For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; ... a time to weep, and a time to laugh; ... a time to rend, and a time to sew; ... what gain has the worker from his toil?Ecclesiastes 3:1, 2, 4a, 7a, 9
There was very little doubt that Neeltje, who was thirty-eight years old at the birth of her eighth child, was very relieved to hear the little bundle handed to her by the midwife wailing lustily. She had lost three of her previous children and although infant mortality was a common enough thing, the pain over these deaths had never quite left her. The lively shouts of four who had lived and who were playing under the supervision of their father, Harmen, at the nearby mill, shook the windows. Well, that they were all playing was, no doubt, an exaggeration as the oldest two boys would probably be doing some work, maybe lugging about flour sacks on their childish shoulders. She sat up, leaning heavily against the pillows, stroking the newborn's wizened face. God's providence was good.
"Lay back, girl. Take it easy," the midwife admonished, "all too soon you'll be back on your feet, mending, cooking, cleaning and changing diapers for this one."
Neeltje was a tiny woman. Her oval-shaped face, flushed with the exertion of giving birth, crinkled in smiles as she looked at the child in the crook of her arms. He had stopped his wailing and his dark eyes, wide-open, studied her with great intensity. She stared back at a broad, flat little nose, full rosy lips and a defiant round chin. And she marveled that a minuscule hand, a fist, had fought its way past the tightly bound swaddling bands.
"Harmen'll be happy with another boy?"
The midwife questioned Neeltje curiously. The mother did not answer directly as her eyes were drinking in this new child. And before her mind was able to tell her tongue what to say, she fell asleep. She was very tired.
The four brothers examined their new sibling curiously as he lay in the cradle next to their parents' bed. Gerrit, firstborn and heir to the mill, was a strapping boy. The second-oldest lad was also being raised with the mill in mind and the third son was destined, the parents hoped, to become a baker. Neeltje Willemsdochter van Suyttbroeck came from a family of bakers and it seemed logical to think that an apprenticeship could be arranged so that this boy would be able to work in his maternal grandparents' house. The fourth, it was thought, could take up the trade of shoe-making. The boys grimaced at the little baby whose soft reddish hair was beginning to curl around his forehead.
"What is his name again, mother?" asked the youngest.
She smiled as she said it and everyone repeated the name. It was a curious name for a small baby and certainly not a common one such as Gerrit, Willem, Adriaen, or Harmen. But Rembrandt it was and that was the name which rang through the church when he was baptized – Rembrandt Harmenszoon Van Rijn.
Leiden was a windy city and there were a great many mills in Leiden in the early 1600s. Because the names Harmen and Gerrit were quite common, Harmen Gerritszoon, Rembrandt's father, had prudently added "Van Rijn" to his name and had this signature written on his sacks. In this way customers who wanted only his finely ground malt were sure that the produce they were getting was his and his alone. Father Harmen had been four years old when Leiden had been besieged by the Spaniards. He could vaguely remember being hungry – so hungry that he had greedily eaten nettles, leaves and the bark of trees during the single daily meal his mother had been able to provide in those days. But it had always been a meal for which his father had thanked God. And though he barely remembered that six-month siege, he felt bound to speak of it as he fed his own children. It was a miracle, he told them over and over, that Leiden should be flourishing today. No one, he said, had expected the city to survive after the dykes had been smashed to facilitate the Dutch fleet which carried life-saving supplies for the starving population. Everything in and around Leiden had been covered by the sea–crops, farms, shops, houses, cattle and Spanish soldiers. As a result, the soldiers who had not drowned had marched away – and the people who had not starved had rebuilt.
Another child was born after Rembrandt – a daughter named Elizabeth, or Lysbeth as she was known to her family: She and Rembrandt played together. Sometimes under the table with an old doll, or sometimes in the yard with ragged, discarded flour sacks. They used the sacks to dress up the cat, or they put them around their waists pretending to be bakers. Lysbeth was blond with blue eyes but Rembrandt had a wild mop of reddish curls. The moments that their mother was not busy with cooking and cleaning, she would tell them stories from the Bible. Neeltje had been brought up as a Catholic but had converted to Protestantism even as Harmen her husband was a Protestant.
There came a day in which the Van Rijn trust in the providence of God was sorely put to the test. It was the day on which Gerrit, Rembrandt's oldest brother, had an accident. The youth was working at the mill, as he did every day. Carrying a heavy load of barley up the wooden stairs, his foot slipped and he toppled over the edge of the stairs, the heavy sack landing with him and on him. His shins were broken and although the doctor tried to set the legs properly, it could not be done. Gerrit, in much pain and distress, had become a cripple in the space of a few seconds. Lysbeth and Rembrandt hid under the table while the doctor worked on Gerrit. The little girl had her hands over her ears and leaned against her brother, his reddish curls in her face. She was trying hard to shut out Gerrit's moans. The thick tablecloth sheltered the children. Rembrandt, on his knees, had his arms around his small sister. He noticed the shadows on the floor. His mother's shadow as she walked from the bed to the counter; the doctor's shadow as he moved about with his instruments; and his father's shadow pacing to and fro. And although he shut his eyes and tightened his arms around his sister, he knew that he was in the middle of it all, in the middle of living – in the middle of light and shadow.
In 1609 when Rembrandt turned three, Arminius died. Both were residents of Leiden. As well, in that year, the seven northern provinces of the Low Countries, (the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), finally shook off the Spanish yoke. Under the leadership of the House of Orange these seven provinces, (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijssel, Friesland and Groningen), although not officially recognized by Spain, became independent. Calvinism was declared the official state religion. The wealthiest of the seven provinces, Holland, was the most populous, and for that reason its name was frequently used by foreigners to refer to the whole country.
As a little boy, Rembrandt, even as his siblings, often had to work in the mill on many cloudless afternoons when the sun was bright. At the edge of Leiden, on a branch of the river Rhine, the mill was called the Van Rijn mill. Harmen gave his youngest son the task of counting the sacks that lay on the first floor, as well as carrying them up and neatly stacking them on the second. If any needed repair, the lad would have to sew them with needle and thread. Although Rembrandt liked to listen to the sound of the great wings of the windmill moving in a brisk wind as he sat cross-legged on the floor, working at the broken sacks, what he liked even more was the effect of their wingspread on light as they rotated past the small windows of the mill. Light and shadow slipped around him and objects that looked dark one minute, looked sun-drenched the next. It fascinated him. There were other times as well, when his mother was busy in the kitchen and the hearth was flaming with the glow of the supper-fire, that he was overcome by the beauty of the moment. He would hide by himself sitting in the shadow of a corner chair and from there watch her preparing the meal at the board. The light of the flames cast ruddy colors on her wrinkled cheeks and gnarled hands as she chopped herring and sliced bread. He loved the play of the light on her face, and was filled with an unspoken desire to preserve the warmth of the moment. He did not speak much. Ever a quiet boy, he looked at things – looked at them so long, that sometimes his parents and his siblings had to prod him to move along.
The Van Rijn mill would, without a doubt, have passed on to Rembrandt's older brother, Gerrit. It had been in the family for many generations always passing from father to oldest son and so on. But because Gerrit had been crippled, the next brother down would inherit. It was tradition. The Van Rijn's were not rich but neither were they poor. Leiden itself was a textile town and had been so since the thirteen hundreds. During those early years when the Spaniards had just been defeated, it had attracted thousands of people looking for a place in which to settle - country folk looking for a prosperous city with work prospects, retired soldiers desirous of a home, and foreigners as well as refugees walking in from the wars in the south. Housing became scarce. Small red-bricked homes with red-tiled roofs were crowded to bursting. Leiden's economy actually began to falter when Rembrandt was about five. Heavy broadcloth was not as fashionable as it had once been and manufacturers were slowly but surely going bankrupt. Leiden was overpopulated; homeless men wandered about the streets; and countless beggars appeared at Neeltje's door. And a little boy sat on his doorstep and drew the hungry, lean and pleading faces he saw passing each day.
When Rembrandt was seven, he waved goodbye to his mother and to Lysbeth, walking the seven blocks to the nearby Latin School without much enthusiasm. He would rather spin a top and roll a hoop, or better yet, draw pictures. His father sometimes took the crayons and chalk out of his son's childish hands as he sat on the steps of the house and studied the figures Rembrandt had drawn. There were the moments that he walked inside with them to show them to Neeltje or to Gerrit who clumped about the house on crutches. But there was school now for Rembrandt – lengthy hours of confinement from early in the morning, with two hours off for a noon meal at home, to late in the afternoon. There was little time for sketching. It was almost evening when the boy walked home again, generally glad that the institution's doors had closed behind him. It was a substantial building, the school – an imposing structure five stories high. Four windows were framed across the first two stories, three across the third, two in the fourth and only one in the last story, the attic.
"What did you learn today, Rembrandt?"
Lysbeth was ever curious and jealous that she was not permitted to go to school. The arts of cooking, sewing and learning how to be a clean and thrifty housewife did not enthrall her. Rembrandt shrugged. There was history and reading and, of course, Latin. The school was, after all, called the Latin School and he was required to memorize Latin some thirty hours a week.
"That my name is really Rembrandtus Harmensis Leydensis," he said, watching his sister.
Her eyes grew big and he laughed.
"That's only the Latin way of saying that I am Rembrandt the son of Harmen of Leiden."
She turned back to her sewing and he yawned. The words "Pietate, Linguis et Ards Liberalis", that is to say, "Piety, Language and Liberal Arts" were engraved in the stone above the school's doorway. Calvinistic doctrine was held in high regard. Students were expected to attend two solid church services on Sunday and were tested on the sermons on Monday. Rembrandt took his seat in a corner chair of the kitchen and watched his mother as she bustled about making supper. Almost unconsciously he began to draw on the back of his Latin primer. Drawing was like breathing to him and he cared not that the next day, likely as not, he would be punished for defacing a book.
In 1620, just two months short of his fourteenth birthday, Rembrandt, having matriculated from the Latin School, was registered as a student in the University of Leiden. It was a University which could hold its own to any in Europe. University registration carried with it privileges – a certain ration of beer and wine (without excise taxes) and freedom from guard duty. But young Rembrandt did not stay student long enough to partake of either of these privileges. Within two months he had left campus and had become apprenticed to a man in Leiden by the name of Jacob van Swanenburgh. It can be speculated that his pleas to draw and paint played an important role and that Rembrandt's parents, well aware of the artistic drive of their youngest son, permitted him to follow his dream.
Perhaps, as well, the fact that Van Swanenburgh was the son of a former burgomaster of Leiden, was a drawing card. The man had status in the city. He had traveled to Italy to study art and had returned with a sophisticated Italian wife. In the eyes of Harmen and Neeltje Van Rijn, the Van Swanenburghs were aristocrats and to have their son study in Jacob Van Swanenburgh's studio was a step up Leiden's social ladder.
Even as he had left his home every morning for Latin School as a young boy, so now the teenager Rembrandt left for the Van Swanenburgh studio each day. He swept out the workplace with zeal; he learned how to stretch canvases, prepare colors, clean brushes and to do what he was told. Harmen and Neeltje paid Van Swanenburgh an annual fee of money – something between fifty and one hundred guilders a year. Each night Rembrandt would recount different stories to the miller's household. He would tell his mother the wonders of composing pictures; show Lysbeth that he was using pastels; display samples of plaster casts to his father; and confide in Gerrit that he was finally being allowed to fill in parts of van Swanenburgh's own compositions. Van Swanenburgh's specialties were architectural scenes and views of hell, and during the three years that followed, he taught young Rembrandt the fundamentals of drawing, etching and painting. And Rembrandt, absorbing all he could, outgrew his master. It was something father Harmen realized and, to his credit, he sent his young son to Amsterdam to study with someone else.
Pieter Lastman was one of the foremost painters of historical scenes in the United Provinces. He taught Rembrandt the use of bright and glossy colors and very likely encouraged his promising pupil to become a history painter like himself. Or had his mother already influenced the way Rembrandt would wield his brush? With her faithful Bible reading and devoutness, it is not at all presumptuous to suppose that Rembrandt first absorbed from her at whose knees he had so often sat, a sense of God and man, a sense of the passing of time and a sense of light and darkness.
After a year in Amsterdam, Rembrandt traveled back to Leiden in the canal boat. He set up as an independent master and lived at home. His father gave him a studio in a room attached to the mill. A friend and fellow painter, Jan Lievens, worked with him. In one of his earliest paintings, and one only discovered in this last century, "The Stoning of St. Stephen," Rembrandt did something which he would continue to do throughout his life – he placed himself in the picture. Peering out from behind the stone-throwers – animated and part of the vicious crowd – his own face stares at the martyr with something akin to anguish, horror and involvement. He was only about eighteen or nineteen when he painted this three by four feet drama.
Rembrandt stayed in Leiden until he was 28 years old. He was not completely without honor on his home turf. On the contrary, his studio was even visited by Constantijn Huygens, the private secretary of Prince Frederik Hendrik, the stadtholder of Holland. Impressed by the work of both Rembrandt and Lievens, Huygens bought Rembrandt's "Judas" for one hundred guilders and encouraged him to move to a larger metropolis. When the opportunity presented itself not too much later, Rembrandt took his advice. Investing money in an art dealership with one Hendrick van Uylenburgh of Amsterdam, he kissed his family goodbye and moved to that city. He soon sent for his sister Lysbeth and she came to keep house for him in a small apartment on the Bloemgracht. The two of them made do with a parlor, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a large, airy room towards the back where Rembrandt could paint and teach.
Hendrick van Uylenburgh operated an art factory of sorts. He owned a warehouse where young men made copies of paintings which he then proceeded to sell throughout the provinces. Some of Rembrandt's paintings were copied and sold in this manner. (Today, by the way, both in Europe and in the United States, these copies have caused problems. There are more than a few collectors who believe they own originals when, in fact, they own only copies.) In Amsterdam Rembrandt first began painting commissioned portraits and it was also here that he painted his first group portrait, the dramatic, well-balanced physician group entitled "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp." This painting brought him such renown that it presented Rembrandt with more commissions than he could handle. But important though these developments were in his life, they were nothing compared with the fact that at this time he first met Hendrick's orphaned cousin, Saskia Van Uylenburgh.
Up to this point in his life, although he maintained a good relationship with his family, Rembrandt had been a single man. That is to say, he had never really shared his thoughts, jokes or aspirations with anyone. Saskia changed all that. She was not from Amsterdam but from Leeuwarden, in the north of Friesland. She was well-born. Her father had been the burgomaster of Leeuwarden and at one juncture had even attained to the post of attorney general of the whole Dutch republic. Saskia's brothers were lawyers and her sisters had married wealthy men. She was the youngest of eight. Six when her mother died and twelve when her father was buried, she had been passed around the family and was the ward of one of her sisters. From time to time she was allowed to visit Amsterdam where cousin Hendrick as well as another cousin by the name of Aaltje, lived. Aaltje's husband, Johannes Corneliszoon Sylvius was minister of the Groote Kerk in Amsterdam.
For some undefinable reason, Rembrandt fell in love with the twenty-year-old girl. He who almost never drew flowers, drew them in pictures of Saskia. She was not a strikingly beautiful woman. What you saw was a rather round face under a mass of honey-colored hair, clear eyes set apart rather far, a medium nose, a full under lip, a plump chin, a not quite slender neck supported by a pleasing, youthful body. Rembrandt probably saw more than that. The eyes presented by him in a pre-nuptial sketch look out at the world with playfulness, fun and a certain amount of wistfulness. One can well imagine the couple strolling down to the Surgeons' Guild Hall to view Rembrandt's recent claim to fame, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp." Massive, stark and majestic it stared down at the young girl, who was probably in awe of the masterpiece.
"His name," said Rembrandt, pointing to the corpse in the picture, possibly speaking to himself as much as to the girl at his side, "his name was Adriaan Adriaanszoon. And his friends," he went on as he gazed at the body, "called him Aris Kindt."
Saskia was intrigued and yet she shivered to know so much about the dead man displayed in such a vulgar fashion right in front of her.
"How do you know?" her voice faltered a bit later.
"The doctors always know who they're working on. There's a file."
"Did it bother you?"
"What? The fact that I knew who it was? No."
Rembrandt rubbed his chin thoughtfully, and continued, "The truth is, I rather like knowing because paintings are not just lifeless things. They're not just cold, apathetic statements ... No..." She interrupted – a childish voice echoing rather loudly in the great hall. "How did ... What did Aris Kindt do for a living?"
"He was a quiver maker ... from Leiden actually. That's where I was born. There were always a lot of beggars on the streets of Leiden. I had my pick of free models many times just standing on street corners. This fellow, Aris Kindt, he didn't have a job and maybe that's why he wasn't easy to get along with. He was in and out of jail."
"Well, he stole things. And then apparently he attempted to murder one of the guards in the jail. Nevertheless, he was released only to fall into bad company again. This time he tried to take the cloak off someone else's back. A fight started and he was rearrested."
"And then?" she asked breathlessly, her slender fingers resting on Rembrandt's velvet shirt sleeve.
"Well, he was charged with assault and battery. The day before I began to paint him, he had been hanged for that crime."
She turned her face away from Rembrandt back to the painting.
"He's come to be of some use then, I suppose," she remarked at length and then after a while, "Do you suppose that he was forgiven?"
"I don't know," Rembrandt answered her, "but, put in his position, your brothers might have reacted in a similar manner. Or," he continued philosophically, patting her small hand, "faced with cold and hunger one of the esteemed doctors here watching him being dissected, might also have filched a cloak."
She shrugged. Rembrandt pointed at the painting.
"They dissect the body. But I try to see the spirit. Do you understand that, Saskia?"
And Saskia nodded.
They married in June of 1634 traveling back to Saskia's home town of Leeuwarden for a small, village church ceremony. The young couple stayed on in Friesland for a prolonged honeymoon before returning to Amsterdam. Lysbeth moved back to Leiden and Saskia, with the help of a few servants ran the household. There were servants. These Rembrandt could afford now as commissions for portraits came his way more readily than they ever had before. He even turned people down. Strangers greeted him in the streets of Amsterdam. He was the man who had painted the huge anatomy painting and they were impressed. Rembrandt was happy. His domestic life was blissful. Every now and then, when he was painting in his studio, Saskia would walk in, would dance in, would run in breathless with some little thing she wanted to tell him. At her first pregnancy he was ecstatic. The birth of the desired son Rombartus, however, was difficult for Saskia, and the boy, although large and fine in the beginning, did not thrive. There were a few precious months – a few months of holding and dandling and hoping – and then the small life whimpered out. Three more pregnancies followed. The second and third were girls. The first little Cornelia lived a few weeks and the second little girl, also named Cornelia, breathed no longer than her sister. Rembrandt's mother, for whom these little girls were named, died in 1640 just before the fourth and last pregnancy.
Rembrandt and Saskia were living in the Breestraat now in a new house – a two-story brick building which looked impressive from the street. The doctor who was summoned in the fall of 1641 to attend to the mistress was taken up to a big room. Saskia was lying in a palatial bed. A dimly lighted hearth fire and a few candles created a shadow effect – darkness and light dancing together. A smell of dried lavender – a flower often used for scenting the air after a confinement – scented the air. The wet nurse, a rather heavy-set woman, met the doctor at the foot of the bed. She put her finger on her lips and raised her eyebrows. Saskia opened her eyes for a moment, acknowledged the doctor's presence with a flutter of her lids and then closed them again. He checked the child. Although he was frail, the boy child seemed to be breathing well and responded to the touch of the doctor's hands as a newborn should.
In the weeks, indeed, in the months that followed, Saskia seemed to be rallying. She would be out of bed, dandling the child on her knee, stroking his cheeks and singing lullabies. But it was the shadow of death toying with hope. And Rembrandt knew. He spent as much time as he could in the sickroom. She died of consumption in the early summer of 1642 – died before she was thirty years old – died while a little boy was beginning to crow and laugh, was transferring a rattle from one hand to the other, and was sitting up and lisping the word "mama." A cart came to carry the coffin with its heavy black cloth from the house in Breestraat to the Oude Kerk, the Old Church. The big oak doors were still locked when the group of mourners arrived and one of the men was obliged to go and fetch the sexton. The noise of people and traffic passing was surreal to Rembrandt whose hands were covered with black gloves. Suddenly the double church doors opened, creaking and groaning as if they were weeping. The group entered. Stone tiles close to the organ had been removed and the coffin, carried by eight professional pall-bearers, was set next to the gaping hole beneath it. A minister read from Psalm 103. "Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits." Two of the men took the heavy black cloth and neatly folded it. "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy." The coffin was placed on a stretcher over top of two heavy ropes. "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him." Eight men, four on each side took hold of the ropes. "As for man his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth." And Rembrandt, in mourning clothes, a long veil of black crape hanging down from his hat, remembered the flower in Saskia's hand, and he remembered her face as he had drawn it just before they were married. The coffin thudded against the bottom. "The Lord hath prepared His throne in the heavens; and His kingdom ruleth over all." The stretcher which had held the coffin came up empty. And Rembrandt had to restrain himself from flinging himself into the cavity which now contained her form. "Bless the Lord, all His works in all places of His dominion: bless the Lord, O my soul."
The nurse, Geertje Dircx stayed on to take care of baby Titus. She was a rather large woman with coarse features and in the beginning, when Rembrandt lost himself in his work once again, it was not difficult for her to take over the duties of housekeeper as well. The truth was that Rembrandt needed someone to care for his infant. Geertje, the widow of an army-trumpeter, was self-deprecating and by all accounts she very likely set her cap at becoming the second Mrs. Van Rijn. It was during this year of 1642, the year that Saskia died, that Rembrandt painted the "Night Watch," or, more correctly, "The Militia Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq." One of his better-known works, it is in many ways a revolutionary painting – a painting which did not meet the usual criteria of group portraiture of that time. Save for the captain and the lieutenant in the center foreground, the eighteen militiamen who had paid to be in the painting, did not quite receive the prominence for which they might have hoped. Instead a little girl, bathed in light, a small powder boy wearing a helmet much too big for him, and a dog, are in the foreground. The painting certainly caused a lot of talk and comment. Rembrandt, hands covered with paint, paint which he always wiped on his clothes, did not much care.
It is of interest to note here that Rembrandt used dogs, many dogs, not just in this group portrait, but in his Biblical renditions as well, and often in places where you would not expect them. They are prominent in his depiction of Hagar and Ishmael and in the painting of Joseph telling dreams; they feature in the scene when Gabriel makes the announcement to Mary and when Jesus is presented to Simeon and Anna; they are there when the Good Samaritan carries the man to the inn, when Jesus heals the sick, and when He dines with the disciples from Emmaus, just to name a few. To Rembrandt dogs seemed to be a symbol of humanity. They had no iconic significance and painting them followed no artistic tradition. The people in the Bible were very real to him. They were actual people, surrounded by creatures such as dogs. They were not covered with halos, but rather had faces like the Jews in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, a section he frequently visited.
Some historians write that Rembrandt began an affair with Geertje Dircx after the death of Saskia; others do not hold that view. Whatever the case, the woman seems to have been a person of unstable, even hysterical character, who throughout the almost five years that she resided in the household, began to exhibit increasingly strange behavior. Sometimes she walked about in a daze muttering incoherently to herself, and at other times she would dress in a most disorderly fashion, hair uncombed and clothes disheveled.
Rembrandt, a generous man, seemed unable to manage his financial affairs. His large house, which had cost a staggering 13,000 guilders in 1639 when his career was blooming, and which was only partly paid for with some of the money from Saskia's dowry, had mortgage payments due. Although he kept students, who paid him an annual fee, and still worked commissions, there never seemed to be enough money to pay the bills.
A few days before her death, Saskia had drawn up a will. According to law, half of the joint estate belonged to Rembrandt, while Saskia was permitted to dispose of her half as she wanted. She left it to Titus, stipulating that Rembrandt should receive the interest from it until the boy married or came of age. She added a further stipulation: if Rembrandt were to remarry, her half of the estate would go not to Titus but to one of her sisters, and with it the interest.
In 1647 Saskia's relatives demanded that Rembrandt draw up a complete inventory of all his and Saskia's possessions as they had been at the time of her death. Furthermore, the bank advised him, his in-laws had filed a request with the Court of Friesland that any further withdrawal of money by Rembrandt had to be sanctioned by them. The court approved this request. Consequently, Rembrandt was in serious financial trouble. His work in those early years after Saskia's death had been inconsistent and his debts had grown.
Hendrickje Stoffels joined the household sometime in the late 1640s. A young woman, twenty-two years old, she hailed from a little village east of Amsterdam. A good help in the household, she was much taken with young Titus. Geertje, jealous of Hendrickje's youth, exuberance and apparent favor with Rembrandt, provoked an ugly scene in the kitchen early in 1649, (a year, by the way, in which Rembrandt painted nothing). In the end, Geertje left and Rembrandt did nothing to stop the distraught woman. As a matter of fact, he agreed to pay her 160 guilders outright and 60 guilders a year for the rest of her life. She accepted. Later that year, however, Geertje took legal action against her erstwhile employer. An official from the City Council came to the house and served papers to Rembrandt. The document read, in part: "One Vrouw Geertje Dircx, widow and midwife and long-time servant of the master painter Rembrandt van Rijn, did on this day depose before the proper representatives of the City Council that the said Heer van Rijn, after giving her every assurance of his intention to take her to wife, after living alone with her, subsequent to his wife's death ... indicated that he did not intend to fulfil his obligations..."
The City Council ruled that Geertje be awarded 200 guilders in a lump sum and be paid 200 guilders annually. If she had been strange before this ruling, she now seemed to come totally unhinged. Power of attorney over her affairs was therefore given to her brother, Pieter. Pieter, with the back-up testimony of Geertje's neighbors, had his sister committed to a house of correction. She was released in 1655 at which time she immediately sued Rembrandt again. Before this lawsuit was able to run its course, however, the poor woman died.
Geertje had been right in gauging Rembrandt's feelings for Hendrickje. He was much taken with her. She ran his household like clockwork, was gentle and unassuming and genuinely fond of Titus. Furthermore, she encouraged Rembrandt to paint. He began a common-law relationship with her late in 1649, a relationship which would continue until her death in 1663. She bore him a child, a baby that only lived for two weeks. And then, while she was six months pregnant with their second baby, a message came for her from the Council of the Reformed Church. It read: "Hendrickje Jaghers, residing on Breestraat, having for some time been living in open concubinage with Rembrandt, the painter, is summoned to appear within eight days of the issuance of this summons and explain to the consistory what excuse she can offer for so scandalous a conduct."
Hendrickje, perhaps with Rembrandt's urging, ignored the summons even though she was a member in good standing of the church. Rembrandt was not. Although he read and knew his Bible, he was not a devout churchgoer. He did not care for religious orthodoxy and what he considered "stuffiness." There may have been reason for his stand. We do not know. All that he believed he put forth in his paintings – one-third of which were Biblical. Rembrandt, for example, is one of the men who put Jesus on the cross in the "Raising of the Cross" and again he portrays himself as one of the men carrying down the dead body of Jesus in "The Descent from the Cross." He is the central figure in "The Prodigal Son in the Tavern" and he mirrors himself as one of Jacob's sons in an etching of "Joseph Telling his Dreams." He even peeps out behind the shoulder of Peter's bald head in "Christ Preaching," consistently asking himself, and telling his viewers to ask themselves "What would I have done, had I been there? What is my standing before God?"
Even though Hendrickje ignored the first summons to appear before consistory, a second and third summons followed hard on its heels. Perhaps Rembrandt ripped them up. But the fourth pricked her conscience in such a way that she answered it. Everyone on the street knew the substance, if not the exact wording, of the messages which had been delivered to Rembrandt's house by a member of the church council. Hendrickje was not deemed respectable by a number of her neighbors and that cannot have been easy for her. To be publicly cited to appear before the consistory to face an accusation of lechery and adultery must have been tremendously humiliating for the girl, especially as she realized the accusation pointed to the truth – her obviously unmarried state. But even more than this matter of being called to account was the fear that she must face her accusers alone for Rembrandt would not go with her. She did go by herself, however, and that in itself was an act of great courage. As punishment for her sinful way of living, church council denied her participation in the Lord's Supper. Three months later she bore Rembrandt a child, a girl who lived. The baby was (again) named Cornelia. She was baptized in the Oude Kerk in October of 1654 and duly registered as the daughter of Rembrandt van Rijn and Hendrickje Stoffels. The ban on Hendrickje was lifted at the baptism.
Although Rembrandt was happy and relaxed in the bosom of his family which consisted of Titus, his son, Hendrickje, his mistress, and baby Cornelia, his financial situation had not improved. Creditors hounded him for payments for repairs on his house, payments on the mortgage, and payments on outstanding loans. Although he painted, etched and drew, the money coming in from the sales did not come close to meeting the crisis situation which was rapidly coming to a head. In 1655, when Titus was fourteen, Rembrandt had his son draw up a will. According to this will, Titus left all his earthly goods to his father, emphasizing pointedly that none of these goods should be inherited by the relatives on his mother's side. As well, Rembrandt transferred ownership of the house to Titus, thus putting it beyond the reach of his creditors. In 1656 the inevitable ax fell. Rembrandt was forced to declare bankruptcy. An inventory was taken and all his property was turned over to his creditors.
The doors of the house over whose threshold he had once carried Saskia were now bolted against Rembrandt, and the treasures of that house were stored in a public place until they could be put up for auction. And there were many treasures. But the paintings, sculptures, studio props, prints, drawings, plaster busts, baskets full of architectural drawings, and exquisite furniture brought only a paltry 1322 guilders at the first auction. A number of months later a second auction was held. This time the amount raised was 2516 guilders, still a measly sum. Gentlemen in high hats, and ladies from good families, as well as those of the middle and lower classes attended. They offered twenty guilders for something which would have been a bargain at one hundred, and fifty for another worth two hundred. Both auction days must have bathed Rembrandt in humiliation. And even though Rembrandt changed Titus' will twice after the initial one, his house was also taken away from him and sold to pay the creditors – and he did not regain solvency.
For all her unmarried and poverty-stricken status, Hendrickje remained devoted to Rembrandt. She took care of him and his children with loving determination. They moved to a house on the Rozengracht in the Jordaan. The Jordaan was one of the poorer neighborhoods of Amsterdam – a far cry from where they had lived before. But the house was modest and clean and its six rooms could be had for 125 guilders a year. The door was light blue, faded from years of use, and through it Hendrickje carried second-hand dishes, chairs that had seen better days, and little Cornelia. The child looked like her father with her little flat nose and her mop of unruly hair. Friends contributed goods for the household. One acquaintance gave four beds, another sheets and pillows, and a third contributed kitchen utensils, while someone else volunteered an old brass chandelier. An old cart brought these items to the new house. Four apprentices came back and two new ones were taken on. There was a large room at the back of the house where Rembrandt could paint, instruct and putter about. It was a new beginning of sorts, although he didn't like to think of it that way. Withdrawing from society, he painted and etched and drew – and painted and etched and drew. Hendrickje, endowed with some of the qualities of Proverbs 31, began a partnership with her stepson Titus. In this partnership they set themselves up as dealers in art, hiring Rembrandt as an employee without a salary. Determined to trade in paintings, engravings, woodcuts, prints ... and other related objects, they went to a notary to make the business legal. All the household effects of the Rozengracht home were considered as joint property in the business. Both Hendrickje and Titus were entitled to half the profits of the business but they designated that Rembrandt "...would live with them, receive free board, and be exempt from housekeeping expenses and rent on condition that he will aid the partners in every respect to the extent possible, and promote business..." He was not to own any part of the enterprise and while creditors fumed in frustration, Hendrickje and Titus collected whatever money Rembrandt acquired and passed it to him as "salary."
The truth was, that settled into the house on Rozengracht, Rembrandt's productivity began to climb once more. He began to turn out more paintings – apostles, Christ and the woman at Samaria, Jacob wrestling with the Angel, Moses with the tablet of the Ten Commandments, and the return of the Prodigal Son. As well, he filled his sketchbook with preparatory drawings, drawings of the life he saw around him in the Jordaan – beggars, dogs and children. He also returned to portraiture. Most of the paintings were of people, however, whom he asked to pose and who probably paid him very little or perhaps nothing. He loved faces in which he could see character, that is to say, soul. He tried to express what he sensed about both God and man – suffering, compassion, guilt, love, and redemption. He never flattered his models, always painting exactly what he saw in a face – no more and no less.
Rembrandt's concept of Biblical people and his rendition of them was a far cry from what had been produced by artists up to that point. Saints had always been depicted as powerful persons, often haloed and handsome. Rembrandt's depiction of Bartholomew, for example, was misunderstood for centuries. He painted the apostle as a plain-looking fellow, even unattractive, holding a knife (recalling the tradition – that Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive). A century later, an English artist made a copy of this painting and entitled it, (because of the knife), "The Assassin." In the 1800s the painting was renamed "Rembrandt's Cook." And about fifty years later it was said that it was not a cook after all but a surgeon whom Rembrandt had painted. Not until the 20th century was the painting finally identified as a rendition of the apostle Bartholomew.
In the early 1660s, Hendrickje's health began to wane. Whether she too was stricken with the consumption that had carried Saskia off, is speculation. But it is a fact that she was not well. She made a will and left all she possessed to her daughter Cornelia, or in case of her death, to her stepson, Titus, stipulating that Rembrandt should be the sole guardian of Cornelia. Hendrickje died in October of 1663. Rembrandt desired to bury his faithful companion in the Oude Kerk, the same church where Saskia's remains were interred. But the trouble with this was that he had moved to the Rozengracht, and the law stated that all people who died must be buried "in the church nearest to their most recent place of abode." If other provisions were to be made, then family members were obliged to pay the undertaker an extra sum for "every church the funeral procession should pass on their way to the holy edifice they had selected for the interment." Such a condition made burial in the Oude Kerk an impossibility for Rembrandt. He asked a friend to sell for him the plot which he had bought in the Oude Kerk so that in the end he might lie beside Saskia. It was done and with that money he purchased a grave in the church nearest to them, the Westerkerk, the West Church. It was the church to which Hendrickje had enjoyed going, where she had listened to organ music, and had partaken of communion. For the second time in his life Rembrandt followed a casket through the streets of Amsterdam, this time past the homes of people in the Jordaan. Hollowly the footsteps of the pall-bearers echoed within the church and like a small, black vane in stormy weather, the black mourning crape trailed behind him.
"That's Rembrandt, the master painter," people whispered as he passed. "You see, it doesn't matter who you are; death will touch all."
"The commissioners of the poor will take him to the grave one of these days," said another. "Look at him! Once he had the world by the tail and now he's got nothing."
Yet the truth was that Rembrandt had been given and had retained more than most men. It was not just the gift of art that God had given him, it was also the gift of insight. The year before Hendrickje's death, Rembrandt had been commissioned by a group of cloth-makers to paint their group portrait. "The Syndics" was a masterpiece. The traditional interpretation of the group of five officers, with a servant standing behind them, has been that they were making a financial report to other members of the guild who are facing them. However, such public reports at that time in history were not usually done. It has been remarked by others that perhaps Rembrandt painted them in a businesslike manner with the ledgers in front of them to suggest that they were reporting not only to human auditors but to the Auditor of their souls as well.
That Rembrandt was concerned with souls was evident in many of his paintings. He was born a Protestant – but what sort of Protestant was he? His parents had been married in the Dutch Reformed Church – a church Calvinistic in doctrine. He was brought up in that doctrine. His four children by Saskia had been baptized in the church, as well as his children by Hendrickje. It has been suggested by one biographer that Rembrandt, upset for whatever reason, turned away from the strict form of Calvinism and was inclined to the religion of the Menisti, the Mennonites.
Whether or not that is true, cannot be proven. What is true is that Rembrandt, although he eschewed church attendance, did read and know the Bible. As a matter of fact, so thoroughly did he read the Bible that he has been its most complete "illustrator." Rembrandt Bibles, with pictures selected from his paintings, etchings and drawings (more that 800) have been published in Europe and the United States.
In 1668 Titus married a girl by the name of Magdalena Van Loo. Six months after he married, he died of the plague. His widow gave birth to a little girl, Titia, who lived. Rembrandt was present at her baptism but was, at that time, quite weak and enfeebled. He did not live out the year and was buried next to Hendrickje in the Westerkerk.
One of Rembrandt's last paintings was "The Return of the Prodigal Son." This particular painting has encouraged many biographers to suggest that in this work Rembrandt was trying to say that he had returned to God. But the question is: had he been gone? He was 63 years old when he died. After his death the unfinished painting "Simeon with the Christ Child in the Temple" was found on his easel. It was a theme which had preoccupied him his entire life. There is a glow emanating, not from the Child, but from Simeon who has seen the Child. And, as Scripture tells us, Simeon confessed that he was now able to depart in peace.
- Rembrandt's Portrait, by Charles L. Mee, Jr. Simon and Schuster, 1988
- Rembrandt and His Pupils, a loan exhibition of paintings commemorating the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1969, Robert Stockwell Ltd., London, England
- The World of Rembrandt -1606-1669 by Robert Wallace, Time-Life Books, New York, 1968
- Rembrandt by Gladys Schmitt, Random House, New York, 1961
- The Life and Times of Rembrandt Van Rijn by Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1930
- The Biblical Rembrandt by John I. Durham, Mercer University Press, Macon, Georgia, 2004