Suppose the admiration of our enthusiast for Rembrandt had been noted in the select suburb where he lived: suppose his mother was one of those estimable ladies who hold monthly Dorcas meetings in their drawing-rooms: suppose that while the ladies were working at useful garments for the poor, she persuaded her son to discourse on Rembrandt: suppose, because the petition came from his mother that he, very much against his will, consented.

It was not an easy task, as he took little or no interest in the life of Rembrandt; his interests were entirely with the æsthetic appeal of his work. What, he asked himself, can one say about the life of a man when that life was wholly one with his art—mingling with it, ministering to it at every point. A boy, the fifth child of a miller living at Leyden, is born into the world, takes to art as a duck to water, becomes one of the greatest painters of the world, dies in obscurity, is forgotten, and long after his death is placed among his peers. What is there to say about such a life? He made the attempt.


1650. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

At the age of fourteen Rembrandt entered at Leyden University, but showed little inclination for books. He preferred Lucas van Leyden to Virgil, and his parents, accepting the situation, allowed him to study painting under Swanenburch, and later in the studio of Lastman at Amsterdam. After a few months with Lastman he returned to Leyden, "to practise painting alone and in his own way." So much for his schooling. At the age of twenty-one he produced a picture called St. Paul in Prison, and Gerard Dou became his pupil. In 1631 he left Leyden and settled in Amsterdam. In 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenborch, who bore him three children, and Titus was the youngest. Some years later he had two daughters by his servant, Hendrickje Stoffels. Perhaps he married her. She was a kind, good soul, faithful and loyal to her master. His friends do not seem to have disapproved of this irregular union, but the Consistory of her church summoned Hendrickje before them and forbade her to communicate. At the age of fifty Rembrandt was declared bankrupt. From that date until his death troubles encompassed him; but he was happy so long as he could paint undisturbed. His son Titus died when he was sixty-two, and the following year Rembrandt died, and was buried at a cost of thirteen florins.

Our enthusiast did not find it easy to manipulate these facts, and he elected to slur over the Hendrickje episode; but he was able to interest the ladies of the Dorcas meeting by showing them some of Rembrandt's pictures. He collected a series of photographs of the portraits and paintings, including his favourite pictures, such as The Jewish Rabbi in the National Gallery, Titus and The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant in the Wallace collection, Rembrandt's Mother and The Singing Boy at Vienna; and he invested sixpence in a little manual recently published, called The Masterpieces of Rembrandt, containing sixty excellent reproductions of his portraits and pictures.

He also displayed photographs of the remarkable series in the Hermitage Gallery at St. Petersburg: The Descent from the Cross, with the brilliant light focussed on the body and winding sheet, and fading away into the darkness of the background; that radiant portrait of Saskia painted just before her marriage to Rembrandt, known as Flora with a Flower-trimmed Crook, standing at the opening of a grotto, with a wreath of flowers upon her head, and the light falling upon her face and gay attire; The Holy Family, the father working at his daily task in the background, and the Virgin, who has laid down her book, drawing aside the curtain from the cot to gaze upon the Child. He explained that Rembrandt, in placing this scene in a humble Dutch cottage, knew that he could express the Biblical story better that way than if he had painted an imaginary scene after the manner of the Italians.

"This great Dutch master" (he quoted from Mr. Colvin) "succeeded in making as wonderful pictures out of spiritual abjectness and physical gloom as the Italians out of spiritual exaltation and shadowless day."


1634. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

At this point of his discourse he began to feel more confidence, and he proceeded to focus his remarks upon four periods in Rembrandt's life—epochs that lend themselves to separate treatment, each epoch marked by the production of a masterpiece, and one remarkable portrait that has a particular and pathetic interest. Those four pictures are The Anatomy Lesson, painted in 1632, when he was twenty-six; theSortie of a Company of Amsterdam Musketeers, known as The Night Watch, painted in 1642, when he was thirty-six; The Syndics of the Cloth Hall, painted in 1662, when he was fifty-six; and his own portrait, painted in 1667, two years before his death. "His Anatomy Lesson," says M. Michel, "was the glorification of Science itself; in his Sortie of a Company of Amsterdam Musketeers he embodied that civic heroism which had lately compassed Dutch independence; and in a group of five cloth merchants seated round a table, discussing the affairs of their guild, he summed up, as it were, in a few immortal types, the noble sincerity of Dutch portraiture."

The Anatomy Lesson was the picture that gave Rembrandt his opportunity, and proclaimed his preeminence among the painters in Amsterdam. It was the custom in those days for corporations, civic bodies, and associations of various kinds, to commemorate their period of office by commissioning portrait groups which should hand down their worthy faces to posterity. The desire of the less prominent members of the associations thus painted was that each head should be a likeness, plainly recognisable,—that one burgher should not be treated with more importance than another. This desire for present and posthumous commemoration extended to medical circles. Portraits and portrait groups of famous physicians and surgeons were painted and hung in the theatres where they lectured or operated. Dr. Tulp, an eminent surgeon of the day, commissioned Rembrandt to represent him performing an operation, proposing to present the picture to the Surgeons' Guild in memory of his professorship. The grave, realistic picture called The Anatomy Lesson, now hanging at the Hague Museum, was the result. The corpse lies upon the dissecting table; before it stands Dr. Tulp, wearing a broad-brimmed hat; around him are grouped seven elderly students. Some are absorbed by the operation, others gaze thoughtfully at the professor, or at the spectator. Dr. Tulp indicates with his forceps one of the tendons of the subject's left arm, and appears to be addressing the students, or practitioners, for these seven bearded men have long passed the age of studentship. This picture made Rembrandt's reputation. He was but twenty-six; the world seemed to be at his feet; in the two following years he painted forty portraits.

It was not easy for our enthusiast to explain to the ladies of the Dorcas meeting that the dissection of a body was a suitable subject for the brush of a painter. The Dutchmen of Rembrandt's day were not so squeamish as we have become since. They had a passion for the literal painting of literal things, and this picture was destined not for a Tate Gallery, but for the wall of an operating theatre. Dr. Tulp desired a picture of himself performing an operation, and Rembrandt gave it to him, painted in a way that pleased his contemporaries, and that has astonished the world ever since.

Ten years later Rembrandt painted another Doelen or Regent picture which, under the erroneous title of The Night Watch, is to-day the chief attraction of the Ryks Museum at Amsterdam. This time it was not a group of surgeons, but a company of Amsterdam musketeers marching out under the leadership of their captain, Frans Banning Cocq. In all these civic or military Regent pictures, each member subscribed a sum towards the artist's fee, and consequently each individual wished to have his money's worth in the shape of an accurate presentation of his face and form. It is an old quarrel between artist and public. Mr. Abbey had to face it in his Coronation picture; Mr. Bacon had to face it in his Return of the C.I.V.'s; perhaps the only folk who solved the problem were the complaisant gentlemen who designed panoramas of cricket matches in the last century, where each member of the company blandly faces the spectator. Much water had flowed under Burgomaster Six's bridge since Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson. Then he was the obedient student. Now he was an acknowledged master. He painted The Sortie of the Company of Frans Banning Cocq as an artist who was profoundly interested in problems of light and shade, with strong views as to the composition of a picture, not as a methodical and mediocre painter desirous of carrying out the commission in a way to please his patrons. They wanted a presentment of the face and figure of each member of the company who had subscribed a hundred florins. Rembrandt gave them a work of art. No doubt the captain and his lieutenant were well enough pleased, for they stride forth in the forefront of the picture, but the rank and file were bitterly hostile. From the painting of The Night Watch his popularity began to wane.

The history of this picture, after it had been hung in the Doelen or assembly hall belonging to Captain Cocq's company, was as troublous as the later life of Rembrandt. Years afterwards when, blackened with smoke and ill-usage, it was removed from the Doelen to the Hotel de Ville, the authorities, finding that it was too large for the space it was destined to occupy, deliberately cut a piece away from each side. This is proved by a copy of the picture made by Lundens before the mutilation, now in the National Gallery. When M. Hopman undertook the restoration of The Night Watch he discovered, when he had removed the surface of dirt, that the sortie is taking place by daylight, and that the work contained something that Rembrandt evidently intended should represent a ray of sunlight. But the popular name of the picture is still The Night Watch.

The ladies of the Dorcas Society expressed in eyes and gestures their disapproval of the Amsterdam vandals who mutilated The Night Watch. One of them remarked: "It happened a long time ago. So gross a barbarity could not be perpetrated now."

Twenty years later, at the age of fifty-six, Rembrandt, having known what it was to be homeless and penniless, painted his masterpiece, The Syndics of the Cloth Hall, merely five figures grouped round a table, with a servant, uncovered, in attendance. It is an extraordinarily real picture, the final statement of Rembrandt's knowledge of painting, combined with that rare power of seeing things just as they are—the hundred subtleties that the untrained eye never sees, as well as the accents that all see. It is the perfect painter's vision—a scene grasped as a whole, character searched out but not insistent, the most delicate suggestion of equally diffused light knitting the figures together. He made no attempt to be picturesque as in The Night Watch; he was content just to paint five men dressed in black, with flat white collars and broad-brimmed hats, and a servant. With these simple materials Rembrandt produced the picture that the world has agreed to regard as his masterpiece. Contemporary criticism says nothing about it. The place of honour at the Ryks Museum at Amsterdam is given to The Night Watch, but it is The Syndics of the Cloth Hall—a simple presentation of five grave men seated at a table—that we remember with wonder and admiration.

Our enthusiast, having dwelt upon these three masterpieces, marking epochs in Rembrandt's life, referred again to the magnificent array of portraits scattered in such regal profusion through the thirty years that passed between the painting of The Anatomy Lesson and The Syndics. Then noticing, while enlarging upon the etchings, that his mother was casting anxious glances at the clock, he hurriedly referred to the last portrait that Rembrandt painted of himself, two years before his death. He could not describe this portrait, which is in a private collection in Berlin, as he had never seen it, so he quoted M. Michel's description: "This extraordinary work, perhaps the last Rembrandt painted, is modelled with prodigious vigour and freedom. With superb audacity, the master shows us once more the familiar features, on which age and sorrow have worked their will. They are distorted, disfigured, almost unrecognisable. But the free spirit is still unbroken. The eyes that meet ours are still keen and piercing; they have even the old twinkle of good-humoured irony, and the toothless mouth relaxes in frank laughter. What was the secret of this gaiety? In spite of his poverty, he had still a corner in which to paint. Beside him stand an easel and an antique bust, perhaps a relic of his former wealth. He holds his maul-stick in his hand, and pauses for a moment in his work. He is happy because he can give himself up to his art."


1634. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

It was the last of half a hundred portraits of himself, painted and etched without vanity; painted because a man's self is such an accommodating model, always ready and willing; painted because Rembrandt loved to experiment with himself before a mirror, grimacing, angry, stern, "as an officer," "with a casque," "with a gorget," or, as we see him in the National Gallery, on one wall with the bloom of youth and health upon his face, on the other, dulled, stained, and marked by the finger of time. This we can say: that he was always true to himself.