Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was a famous Dutch painter and etcher, who by many is recognized as one of the greatest classical masters of European visual arts. He is also considered to be the most important artist in Dutch history. His life and work is known as part of the Dutch Golden Age, an era of exceptional development of fine arts in the Netherlands. Rembrandt achieved much critical acclaim both as a portrait and scene painter. He often painted Biblical motifs, which stressed the moral hardships of human beings. Here are 10 of his most famous paintings.
1. The Nightwatch (1642)
This is by far and wide, the most popular of Rembrandt’s works. The famous painting is now part of the exhibition of the State Museum in Amsterdam, where millions of people from around the world admire it each year. The painting depicts a Dutch military company led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq (cloaked in a black uniform with a red sash) and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch (in yellow, with a white sash). To accentuate some parts of his composition, Rembrandt makes much use of sunlight and shade. The focal points of the composition are illuminated, whereas the background remains overshadowed.
2. Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar (1659)
This is one of the numerous self-portraits of Rembrandt, of which the critics have said that it mirrors “the stresses and strains of a life compounded of creative triumphs and personal and financial reverses”. The picture presents Rembrandt as middle-aged and somewhat worried, with a frowned forehead. The artist is seated in a painted fur cloak, with both hands clasped upon his lap. The light comes from the right side of the picture. The palette of colors is very moderate and restricted almost entirely to browns and grays.
3. The Prodigal Son in the Brothel (c. 1637)
This painting, which currently resides in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany is a grotesque take on the painter by the painter himself. There can be no mistake as to its authorship due to the fact that the name REMBRANDT F. appears boldly in the signature. The painting depicts Rembrandt frolicking in the tavern, with his wife, Saskia, standing in the back and looking slightly more dignified. The name of the painting also creates a comic effect, as painting the original Prodigal Son was also a recurring motif in Rembrandt’s works.
4. Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburgh (c. 1635)
Saskia van Uylenburgh was the wife of Rembrandt van Rijn and in his lifetime he managed to paint several portraits of her. She also modeled for a variety of his etchings and drawings. Saskia was a daughter of a Frisian mayor. Saskia and Rembrandt probably met at the home of Saskia’s uncle, Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who was also a painter and an art dealer. Apart from launching Rembrandt’s career he also helped other Dutch artists, like Govert Flinck Ferdinand Bol, become recognized.
5. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)
This painting explores Rembrandt’s interest in Biblical scenes, as it deals with the topic of Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The story is originally told in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark in the New Testament section of the Christian Bible. This is the only time when Rembrandt decided to paint a nautical scene, or at least the only one we know of. The painting was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts in 1990 and is unfortunately still missing.
6. The Stoning of Saint Stephen (1625)
The Stoning of Saint Stephen is most likely one of the first critically acclaimed and the first signed painting by Rembrandt, which he completed at the remarkable age of 19. At present, it resides within the collections of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyon, France. The theme of this work is the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, a young deacon leading the Christian Jerusalem community, whom the state authorities have sentenced to death by stoning. He became a martyr and a saint in the Catholic church. In the process of painting, Rembrandt took example from the great master of religious art, Caravaggio.
7. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
This is probably the second famous work by Rembrandt often featured in overview books on Dutch classical masters. The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp is painted with oil paints on canvas and currently displayed by the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague. Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, the center subject of the painting was a famous Dutch physician, who led a spectacular dissection on 31 January 1632 in the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. He was the official City Anatomist, and thus had the permission to carry out one public dissection a year. This was a rare occasion which always gathered crowds, consisting especially of medicine students.
8. Belshazzar’s Feast (1635)
Belshazzar’s Feast is another of Rembrandt’s works exploring a Biblical motif and is currently housed by the National Gallery in London. The original story of the writing on the wall prophesying Belshazzar’s fall as a king comes from the Old Testament. Belshazzar was the descendant of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who had previously stolen from the Temple of Jerusalem. The terrifying miracle occurred during one of his notable feasts. In his painting, Rembrandt has marvelously succeeded in capturing the monarch’s terror to the news of his fate.
9. The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)
Rembrandt completed this painting just two years before his own death. It is considered one of his finest works, in terms of technique and composition. Rembrandt apparently became fascinated with the biblical story of the return of the Prodigal Son. The painting depicts a son who has returned from his long journey, in a disheveled state. Even though the son has wasted the family inheritance, the father welcomes him with open arms, glad to see him. The painting also portrays the brother, standing to the right, whose pose seems stern and judgmental, even objectionable.
10. The Abduction of Europa (1632)
Mythological paintings are a rarity among Rembrandt’s works. The Abduction of Europa, however, is an exception. Inspired by the classical myth of the seduction of Europa by Zeus, Rembrandt painted a masterpiece of the High Baroque style. The painting shows Europa being carried through the coastal waters by the Greek god transformed into a rugged bull. It is currently on display at the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Here also, Rembrandt works with light and shadow, hoisting them even to unnatural proportions, in order to highlight the focal points of the scene.