Portrait of an Artist:
The Works of Rembrandt van Rijn
The painting shows the female sitter wearing pearls, a lace collar and gold filigree chains. Her pale face—framed by her fiery curls—shows an expression of awareness and amusement, her pink lips forming a slight smile. She is wearing black, like her framed counterparts, but sets herself apart from them—her soft, bemused expression standing out against their cold, somber and dour faces.
The artwork: Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain, oil on panel, dated 1634. The artist: Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the greatest painters in art history.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in Leiden, the Netherlands. He was the ninth child of a well-to-do family whose support he earned as soon as he exhibited his innate talent with the paintbrush at an early age. At 18, he opened his first studio with fellow painter Jan Lievens, and at 21 became an established teacher of art, mentoring future masters of Dutch art and painting. Rembrandt’s works and contributions later inspired an era and movement known as the Dutch Golden Age (n.d.).
Rembrandt became a significant figure in Dutch and European art history and in the social circles of 17th century Netherlands. He was commissioned by the court of The Hague to do numerous portraiture and religious works, and as a result established himself well with members of both the Dutch court and royal family. His move to Amsterdam at the age of 25 was instrumental in him becoming known as a professional portraitist, later becoming a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild of painters (n.d.). Rembrandt was as well known as a lover and collector of beautiful art as much as a creator of beautiful art.
Rembrandt’s style of painting was largely influenced by the works of the artist Caravaggio. Lavish brushwork, rich color and mastery of chiaroscuro characterized his most famous paintings (Pioch, 2002). His pieces are often romantic and interpreted by ideas out of his own imagination, rather than as records of actual sceneries and places. His romantic, dreamy style suggests a huge Italian influence from his studies under Pieter Lastman.
Rembrandt’s characters and subjects often seem vivid and alive in comparison to the works of his contemporaries. His favorite subject was the depiction of life in Amsterdam at the apex of his career. Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow in his paintings —the two important elements that gave his art depth and meaning—completely remain unique and unsurpassed. Another favorite subject of the artist was, in fact, the artist himself. Rembrandt is said to have painted around 50 to 60 self-portraits.
In his 30’s, Rembrandt began to explore a different side and style to his art, painting warmer, more reflective scenes and portraits. This period in his artistic life was produced numerous interpretations of Dutch landscape and scenery—warm, colorful, imaginative, leaning towards an Impressionist inclination. Rembrandt’s attention to detail, as The Night Watch would later epitomize, became the cornerstone for his personal artistic style. He painted numerous group portraits that gave each member of the party their own unique detail and character, but in such a tempered quality that their individualities only came second to the general emotion of the painting as a whole. Rembrandt liked to paint his group subjects as having different characters, facial expressions, movement, dressage, and the like. He was a master of being able to take his characters out of the box so that they stand out, and yet still be able to return to the entirety of the canvas and not feel out of place. Rembrandt composed his paintings as such the separate figures serve only as second interest with respect to the effect of the whole (Pioch, 2002).
Rembrandt’s style evolved much in his later years. The usual romantic style, subtle details and scenic subjects took a backseat to his use of rich colors and bold brushwork. His numerous self-portraits, group paintings, historical and religious works featured thick impastos that conveyed meditative mood and spirituality. It is in this “mature period” in Rembrandt’s artistic life where he created his greatest works.
Legacy and Influence
The influence of Rembrandt’s style of painting became very evident in the works of other Dutch and European artists and masters that followed him. The style, subjects and details that Rembrandt’s “school” used were mirrored in the creations of a wide circle of mostly Dutch painters.
Rembrandt was considered a “forerunner of the Romantic movement” (2009), and from the Romantic era was considered one of the greatest figures in art history. His extraordinary ability to portray the human form with such vitality and emotion remains unequaled, and his accurate observation and attention to detail made him a consummate archetype for future artists who followed in his footsteps.
Rembrandt’s paintings, sketches and etchings all exemplified his superb technique and innovation. He was one of the few artists who never ceased to continuously develop their artistic styles and methods. It can be said that his style only reached a culmination with the creation of his masterpieces from his later years, and even then he continued to inject his pieces with a few new techniques here and there.
Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain
Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain (1634, oil on panel) is a classic example of the artist’s style post-Leiden, in his early years as a rising star in the Amsterdam art scene—luminous, animated images painted on a dark background. It also signifies the beginning of Rembrandt’s great success in the Dutch court and as a member of the Guild of St. Luke, a position that allowed him a significant amount of work and earned him most of his wealth doing portraits and religious paintings.
The portrait takes significant inspiration from the style of Caravaggio, with its dark background composition framing the subject in a light that seemingly provides it with a three-dimensional quality. It shows Rembrandt’s mastery of the use of shadow, lighting and contrast, and his depiction of the minute details involving the sitter. More importantly, Rembrandt was able to effectively infuse life and vitality—soul, even—to a subject that could just have been as easily depicted as cold and spiritless (2002).
Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain depicts the sitter as a smiling, with a seemingly optimistic and self-assured expression on her youthful oval-shaped face—much like most of the artist’s work during this period. Her fiery red curls are offer stark contrast to her fair skin. Her curls, along with the plush details of her lace collar and filigree chains, are applied with a thick impasto pounded on canvas with the butt end of the paintbrush. The painting, despite its severe background, is not as grave as it seems. The contrast of dark and light only provides a background for the airy illumination of the subject’s image and details. The rigidity of the dark composition only serves as a dramatic backdrop that attracts the viewer to the details of the main image.
This particular Rembrandt portrait also represents both the beginnings of the artist’s break from Lastman’s influence and the development of his own bold style—with his soon- introspective and somber undertones not yet evident from the optimism and positivity that emanates from his subject.
It is estimated that Rembrandt produced over a thousand paintings, drawings and prints during the course of his career. His earlier works are supreme examples of portraiture, landscapes and narratives, often depicted in a dreamy play of color and detail. His later works, however, transformed into moody, introspective portrayals of human tension and suffering, a likely allusion to his personal tragedies.
His Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain is characteristic of Rembrandt’s work during his prominence in the Amsterdam art scene. To compare it with his work during his Leiden days, it is much more dramatic with his heavy use of the chiaroscuro technique, but retaining his penchant for detail with the subject’s clothing and jewelry, as well as his skill in the representation of his subject’s emotions (2009).
Portrait of a Woman Wearing a Gold Chain can also be said to show signs of Rembrandt’s transition from his earlier Leiden style to his post-Amsterdam work. While Portrait still exhibits his fondness for chiaroscuro, his employment of the thick impasto marks the beginning of his bolder style and use of creative, inventive techniques. His later work featured more somber tones and did not reflect much positive emotion, unlike the expression of the sitter in Portrait.
Rembrandt’s best works were said to have been created at the tumultuous times of his life. Personal tragedy—his family’s illness and future demise, his poverty and fall from society—fueled his genius to create emotional and introspective works like The Night Watch, Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, The Jewish Bride, various self-portraits and paintings depicting biblical scenes and religious themes. Rembrandt van Rijn’s art truly became reflections of the artist’s best and worst times.
Pioch, N. (2002). Rembrandt. WebMuseum Paris. Retrieved August 4, 2009, from WebMuseum: http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/Rembrandt/
Rembrandt van Rijn. (2009) In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 5, 2009, from Encyclopedia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/497584.Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn 1606-1669. (2002). Retrieved August 5, 2002, from Famous Painters: http://www.famouspainter.com/Rembrandt.html
 Several variations of Rembrandt’s middle name exist and can be found in various texts. Some texts feature the name Harmenz, while most references list Harmenszoon as Rembrandt’s correct middle name.
 Caravaggio or Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was an Italian artist well known for his works in the Baroque period, as well as for his popular use of the chiaroscuro style.
 Chiaroscuro refers to the contrast between light and dark in an artwork. The term is usually applied to describe the use of contrasting tones to depict volume and emphasize three-dimensional objects or models.
 Rembrandt’s exposure to Caravaggio and other Italian masters was a result of his studies with Pieter Lastman, a Dutch painter who studied in Italy and whose work strongly exhibits the Classical style.
 The Night Watch or The Company of Captain Frans Cocq (1642, oil on canvas) is known as one of the most famous paintings of Rembrandt.
 A technique used in painting characterized by layers of paint on a canvas or surface, applied thick enough so that the brushstrokes or painting knife strokes are very visible. Impasto is commonly used to apply texture and depth to a painting, and make it seem like the subject “jumps out” of the canvas.