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His family soon knew that he had the makings of an artist and, in 1620, when he could hardly have been more than sixteen, and may have been considerably less, he left Leyden University for the studio of a second-rate painter called Jan van Swanenburch. We have no authentic record of his progress in the studio, but it must have been rapid. He must have made friends, painted pictures, and attracted attention. At the end of three years he went to Lastmans studio in Amsterdam, returning thence to Leyden, where he took Gerard Dou as a pupil. A several years later, it is not easy to settle these dates on a satisfactory basis, he went to Amsterdam, and established himself there, because the Dutch capital was very wealthy and held many patrons of the arts, in spite of the seemingly endless war that Holland was waging with Spain.
His art remained true and sincere, he declined to make the smallest concession to what silly sitters called their taste, but he did not really know what to do with the money and commissions that flowed in upon him so freely. The best use he made of changing circumstances was to become engaged to Saskia van Uylenborch, the cousin of his great friend Hendrick van Uylenborch, the art dealer of Amsterdam. Saskia, who was destined to live for centuries, through the genius of her husband, seems to have been born in 1612, and to have become engaged to Rembrandt Van Ryn when she was twenty. The engagement followed very closely upon the patronage of Rembrandt Van Ryn by Prince Frederic Henry, the Stadtholder, who instructed the artist to paint three pictures.
- Saskia is enshrined in many pictures.
- She is seen first as a young girl, then as a woman.
- As a bride, in the picture now at Dresden, she sits upon her husbands knee, while he raises a big glass with his outstretched arm.
- Her expression here is rather shy, as if she deprecated the situation and realised that it might be misconstrued.
- This picture gave offence to Rembrandt Van Ryns critics, but some portraits of Saskia remained to be painted.
- She would seem to have aged rapidly, for after marriage her days were not long in the land.
- She was only thirty when she died, and looked much older.
In 1638 we find Rembrandt Van Ryn taking an action against one Albert van Loo, who had dared to call Saskia extravagant. It was, of course, still more extravagant of Rembrandt Van Ryn to waste his money on lawyers on account of a case he could not hope to win, but this thought does not seem to have troubled him. He did not reflect that it would set the gossips talking more cruelly than ever. Still full of enthusiasm for life and art, he was equally full of affection for Saskia, whose hope of raising children seemed doomed to disappointment, for in addition to losing the little Rombertus, two daughters, each named Cornelia, had died soon after birth. In 1640 Rembrandt Van Ryns mother died. Her picture remains on record with that of her husband, painted ten years before, and even the biographers of the artist do not suggest that Rembrandt Van Ryn was anything but a good son. A year later the well-beloved Saskia gave birth to the one child who survived the early years, the boy Titus. Then her health failed, and in 1642 she died, after eight years of married life that would seem to have been happy. In this year Rembrandt Van Ryn painted the famous “Night Watch,” a picture representing the company of Francis Banning Cocq, and incidentally a day scene in spite of its popular name. The work succeeded in arousing a storm of indignation, for every sitter wanted to have equal prominence in the canvas.
It may be said that after Saskias death, and the exhibition of this fine work, Rembrandt Van Ryns pleasant years came to an end. He was then somewhere between thirty-six and thirty-eight years old, he had made his mark, and enjoyed a very large measure of recognition, but henceforward, his career was destined to be a very troubled one, full of disappointment, pain, and care. Perhaps it would have been no bad thing for him if he could have gone with Saskia into the outer darkness. The world would have been poorer, but the man himself would have been spared many years that may be even the devoted labours of his studio could not redeem.
Between 1642, when Saskia died, and 1649, it is not easy to follow the progress of his life; we can only state with certainty that his difficulties increased almost as quickly as his work ripened. His connection with Hendrickje Stoffels would seem to have started about 1649, and this woman with whom he lived until her death some thirteen years later, has been abused by many biographers because she was the painters mistress.
He has left to the world some 500 or 600 pictures that are admitted to be genuine, together with the etchings and drawings to which reference has been made. He is to be seen in many galleries in the Old World and the New, for he painted his own portrait more than a score of times. So Rembrandt Van Ryn has been raised in our days to the pinnacle of fame which is his by right; the festival of his tercentenary was acknowledged by the whole civilised world as the natural utterance of joy and pride of our small country in being able to count among its children the great Rembrandt Van Ryn.