Rembrandt paintings are the most famous artwork in (and the indisputable pride of) Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, dedicated to showcasing the best of the Dutch Golden Age. It’s fascinating to see which Rembrandt paintings the art museum has chosen to display during its multi-year renovation that restricts exhibition space.

I think these are four of the most memorable Rembrandt paintings there:

Self Portrait at an Early Age

It’s no surprise that Night Watch is shown in this pared down collection, but other Rembrandt paintings were less anticipated, like Self Portrait at an Early Age.

Completed at about age 22, Rembrandt portrays himself in raking light (light which glances diagonally, producing strong shadow).  Here, only his ear lobe and part of his cheek, neck and nose are in the light, producing a highly unconventional portrait.  The crispness and definition of his curly hair were obtained by incising into wet paint, producing three-dimensional locks and exposing the underlying colors.

RightRembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at an Early Age.  Oil on panel, c. 1628.  Approx. 9″ by 7.5″.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The same year Rembrandt painted this self-portrait – one of over 50 he’d create in his lifetime – he began teaching students.  One of the first of these was Gerrit Dou, who would become a highly respected Dutch Golden Age painter.

Jeremia Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

One of the earliest Rembrandt paintings to be deemed a masterpiece, Jeremia is based on the Biblical story in which Jeremia warned his king that Jerusalem would be annihilated if the king didn’t acquiesce to his opponents’ wishes.  After this grim prophecy went unheeded, the king was blinded and Jerusalem was set on fire.

Rembrandt illuminates the grieving Jeremia and surrounding objects in intricate detail. The tufts of fur on Jeremia’s robe and his beard hair are individually discernible; the hammered metal shows textured dimples; the floral pattern on his rug is convincingly three-dimensional.

The background in which Jeremia sits is non-descript and hazy. Behind him, one can barely see Jerusalem in flames and the newly-blinded king massaging his eyes.

Above: Rembrandt van Rijn. Jeremia Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem, 1630.  Oil on panel, appox. 23″ by 18″.  Rijksmusem, Amsterdam.

Isaac and Rebecca (The Jewish Bride) 

This nondescript background recurs in another of the best known Rembrandt paintings, Isaac and Rebecca, or The Jewish Bride, and produces the same effect — a heightened focus on the painting’s subjects. The thickly applied paint on the couple’s clothing brilliantly reflects incoming light, but to me, the brilliance here is the pure tenderness of her hand resting on his. The lightness of her touch is palpable tenderness; the serenity of their faces conveys the captivating power of touching a loved one.

Because 17th century people sometimes opted to have their portraits painted as Biblical people, it’s not possible to know the precise history behind Isaac and Rebecca.  Perhaps this is a portrait or perhaps a wedding portrait. That history doesn’t diminish the power of this work, as noted by Vincent van Gogh in 1885:

What an intimate, what an infinitely sympathetic painting.  Believe me, and I mean this sincerely, I would give ten years of my life to be allowed to sit before this painting for fourteen days with just a crust of bread to eat.

Above right: Rembrandt. Isaac and Rebecca, c. 1665.  Oil on canvas, approx. 48″ by 65 1/2″. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild

Relatively late in his career, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint the portrait of the Amsterdam drapers’ guild.  This group was responsible for insuring the quality of laken, a popular and profitable felt-like wool; they took random samples of laken for comparison, thereby earning their nickname of “sampling officials”.

The red haired man in the center is gesticulating with his hand and looking at the man rising from his chair, as if to question where he’s going. You’re fairly certain that this man is standing because someone improperly entered the syndics’ private chamber.  It’s part of Rembrandt’s genius that you believe it’s you.

This Rembrandt painting, like Night Watch, was designed for a specific place. Because Syndics was to be hung high up on the wall, Rembrandt adjusted the perspective on the table accordingly. When seen at eye level, as Syndics is now shown, the front side of the table looms oddly large.

Rembrandt van Rijn. The Syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, 1662. Oil on canvas, Approx. 6′ 3″ by by 9’2″.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

That’s an error by the Rijksmuseum curator.  It doesn’t detract from Rembrandt’s brilliance, apparent at age 22 in Self Portrait at an Early Age.  Can you think of a more mesmerizing and mysterious self-portrait? If so, please advise!

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