In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rembrandt

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Document Collections
  • Essay Collections
  • Historiography
  • Early Years
  • Workshop
  • Production
  • Rembrandt and the Jews
  • Clients and Patronage
  • Individual Works

Renaissance and Reformation Rembrandt
Christopher Atkins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0163


The son of a miller in Leiden, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn turned to art as a profession relatively late. While many began artistic training early in their youth, Rembrandt did not do so until after he had enrolled at the University of Leiden. Rembrandt then learned the rudiments of painting from Jacob van Swanenburgh before apprenticing for the renowned artist Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam. Familiarity with Lastman’s proclivity for well-wrought and researched representations of scenes from antiquity and the Bible provided Rembrandt with the tools to excel as a history painter. On his return to Leiden in 1626, Rembrandt shared a studio with Jan Lievens, who had studied with Lastman just a few years earlier. Together they inspired and propelled one another, attracting considerable attention in the process. Through the mediation of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, Rembrandt ventured into the larger market of Amsterdam and relocated to the city shortly thereafter, in 1632. While the bulk of Rembrandt’s early works can be categorized as history paintings, he quickly became an accomplished portraitist. Indeed, it was through portraiture that Rembrandt secured clients and established a market presence. It is likely that through his portrayal of Amsterdam patricians he landed prestigious commissions and sales for historical works. From the mid-1630s through the end of his career, Rembrandt produced history pieces and portraits concurrently. Perhaps as a result, many of his history paintings possess some qualities of portraiture while he also introduced multi-figured narrative strategies into his portraits. Rembrandt was a multimedia artist. In addition to painting, he was also an accomplished draftsman and printmaker. In drawings, Rembrandt searched for pictorial solutions to form and subject, though individual drawings rarely served as preparatory models for paintings. In prints, Rembrandt was the pre-eminent etcher of his time. Each etching is independent from his paintings and constituted an original work of art it its own right. Etchings also constituted a significant part of his business plan as they circulated his abilities widely, even beyond the borders of the Dutch Republic, and they were offered at lower costs than were his paintings, ensuring a wider market. In all media, Rembrandt is admired for the humanity of his representations and the boldness of his formal explorations.

General Overviews

Several books provide overviews of Rembrandt’s life and art. While the basic facts of his biography have been known for a long time, what one finds in these general studies often varies widely. Early works tend to mythologize the artist, while others such as Schwartz 1985 and Schwartz 2006 cast a very human image, stressing Rembrandt’s personal and business relationships. White 1984 provides a balanced introduction, but the interpretations of the paintings are not entirely up-to-date. Westermann 2000, a wide-ranging and accessible account, is an excellent starting point for readers looking for a solid introduction that balances these divergent approaches.

  • Schwartz, Gary. Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings. New York: Viking, 1985.

    Schwartz often poses Rembrandt’s art in relation to his life. The book focuses on Rembrandt’s personal connections, presenting the artist as a real person. As a result, Schwartz does much to demystify the artist by rooting him so heavily among his contemporaries. The exclusive emphasis on paintings, however, does not present a comprehensive picture of his achievements or strategies.

  • Schwartz, Gary. The Rembrandt Book. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006.

    This massive tome explores not just the major pieces, but many of Rembrandt’s lesser-known pictures as well. With seven hundred illustrations, Schwartz provides a much fuller account of the artist’s career than he had previously. Schwartz continues to place emphasis on Rembrandt the person and presents biographically informed readings of his art. The book lacks footnotes so that readers can not use it to track down other sources.

  • Westermann, Mariët. Rembrandt. Art and Ideas. London: Phaidon, 2000.

    Westermann achieves a good balance between biography and study of the artist’s production. The text incorporates the findings of many recent specialist studies such as those on Rembrandt’s subjectivity and relations to the market. The author devotes due attention to reception as well as motivation. Appendices with biographies of ancillary figures and a timeline that contextualizes Rembrandt’s achievements are eminently useful.

  • White, Christopher. Rembrandt. New York and London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.

    White succinctly traces the artist’s career. It is written for a general audience and provides a conservative image. Due to its early publication date, however, the book predates many new interpretative approaches to Rembrandt’s art. Nonetheless, it remains useful for readers who are seeking a basic introduction and overview.

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