasures home. The prosperous can afford to be generous. Philanthropy became the fad. Charity was in the air, and hospitals, orphanages and homes for the aged were established. The rich merchants felt it an honor to serve on the board of managers of these institutions.
In each of the guildhalls were parlors set apart for deliberative gatherings; and it became the fashion to embellish these rooms with portraits of the managers, trustees and donors.
Rembrandt's portraits were finding their way to the guilds. They attracted much attention, and orders came—orders for more work than the artist could do. He doubled his prices in the hope of discouraging applicants.
Studio gossip and society chatter seemed to pall on young Rembrandt. It is said that when a 'bus-driver has a holiday he always goes and rides with the man who is taking his place; but when Rembrandt had a holiday he went away from the studio, not towards it. He would walk alone, off across the meadows, and along the canals, and once we find him tramping thirty miles to visit cousins who were fishermen on the seacoast. Happy fisher-folk!
But Rembrandt took few play-spells; he broke off entirely from his tavern companions and lived the life of an ascetic and recluse, seeing no society except the society that came to his studio. His heart was in his art, and he was intent on working while it was called the day.
About this time there came to him Cornelis Sylvius, the eminent preacher, to sit for a picture that was to adorn the Seaman's Orphanage, of which Sylvius was director.
It took a good many sittings to bring out a Rembrandt portrait. On one of his visits the clergyman was accompanied by a young woman—his ward—by name, Saskia van Ulenburgh.
The girl was bright, animated and intelligent, and as she sat in the corner the painter sort of divided his attention between her and the clergyman. Then the girl got up, walked about a bit, looking at the studio properties, and finally stood behind the young painter, watching him work. This was one of the things Rembrandt could never, never endure. It paralyzed his hand, and threw all his ideas into a jumble. It was the law of his studio that no one should watch him paint—he had secrets of technique that had cost him great labor.
"You do not mind my watching you work?" asked the ingenuous girl.
"Oh, not in the least!"
"You are quite sure my presence will not make you nervous, then?"
Rembrandt said something to the effect that he rather liked to have some one watch him when he worked; it depended, of course, on who it was—and asked the sitter to elevate his chin a little and not look so cross.
Next day Saskia came again to watch the transfer of the good uncle's features to canvas.
The young artist was first among the portrait-painters of Amsterdam, and had a long waiting-list on his calendar, but we find he managed to paint a portrait of Saskia about that time. We have the picture now and we also have four or five other pictures of her that Rembrandt produced that year. He painted her as a queen, as a court lady and as a flower-girl. The features may be disguised a little, but it is the same fine, bright, charming, petite young woman.
Before six months had passed he painted several more portraits of Saskia; and in one of these she has a sprig of rosemary—the emblem of betrothal—held against her heart.
And then we find an entry at the Register's to the effect that they were married on June Twenty-fourth, Sixteen Hundred Thirty-four.
Rembrandt's was a masterly nature: strong, original and unyielding. But the young woman had no wish that was not his, and her one desire was to make her lover happy. She was not a great woman, but she was good, which is better, and she filled her husband's heart to the brim. Those first few years of their married life read like a fairy-tale.
He bought her jewels, laces, elegant costumes, and began to fill their charming home with many rare objects of art. All was for Saskia—his life, his fortune, his work, his all.
As the years go by we shall see that it would have been better had he saved his money and builded against the coming of the storm; but even though Saskia protested mildly against his extravagance, the master would have his way.
His was a tireless nature: he found his rest in change. He usually had some large compositions on hand and turned to this for pastime when portraits failed. Then Saskia was ever present, and if there was a holiday he painted her as the "Jewish Bride," "The Gypsy Queen," or in some other fantastic garb.
We have seen that in those early years at Leyden he painted himself, but now it was only Saskia—she was his other self. All those numerous pictures of himself were drawn before he knew Saskia—or after she had gone.
Their paradise continued nine years—and then Saskia died.
Rembrandt was not yet forty when desolation settled down upon him.
Saskia was the mother of five children; four of them had died, and the babe she left, Titus by name, was only eight months old when she passed away.
For six months we find that Rembrandt did very little. He was stunned, and his brain and hand refused to co-operate.
The first commission he undertook was the portrait of the wife of one of the rich merchants of the city. When the work was done, the picture resembled the dead Saskia so much more than it did the sitter that the patron refused to accept it. The artist saw only Saskia and continued to portray her.
But work gave him rest, and he began a series of Biblical studies—serious, sober scenes fitted to his mood. His hand had not lost its cunning, for there is a sureness and individuality shown in his work during the next few years that stamps him as the Master.
But his rivals raised a great clamor against his style. They declared that he trampled on all precedent and scorned the laws on which true art is built. However, he had friends, and they, to help him, went forth and secured the commission—the famous "Night-Watch," now in the Ryks Museum at Amsterdam.
The production of this fine picture resulted in a comedy of errors, that shaded off into a tragedy for poor Rembrandt. The original commission for this picture came from thirty-seven prominent citizens, who were to share the expense equally among them. The order was for the portraits of the eminent men to appear on one canvas, the subjects to be grouped in an artistic way according to the artist's own conceit.
Rembrandt studied hard over the matter, as he was not content to execute a picture of a mass of men doing nothing but pose.
It took a year to complete the picture. The canvas shows a band of armed men, marching forth to the defense of the city in response to a sudden night alarm. Two brave men lead the throng and the others shade off into mere Rembrandt shadows, and you only know there are men there by the nodding plumes, banners and spearheads that glisten in the pale light of the torches.
When the picture was unveiled, the rich donors looked for themselves on the canvas, and some looked in vain. Only two men were satisfied, and these were the two who marched in the vanguard.
"Where am I?" demanded a wealthy shipowner of Rembrandt as the canvas was scanned in a vain search for his proud features.
"You see the palace there in the picture, do you not?" asked the artist petulantly.
"Yes, I see that," was the answer.
"Well, you are behind that palace."
The company turned on Rembrandt, and forbade the hanging of any more of his pictures in the municipal buildings.
Rembrandt shrugged his shoulders. But as the year passed and orders dropped away, he found how unwise a thing it is to affront the public. Men who owed him refused to pay, and those whom he owed demanded their money.
He continued doggedly on his course.
Some years before he had bought a large house and borrowed money to pay for it, and had further given his note at hand to various merchants and dealers in curios. As long as he was making money no one cared for more than the interest, but now the principal was demanded. So sure had Rembrandt been of his powers that he did not conceive that his income could drop from thirty thousand florins a year to scarcely a fifth of that.
Then his relations with Hendrickje Stoffels had displeased society. She was his housekeeper, servant and model—a woman without education or refinement, we are told. But she was loyal, more than loyal, to Rembrandt: she lived but to serve him and sought to protect his interests in every way. When summoned before the elders of the church to answer for her conduct, she appeared, pleaded guilty and shocked the company by declaring, "I would rather go to Hell with Rembrandt Harmens than play a harp in Heaven, surrounded by such as you!"
The remark was bruited throughout the city and did Rembrandt no good. His rivals combined to shut his work out of all exhibitions, and several made it their business to buy up the overdue claims against him.
Then officers came and took possession of his house, and his splendid collections of jewels, laces, furniture, curios and pictures were sold at auction. The fine dresses that once belonged to Saskia were seized: they even took her wedding-gown: and wanton women bid against the nobility for the possession of these things. Rembrandt was stripped of his sketches, and these were sold in bundles—the very sweat of his brain for years. Then he was turned into the streets.
But Hendrickje Stoffels still clung to him, his only friend. Rembrandt's proud heart was broken. He found companionship at the taverns; and to get a needful loaf of bread for Hendrickje and his boy, made sketches and hawked them from house to house.
Fashions change and art is often only a whim. People wondered why they had ever bought those dark, shadowy things made by that Leyden artist, What's-his-name! One man utilized the frames which contained "Rembrandts" by putting other canvases right over in front of them.
Rembrandt's son Titus tried his skill at art, but with indifferent success. He died while yet a youth. Then Hendrickje passed away, and Rembrandt was alone—a battered derelict on the sea of life. He lost his identity under an assumed name, and sketched with chalk on tavern-walls and pavement for the amusement of the crowd.
He died in Sixteen Hundred Sixty-nine, and the expense of his burial was paid by the hands of charity.
The cost of the funeral was seven dollars and fifty cents.
In Eighteen Hundred Ninety-seven, there was sold in London a small portrait by Rembrandt for a sum equal to a trifle more than thirty-one thousand dollars. But even this does not represent the true value of one of his pictures—for connoisseurs regard a painting by Rembrandt as priceless.
There is a law in Holland forbidding any one on serious penalty to remove a "Rembrandt" from the country. If any one of the men who combined to work his ruin is mentioned in history, it is only to say, "He lived in the age of Rembrandt."