Famous Rembrandt Paintings - 8 Compelling Stories

Artwork(s) In Focus, Top Lists

April 19, 2021

When it comes to culture and arts, the Dutch Golden Age was characterized by the dominating Baroque art tendencies present in other European countries at the time. Under the influence of Caravaggio and Naturalism, the artists produced astonishing masterpieces of portraiture, genre, and still life. The history painting was barely in vogue, sacral art was virtually non-existent, and the production of sculpture was rare. Nevertheless, The Netherlands' blooming period nurtured a generation of astonishing painters whose legacies made a huge impact on the further development of Western art-making.

One of the leading figures of the time was Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 - 1669), an extremely skillful painter, draughtsman, and printmaker who expressed himself in a wide range of styles spanning from portraits and genre scenes, self-portraits, and landscapes, allegorical and historical scenes, to mythological themes and animal studies Besides being an accomplished artist, Rembrandt was also an art collector and dealer like many of his contemporaries such as Jan Vermeer of Delft.

Interestingly so, Rembrandt never traveled abroad, although he was under the influence of the Italian masters and Dutch artists who studied in Italy like Peter Paul Rubens. Despite a rapid success, the later phase of the artist’s life and career was marked by financial issues and personal tragedy.

The celebrated Old master was mostly championed for his self-portraits, portraits of his contemporaries, as well as illustrations of scenes from the Bible. Of special relevance are the self-portraits that illustrate Rembrandt’s sincere need for self-reflection. He is also noted as a pioneering figure in the history of printmaking who introduced a reproductive technique as a proper art form.

We examine eight famous Rembrandt paintings that exemplify his innovative aesthetic.

Editors’ Tip: Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited - A Complete Survey: A Reprint of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings

Rembrandt’s Paintings Revisited is a reprint of the concluding sixth volume of A Corpus of Rembrandt Paintings (Volumes I-V; 1982, 1986, 1989, 2005, 2010). It can also be read as a revisionary critique of the first three Volumes published by the old RRP team up till 1989 and of Gerson’s influential survey of Rembrandt’s painted oeuvre of 1968/69. At the same time, the book is designed as an independent overview that can be used on the basis that anyone seeking more detailed information will be referred to the five previous (digital versions of the) Volumes and the detailed catalogues published in the meantime by the various museums with collections of Rembrandt paintings. This work of art history and art research should belong in the library of every serious art historical institute, university or museum.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn - The Night Watch, 1642, detail. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp

Probably the best known and the most famous Rembrandt painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp was made in 1632. This group composition, as the title suggests, features Dr. Nicolaes Tulp giving a lecture about the musculature of the arm to his students. Interestingly so, some of the represented figures are doctors who commissioned Rembrandt to paint them. Another significant curiosity is the fact the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons, to which Tulp belonged, allowed one public dissection per year, most often of the body of an executed criminal.

The 17th-century anatomy lessons were social events taking place in lecture rooms that were actual theaters attended by students, colleagues, and the general public who had to pay the entrance fee and be dressed for this social occasion. Rembrandt was commissioned for this task at the age of 26, just after he settled in Amsterdam. This painting is a work of fiction since, in a typical anatomy lesson, the surgeon would begin by opening the chest because the internal organs there decay most rapidly.

The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulpis is on view at the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague, the Netherlands.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632. Oil on canvas, 216.5 cm × 169.5 cm (85.2 in × 66.7 in). Maruritshuis museum collection. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was painted in 1633. This mesmerizing painting depicts the biblical story of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee from the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark and is Rembrandt's only seascape.

The group of Christ's disciples is struggling to keep their fishing boat in one piece amid the heavy storm; a humongous wave rips the sail. Rembrandt portrayed one of the disciples vomiting over the side, while another one is gazing directly at the viewer. Only Jesus Christ himself, on the right, is depicted as calm.

The painting was made based on the print made by Adriaen Collaert after a design by the Flemish artist Maerten de Vos. Unlike the example, Rembrandt's painting underlines the portrait format and features the boat in a forward tilting position.

The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was previously held in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston until it was stolen in 1990 and remains missing ever since.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633. Oil on canvas, 160 cm (62.9 in) x 128 cm (50.3 in). Missing after a robbery from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Image creative commons.

Danaë

The Danaë painting was initially done in 1636, and was reworked by Rembrandt a few years later, in 1643. It depicts Danaë, the character from Greek mythology, the mother of the iconic hero Perseus. Rembrandt portrayed her as she welcomes Zeus, who impregnated her in the form of a shower of gold.

The artist’s wife posed for the original artwork, while the reworked version featured the changed positions of Danaë’s head, an outstretched arm, legs, and the face of his mistress Geertje Dircx.

This is definitely one of Rembrandt's most astonishing paintings held in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg since the 18th century.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – Danaë, between 1636 and 1643. Oil on canvas, 185 cm (72.8 in) x 202.5 cm (79.7 in). Hermitage Museum. Image creative commons.

The Night Watch

The iconic masterpiece titled Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq, most commonly referred to as The Night Watch is a colossal military group portrait made in 1642. It exemplifies Rembrandt's mature style, especially the tenebrism - the dramatic contrast between light and shadow.

The central spot in the composition is taken by Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (dressed in black, with a red sash), who commissioned the painting, and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (dressed in yellow, with a white sash), while the rest of the figures, and the following symbolism, create a compelling atmosphere that reflects the social and political circumstances in Dutch society at the time.

Rembrandt received quite a sum for the painting, although his portrait belongs to a series of seven similar paintings of the militiamen commissioned during that time from various artists.

The Night Watch belongs to the collection of the Amsterdam Museum but is displayed in the Rijksmuseum as the best-known painting in its collection.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Night Watch, 1642. Oil on canvas, 363 cm × 437 cm (142.9 in × 172.0 in). Rijksmuseum collection. Image creative commons.

Self-Portrait with Two Circles

Self-Portrait with Two Circles was executed by Rembrandt between 1665 and 1669. It is one of the numerous self-portraits that the artist has painted throughout the years.

This monumental work presents Rembrandt himself set against an enigmatic background with the fragments of two circles and the palette, brushes, and maulstick in his hands. The painter is wearing a fur-lined robe, a white hat, similar to the one worn in several other self-portraits. Characterized by rapid strokes of paint applied wet-into-wet, this self-portrait is also marked by the incising lines in the area around his mustache, left eyebrow, and shirt collar.

Self-Portrait with Two Circles is held at the Kenwood House in London.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-Portrait with Two Circles, c.1665–1669. Kenwood House, London. Image creative commons.

The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild

Sampling Officials, better known as Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild was painted by Rembrandt in 1662. This is another famous group portrait that features the drapers who were gathered to examine the quality of cloth offered to their guild for sale by the weavers. They used pliers to press the seals of their city and guild into penny-sized slugs of lead to record the results of the inspection.

Like The Night Watch, The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild too can be found at The Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers' Guild, known as the Sampling Officials, 1662. Oil on canvas, 191.5 cm (75.3 in) x 279 cm (109.8 in). Rijksmuseum collection. Image creative commons.

The Jewish Bride

The Jewish Bride is a painting produced by Rembrandt between 1665 and 1669. This remarkable composition, featuring a Jewish father bestowing a necklace to his daughter on her wedding day, gained its current name in the early 19th century after an Amsterdam art collector identified the depicted subject matter.

This interpretation of the painting is no more valid as the identity of the couple and their relationship is unknown; several suggestions indicate that the couple's identity might be Rembrandt's son Titus and his bride, Amsterdam poet and historian Miguel de Barrios and his wife. They also might be inspired by the couples from the Old Testament.

The Jewish Bride painting is in the permanent collection of The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Jewish Bride, c. 1665–9. Oil on canvas, 121.5 cm (47.8 in) x 166.5 cm (65.5 in). Rijksmuseum collection. Image creative commons.

The Return of the Prodigal Son

The last Rembrandt painting on our list is Return of the Prodigal Son, which Rembrandt painted a year before his death, in 1668. This Biblical scene features the prodigal son's return to his father; after spending his inheritance on numerous travels, the son returns home in despair, kneels before his father asking for forgiveness, and the father accepts him in a warm and welcoming manner.

The Return of the Prodigal Son is part of The Hermitage Museum collection in St. Petersburg.

Featured image: Rembrandt van Rijn – The Return of the Prodigal Son, 1668. Oil on canvas, 262 cm (103.1 in) x 205 cm (80.7 in). Collection Hermitage Museum. Image creative commons.

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