He produced over 300 paintings and influenced many generations of artists. He painted scenes of all kinds and experimented with many styles. But above all, he was a master of light, shadows, and faces.
A single look at a Rembrandt painting suffices to realize the art of the Dutch master was far from ordinary. His exceptional command of light and shadows and his thorough experimentation of a number of styles, mediums, and themes is simply unparalleled. Rembrandt has consistently been lauded as one of the greatest artists of all time. And rightly so.
The great Francisco Goya claimed to have had only three masters, “Nature, Velázquez, and Rembrandt.” Van Gogh tellingly wrote that “Rembrandt goes so deep into the mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language. It is with justice that they call Rembrandt—magician—that's no easy occupation.” One of the finest sculptors in history, Auguste Rodin, once took issue with being compared to the Dutch painter, exclaiming, “Compare me with Rembrandt! What sacrilege! With Rembrandt, the colossus of Art! We should prostrate ourselves before Rembrandt and never compare anyone with him!” Impressionist Max Liebermann was quoted saying, “Whenever I see a Frans Hals, I feel like painting; whenever I see a Rembrandt, I feel like giving up.” There’s certainly no lack of praise for the Dutch master.
The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch, or The Night Watch, 1642
And sure, Rembrandt was extraordinary in many ways. But perhaps one of his most striking skills is the ability with which he captured faces—from their sharp emphatic features to raw emotional expressions. In this he follows and perfects the technique set forth by his predecessor, Caravaggio, known as chiaroscuro—characterized by the use of strong contrasts between light and shadow in a painting. To give you an idea of what I mean, here are 14 paintings that prove Rembrandt was truly a master of capturing faces.
An Early Self-Portrait
Self-Portrait Study in the Mirror (the Human Skin), 1627
Let’s start with one of the earliest self-portraits Rembrandt ever created. It shows many of the distinctive features the Dutch master is known for, most notably his incredibly dramatic (and effective) use of light and dark. It’s estimated Rembrandt painted over 40 self-portraits during his prolific career.
A Man Wearing a Gorget and Plumed Cap, 1631
Sure, the light is amazing, and the outfit is as fancy and perfectly detailed as outfits get. But what’s really dazzling here is the expression in and around those freakishly enormous eyes.
A Shocking Lesson
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632
One of Rembrandt’s early masterpieces. The best part are the guys who seem so shocked at the gory lesson, they even broke the fourth wall!
Of Wrinkles And Life
Study of an Old Man with a Gold Chain, 1632
Depictions of old people serve artists well, since their factions are so perfectly fit to show not only the passing of the years, but the wealth of life itself.
The Rembrandt Triangle
Bust of Young Woman, 1633
Rembrandt popularized what is now called “the Rembrandt triangle,” that particular triangle of light in the cheek further away from the light source. Here the effect is exemplified in the portrait of who was probably Saskia van Uylenburgh, Rembrandt’s wife.
Details In The Armor
Artists in both painting and photography also coined the term “Rembrandt lighting” as reference to the artist’s peculiar style. Rembrandt was very effective at adding a dramatic touch to his portraits by obscuring roughly half of his subject’s face in shadows while generating the aforementioned triangle.
The Old And The Wise
Portrait of an 83-year Old Woman, 1634
Another example of Rembrandt’s beautiful mastery for depicting old age.
A Biblical Feast
Belshazzar’s Feast, 1635
One of Rembrandt’s famous Biblical scenes, featuring amazingly detailed and life-like reactions by the characters. Just look at those frightened faces!
Here we see an older Rembrandt (he must have been around 52 years old at this time). This is arguably one of the master’s best self-portraits of all.
Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661
Yet another self-portrait, this one features a very natural expression. It’s not easy to capture a look like that, especially when all you have is a mirror reflecting yourself.
A Light In The Eyes
Two Moors, 1661
Yep, basically a 17th-century, film noir painting.
Gazing Into You
Portrait of the Syndics of the Amsterdam Clothmakers’ Guild, 1662
This painting features a group of drapers in charge of inspecting cloth quality. But Rembrandt managed to make them look as if they were inspecting the public instead.
The Jewish Bride
Historié of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, or The Jewish Bride, 1665
Van Gogh had the highest praises for this particular painting. He wrote in a letter to his brother that “When [Rembrandt] didn’t have to be true in the literal sense, as he did in a portrait — when he could — make poetry — be a poet, that’s to say Creator. That’s what he is in the Jewish bride … One must have died many times to paint like this.”
The Final Portrait
This is one of the last portraits ever done by Rembrandt, painted in the final year of his life. He died when he was 63 years old.
Rembrandt lived and died in the Netherlands during the 17th century. He produced over 300 paintings, around 300 etchings, and more than 2,000 drawings during his lifetime. He remains one of those rare artists whose genius is patently evident to all. Don't you agree?
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