The master of light

Rembrandt van Rijn Self portait by Rembrandt

The master of light

Did you know there is a cause for a celebration next year? On October 4th 1669 the Master of light died. Next year it will be 350 years since that day and it’s a reason to commemorate his life. This Master of light is no one other than the Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn.

Rembrandt, who hasn’t heard of this famous painter? You must have been sleeping throughout (history) class for a long time if you haven’t heard of this Dutch painter. Even when you don’t really know who he is, there is a good chance that you came across his paintings from time to time. Let’s take a look at the paintings that gave him fame. Most of this fame was granted after he died.

But let’s start off with why we want to introduce him as the Master of light. It’s fairly simple: Rembrandt van Rijn was a master when it came to playing with light in his paintings. He used techniques we call Clair-Obscure to move those who viewed the paintings. In other words: he played with contrast and light. Or just light and dark.

The Night Watch
The Night Watch Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht)

You might assume that this painting is based on a nightly scene. Well, you are wrong about this painting. It’s most certainly Rembrandt’s most famous painting. The official title isn’t The Night Watch or De Nachtwacht. Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq is the official title of this painting. Bannick Cocq was the leader of a militia who was responsible for protecting a part of the city of Amsterdam during the seventeenth century.

The painting was finished in 1642 and over the centuries that followed the painting turned darker and darker. Nowadays you can visit this painting in the Dutch Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the painting was subject of vandalism three times: 1911, 1975 and 1990.

Did you know, that this painting was removed from the museum when World War II was on the outbreak? It was moved with several other important paintings in a special safe that was built inside a system of caves in the vicinity of the Dutch city of Maastricht.


The anatomy lesson of Nicolaes Tulp
The anatomy lesson of Nicolaes Tulp
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (De anatomische les van Dr Nicolaes Tulp)

Nowadays it’s very common for medical students to learn their profession by dissection. At the time when Rembrandt painted the anatomy lesson given by the Dutch medical professor Dr Nicolaes Tulp, this wasn’t common. In this case, Tulp used the body of the deceased criminal Aris Kindt. He was convicted of armed robbery. He was hanged on the same date that Tulp performed this dissection.

Important is the shadow on the face of Kindt. This is what we call the shadow of death or umbra mortis. This was a recurring theme in the paintings of Rembrandt.

Of course, you want to know when this all took place. It can be dated to 31 January 1632. Tulp worked as an anatomist for the City of Amsterdam and the other men who are in this painting are part of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons.

The return of the Prodigal Son
The return of the Prodigal Son
Source: Google/Wikimedia


The return of the Prodigal Son (Terugkeer van de Verloren Zoon)

This painting is important because it is made in the same year that Rembrandt died (1669). At least that is what some experts assume. Some claim that Rembrandt started this work in 1661. As far as we know, when he died in 1669, he died in poverty. In a way, this is the prodigal son that is returning home – to is maker (god). The painting shows us the story from the Bible (Luke 15:29-30). We see that a father seems to forgive his son for all that he’s done wrong or thinks he has done wrong.

The Sampling Officials
The Sampling Officials
Source: Wikimedia

The Sampling Officials (De staalmeesters)

This is a very interesting painting because it’s partly fraudulent. The name Rembrandt and the year 1661, visible at the left of the painting must have been added later. It’s not certain who has done this and why. The real signature is visible on the tablecloth. Research showed that the so-called signature and year at the left part of the painting were later added. It wasn’t until 1991 before science gave the final answer.

So, what do we see here? We see the members of the Draper’s Guild and it’s Rembrandt’s last collective portrait, as far as we know it. On this painting, we can see from left to right: Jacob van Loon, Volckert Jansz, Willem van Doeyenburg, Frans Hendricksz Bel, Aernout van der Mye and Jochem de Neve. It was people such as these men, who were part of the wealthy part of Amsterdam. Ironically, Rembrandt wasn’t part of any wealthy part of Amsterdam when he died in 1669. It was because of his way of life – living beyond his means – that he was forced to move and a bankruptcy caused him to sell most of his fortune in 1656. In the following last part of his life, misfortune seemed to follow him. His wife already died in 1642. In 1663 his daughter – Hendrickje – died, followed by his son – Titus – in 1668.

More paintings

The painting discussed in the article aren’t the only ones that sprung from the creative mind of Rembrandt van Rijn. Be sure to follow us on social media, because next year we will be discussing more work of this famous Dutch painter.