Rembrandt And His Pupils The Leiden Years

Rembrandt And His Pupils: The Leiden Years Essay, Research Paper Of the many Dutch painters during the scope of time, the seventeenth century was an exceptional era for detail and baroque painters to flourish. Leiden itself was a cultural centre for these styles, especially if one considers the influence s of Rembrandt van Rijn and several of his Leiden pupils.

Rembrandt And His Pupils: The Leiden Years Essay, Research Paper

Of the many Dutch painters during the scope of time, the seventeenth century was an exceptional era for detail and baroque painters to flourish. Leiden itself was a cultural centre for these styles, especially if one considers the influence s of Rembrandt van Rijn and several of his Leiden pupils. In the following sections, I will focus on Rembrandt and the contributions he made to seventeenth century Dutch art, as well as the influences he passed on to several of his pupils, more specifically Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout, Gerrit Dou, Isack Jouderville and Jan Jorisz van Vliet.

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn was born on 15 July 1606 in Leiden to the proud parents Harmen Gerritsz van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdr van Zuytbrouck. The parents owned a malt mill just outside the city s gates on a bank of the Old Rhine called de Rijn ; the family name van [de] Rijn was derived from it. On his mother s death, 10 years after his father, an inventory was taken of her estate at 10,000 guilders: quite substantial for that time. While Rembrandt was ninth of at least ten children, only four were alive at this time: Adriaen, a shoemaker, Willem, a baker, Rembrandt and his sister Elysabeth. The facts of Rembrandt s origin are of much relevance to his painting style. The harsh colours and portrayals, most obvious in his early works, and his inexhaustible stamina may have something to do with his background. They should also be considered in connection with the remarkable scope of his development. Rembrandt progressed, with extraordinary lan, and with an intensity then uncommon.

According to Jan Jansz Orlers, Rembrandt s first biographer, the boy s parents destined their gifted son for a learned profession, apparently with the ambition of guiding his future towards a higher social sphere. He first attended the Leiden Latin school, and on 20 May 1620 was enrolled as a student at Leiden University. It is not known how long Rembrandt studied there. It is certain only that his parents soon recognized their son s natural inclination towards art as too strong to be denied, and that the boy was allowed to leave the university. He was then sent to Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburgh (c.1571-1638), a Leiden painter who had travelled to Italy. He was a history painter who specialised in scenes of hell and also made architectural views. Rembrandt spent three years with Swanenburgh, but not a trace of his style can be seen in his work. It is also noteworthy that, as far as we know, Rembrandt, who depicted almost every subject at least once during the course of his career, never painted a view of hell or an architectural piece. Orlers tells us that Rembrandt s work with van Swanenburgh showed such great promise that his father, in order to ensure his son s best advantage, sent him to study for six months with the famous Pieter Lastman. The eighteen or nineteen-year-old youth returned to Leiden about 1624-5 and set himself up as an independent master. The earliest works attributed to him are dateable to these years.

The Stoning of St Stephen, Rembrandt, 1625

Rembrandt s earliest existing dated work , the Stoning of St Stephen of 1625 at Lyon, shows how impressed he was by Lastman s bold style which was based upon lively gestures and a vivid chiaroscuro. For his painting of the death of the first Christian martyr the young Leiden artist used the same kind of fanciful Italiniate setting that his teacher employed, and depended on similar strong contrasts of light and shade to give his work a dramatic character. In his colouring Rembrandt also follows the example of Lastman in giving hard brilliance to the illuminated figures. However, Rembrandt s immaturity is evident here in the overcrowding and confused spatial relationships; nevertheless, the young artist already surpassed his famous teacher by achieving a greater concentration in his composition.

(The Presentation in the Temple by Rembrandt, 1631)insert photo

During his last years in Leiden Rembrandt s style became more and more intimate. I use the word intimate to include his subtleties, yet a dramatic chiaroscuro develops, and cool, delicate colours predominate. In some cases this unique style continues into his early years in Amsterdam. For example, the dimly lit interior of colossal dimensions, the majestic columns, and deep shadows intensify the mysterious atmosphere of the Presentation in the Temple of 1631 (at the Mauritshuis), but the small figures of the main group gain distinctness by means of the sparkling sunlight which strikes them. The golden halo of the Christ child who will be a light to lighten the Gentiles makes a source of light within the beam. Rembrandt s literal translation of the Christ child s halo as this light also provides a unique light source, and thus provides the shadows which encircle the child, therefore making him the focal point of the photo.

One of the heads in the Lyon picture – the one looking at the scene in pained horror just below the arm of the man holding the rock with both hands high above his head – shows that Rembrandt was already making studies of his own physiognomy at this early date. It is a self-portrait, the earliest existing one of the artist, who represented himself more frequently by far than any other Renaissance or Baroque master. More than seventy-five painted, etched, and drawn self-portraits by Rembrandt are known. This unique record includes Rembrandt s conception of himself from the beginning to the end of career: as a handsome young man, a proper bourgeois, a majestic high-society man, and finally, as the aged sage. His unprecedented series of self-portraits is frequently called an autobiography, but perhaps it is better to characterise it as a journal, since an autobiography is usually written at a single stage in a person s life. Rembrandt s series of self-portraits cover a span of more than forty years, and thus provide insight into the methods he often experimented with, as well as his own physical lifetime progression.

Rembrandt s Leiden Pupils:

Rembrandt seems to have been the kind of creator who needs a retinue – just as he seems to have been the kind of man who needs a woman as wife or mistress in his household. From the very beginning he had pupils, and he was never without some. Gerrit Dou, who entered his studio as early as 1628, based the style he successfully used for a lifetime on the pictures which Rembrandt produced in the few years of his Leiden period. Different pupils may be assigned to each epoch of his career. Generally they learned his current mode and adopted the motifs he favoured when they entered his studio. From what we can tell, he was either unwilling or unable, to bring out their individuality. It is arguable that in master-apprentice relationships at that time, developing a pupil s individuality was not part of a teacher s mandate. But there are exceptions, one such being Gerbrandt van den Eeckhout, who probably entered Rembrandt s studio in the mid- or late 1630’s and who was described by Houbraken as Rembrandt s great friend. A few years later, he went his own way, but Rembrandt s early influence can still be strongly recognised as late as 1667 in his works.

As previously mentioned, Gerrit Dou, the pupil who heads the list of those who studied with Rembrandt in Leiden, began a three year apprenticeship sometime in the late 1620’s. When Dou entered Rembrandt s studio, he was just approaching his fifteenth birthday. Rembrandt himself was not yet twenty-two. Under the influence of Rembrandt s early style, Dou initiated the Leiden tradition of small, minutely finished pictures, which continued well into the nineteenth century. In a way the work of the school of Leiden fine painters (fijnschilders), he founded what can be considered a continuation of the tradition started by the Van Eycks. Young Dou admired and imitated his teacher closely. He frequently used Rembrandt s schemes and paraphernalia. A comparison of his Old Woman reading a Bible, at the Rijksmuseum,

(Old Woman Reading a Bible, Gerrit Dou) insert photo

with Rembrandft s Old Woman Reading at the same museum shows the master s superiority and the pupils limitations. The face Dou painted is like a mask; it has a frozen surface which appears to have been over-exposed to the light. From the very beginning Dou was compulsively fond of minute still-life accessories and genre details. He frequently over-emphasized these, and thereby lost the tension and coherence of Rembrandt s early compositions.

An artist whose activity is associated with Rembrandt s final years in Leiden and first years in Amsterdam is Isack Jouderville. Though only a moderately talented, he gains distinction as one of Rembrandt s pupils whose apprenticeship is solidly documented. Records state that his guardian paid Rembrandt an annual fee of 100 guilders in 1630 and again in 1631 for his apprenticeship, documentary evidence that substantiates Sandrart s report that Rembrandt received 100 guilders per year for tuition of his students. Jouderville s only signed work, A Bust of a Young Man at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, shows close familiarity with his master s portraits of about 1630, but falls far below them in quality. On the basis of it and a few other works attributed to him, and knowledge that he completed his apprenticeship with his master in November 1631, it has been proposed that he followed Rembrandt to Amsterdam and actively assisted him there painting portraits during his master s first years in the metropolis.

Lastly, Jan Jorisz van Vliet, who probably made contact with Rembrandt around 1630 or 1631, is important as an etcher; no painting can be attributed to him with any certainty. He made about a dozen etchings after Rembrandt s pictures between 1631 and 1634. His copies, in turn, were quickly copied by foreign engravers, and they helped Rembrandt to acquire an international reputation quickly. Van Vliet also made a few etchings after Lievens s and Joris van Schooten s works. Nothing is known about his activities after 1635, the date of his latest print. The high standard of Van Vliet s etchings suggest that they were executed under Rembrandt s close supervision. Rembrandt s large etchings of the Descent from the Cross show that they were made with the help of an assistant or assistants, but there is no consensus about who besides Rembrandt worked on them. Coarse etchings of beggars and cripples by Van Vliet indicate that he was stimulated by Rembrandt in some of his independent works.


The reputation of Rembrandt van Rijk is still relatively recent – nineteenth century connoisseurs preferred Gerrit Dou – but he is now regarded as one of the greatest and most versatile painters of all time. His Leiden years were a fundamental era in his life: they set the precedent for his later style as well as enabled him to perfect his previous techniques. Undoubtedly, his workshop, which to this still stands just off of the Beestenmarkt (next to the old beheading square), will continue to be preserved and to serve as a reminder of his contribution to the world of art.


and Consulted

Fuchs, R.H. Dutch Painting. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Harbison, Craig. The Art of the Northern Renaissance. London: Orion Pub Group, 1995.

Honour, Hugh and John Fleming. A World History of Art 4th ed. London: Laurence King Pub, 1995.

Orlers, Jan Jansz. Berschrijvinge der stad Leyden. Leiden, 1982.

Panofsky, Erwin. Meaning in the Visual Arts. New York: Penguin Pub, 1955 (reprinted 1993).

Sandrart, J. Von. Inleyding tot de hoge schoole der schilder-konst anders de zichtbaere werelt. Nuremburg, 1975.