Portrait of Rembrandt's wife Sakia in Red Hat

10 Reasons the Work of Rembrandt is Worth Looking At

Born Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn, the artistic genius we know simply as Rembrandt remains a household name centuries after the peak of his productivity during the Dutch Golden Age of painting. Known for using dramatic lighting, dynamic compositions, and complex facial expression as narrative elements, Rembrandt established himself as the most popular portraitist in 16th century Amsterdam and changed the course of art history forever. His unconventional techniques in a variety of media, combined with an unwavering originality in his method of storytelling, are responsible for an undying relevance to creators and art appreciators alike. Read on to discover ten reasons that Rembrandt’s work is still worth looking at today.

1. Rembrandt achieved success through perseverance and talent rather than wealth and connections.

  1. The son of a mill owner grew up on the banks of the River Rhine, which instilled in him an appreciation of nature’s grandeur to add to his namesake, “van Rijn”. Rather than attend formal schooling, he chose to forge his own path by securing an artist apprenticeship. This is just the first example of Rembrandt’s uncompromising individuality responsible for his continued fame and appreciation today.
- A dramatically lit Dr. Nicolaes Tulp dissects the forearm of a corpse in front of a group of interested colleagues.
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tul, 1632

2. From the beginning of his artistic career, Rembrandt developed original techniques that changed the craft of painting forever.

By employing tight or loose brush strokes to express a particular mood, scratching into wet paint with the hard end of his brush, or pushing pigment around like clay with his palette knife, he was able to achieve stunning realistic effects while drawing the criticism of his more conventionally-minded peers. 

Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659
Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned Up Collar, 1659

3. Beyond material technique, Rembrandt challenged preconceived notions of image-making in order to create honest portrayals of human emotion and dramatic narrative

He employed the contrast of light and darkness known as chiaroscuro to direct the viewer’s gaze to certain areas of the composition, drawing the eye across the canvas like chapters in a book. He also preferred dynamic scenes of movement over the static, formal compositions seen in the vast majority of portraits at the time. 

A group of men battle the tumultuous water in a storm as Jesus calmly looks toward a clearing in the sky.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633

4. Rembrandt valued realistic bodies more than the idolized anatomy that represented the status quo in portraiture

He believed depicting the human form with all of its “imperfections” not only held more potential for dramatic light and shadow, but also resulted in the most honest portrayal of human emotion. Drawing or painting gods, goddesses, and saints as normal people helped to make his work more relatable to the common viewer, who could then connect to the image on an intimately personal level. 

A naked Bathsheba sits holding a sheet of paper as a servant washes her feet.
Bathsheba at Her Bath, 1654

5. Rembrandt didn’t confine himself to one way of working, but constantly presented new challenges to his artistic practice that led to the incredible variety of images created over a relatively long and productive career.

He made small portraits of individuals and large groups of life-sized people, acting out quiet or thrilling narratives in a dimly lit room, or sprawling landscapes depicting the serenity and violence of nature. He was constantly changing the combinations of color, composition, and shadow to most accurately express the many aspects of human experience.

The Night Watch, 1642
The Night Watch, 1642

6. Rembrandt was self-critical, thoughtful, and reflective; averse to the large egos of other artistic giants like Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.

His incredible collection of over forty self portraits shows the artist confronting himself with a vulnerable sincerity absent of any misplaced pride or self-righteousness. By returning to the self portrait over and over again throughout his career, he left a record of his own aging – a true  story told in many chapters over many years.

- Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665–1669
Self Portrait with Two Circles, 1665–1669

7. Rembrandt’s work was an extension of his own life, not separate from lived experience or edited to convey a false truth.

He often used loved ones and family members as models for his allegorical portraits, depicting them in tight, controlled brush strokes or loosely expressive gestures to reflect how he was feeling or what was going on in his life at the time. 

- A man embraces a young woman, both elaborately dressed and wearing expressions of mutual love.
The Jewish Bride, 1667

8. Rembrandt’s work invites the viewer to share an emotional experience as a participant in the drama, rather than as a passive bystander or observer.

This was done by utilizing exaggerated motion and clear detail to produce the drama, exuberance, and grandeur indicative of the Baroque era. His use of theatrical lighting and expert dimensional translation add to the effect that his audience is playing a part in the action, as if one could reach out and touch the warm wrinkles in a familiar face or the cold metal of armor.

A group of identically dressed men look out from over an open book laid on a table covered by an elaborate red cloth.
Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, 1662

9. Rembrandt used religion as a framework for narrative, a stage for his subject’s unique emotions.

Driven not by the righteousness of his faith but an empathy for the human condition, the story is in his characters’ feelings and expressions rather than the moral lesson on the surface of a well-known myth or parable.

A father with a complex facial expression embraces his son in rags, while four other men watch quietly.
Return of the Prodigal Son, 1669

10. While his subject matter fades into distant history, the emotions Rembrandt depicted remain relevant today.

Deriving the powerful stories his images told from the Bible and Greek mythology, the historical details remain secondary to the emotions and experiences of those he portrayed as acting out these increasingly obscure narratives. Through this sublime combination of legend and reality, Rembrandt was able to craft timeless tales of heroism, devastation, fear, grief, and love that are still relatable to any museumgoer visiting his work across the world.

Danae, 1636

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Joshua Kochis

Joshua Kochis is an artist and writer from Southeast Michigan. He has always had busy hands and too many jobs. His work questions our role as natural beings in an increasingly mediated landscape. He graduated with a BFA from the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design, and a minor in Creative Writing from the College of Language, Science, and the Arts. Joshua is currently based in Detroit, MI.
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