March 3

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Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn’s Early Works


Rembrandt van Rijn, often called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn or simply Rembrandt, was one of the greatest artists of Holland’s Golden Age. Originally from Leiden, he moved to Amsterdam in 1632, where he lived until his death in 1669.

 

He has produced hundreds of paintings and etchings in the 17th century that still continue to be admired today. Rembrandt’s early years in Amsterdam are often characterized by his dramatic and mythological paintings, many of which have biblical themes.

 

Most of these works have been lost or destroyed. The small number that remains offers an insight into Rembrandt’s early creative efforts as well as clues about how his later works came into being.

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The Blinding of Samson

The Blinding of Samson (1636) depicts the biblical story of Samson being led to execution, blinded so that he could not kill his captors with his super strength as he was brought to meet his end. It’s an early example of Baroque art. You can see its dramatic lighting effects, highly realistic poses, and vivid use of color.

 

It is also interesting to note that Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro–or dramatic contrast between light and dark— to portray light falling on Samuel’s face while everything else is in darkness, signifying his new identity as blinded by God.

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Another distinct feature of The Blinding of Samson is that it reveals Rembrandt’s nascent interest in large format. It was quite unusual for an artist like Rembrandt, at only 25 years old, to produce such an ambitious piece. However, it was not entirely unprecedented in Dutch history since artists like Rubens were known for their large pieces during this time period.

 

Cottages Before a Stormy Sky

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was very prolific as an artist during his early years in Amsterdam, producing nearly 300 paintings. Rembrandt had begun his career as a painter of biblical and mythological scenes, but he changed course in 1639 when he began to paint scenes of everyday life—interiors, portraits, and landscape views.

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Cottages with a sense of presence and a dramatic sky are recurring themes in Rembrandt’s early works. This painting is reminiscent of Vermeer’s style with its low horizon and depictions of domestic life. There’s also the presence of an element of sentimentality that was sometimes ridiculed by contemporary critics.

 

It also displays Rembrandt’s uncanny ability to capture light on fabric with minute brushstrokes. In making a dramatic change from his earlier subjects, Rembrandt demonstrated an extraordinary talent for dramatic lighting effects and a sense of realism. But Rembrandt van Rijn paintings have a dark tone that may have been due to tragic events that were occurring in Rembrandt’s personal life at that time.

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The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s first major painting, The Night Watch (1642), is his most famous and was a blockbuster at its time. The painting is a portrait of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his company in their full regalia. Because of its effective use of light and shadow (tenebrism), it has been called an example of Rembrandt’s early, innovative style. It is also one of his earliest genre pieces.

 

In composing it, Rembrandt innovated a new type of group portraiture that is unique among paintings from that period. While traditional group portraits emphasized hierarchy and social order through spatial arrangement and rigid posture, The Night Watch instead creates narrative drama through informal poses and varied physiognomies.

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Another unusual aspect of the work is its scale. Most seventeenth-century Dutch group portraits were about half life-size, but The Night Watch fills more than two-thirds of that space. Moreover, Rembrandt used several compositional devices to link subordinate figures to surrounding ones—such as integrating them into the landscape by sizing them up with figures seated on benches along each side.

 

No doubt, it’s the youthful painter’s engagement with dramatic content, marking a turning point toward personal artistic expression.

 

The Three Trees

Rembrandt mastered the art of etching in his lifetime, and The Three Trees is one of his boldest and most impressive landscapes, showing a remarkable depth of field. It was created by a combination of drypoints, engraving, and varying degrees of etched lines. The speckled effect contributes to the feeling that nature is in a state of flux. It’s a testament to Rembrandt’s skill as an artist, expert printmaker, and innovator.

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A central light source heightens the drama of a swirling sky and silhouetted trees, imbuing the pastoral scene with a sense of impending instability. In the midst of the chaos, the terrifying tree trunks strike the background; they appear almost like characters in the landscape with their expressions of surprise and anguish.

 

Rembrandt van Rijn’s “The Three Trees” is an ecstatic celebration of the natural world, vividly depicted in all its powerful vitality.

 

Belshazzar’s Feast

The biblical story of Belshazzar’s Feast is an interesting metaphor for Rembrandt’s early works. He is depicting a feast of King Belshazzar of Babylon, who, according to Scripture, was slain that night. The king has gathered his lords to make merry while they worship a golden idol in place of God.

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It’s a dramatic tableau, just right for the young Rembrandt: action, excitement, variety of faces, and emotions. We feel the tension as the king lifts his gold cup in the toast while, above his head, a hand appears and starts to write on the wall, spelling out his eventual downfall.

 

Painting in biblical scenes was common at that time, and Rembrandt produced many works on religious topics during his career. Nevertheless, Belshazzar’s Feast was unique in subject matter; it is considered one of Rembrandt’s most powerful works.

 

The Bottom Line

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669) was the greatest artist of Holland’s Golden Age and one of the most revered and influential painters in European art history. His subjects range from highly detailed portrait studies to biblical narratives and vibrant, colorful scenes populated by large numbers of figures and decorative objects that elicit visual pleasure and spiritual contemplation.

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