Rembrandt's Academy Essay

Jacob Backer,  Two Girls with a Bird's Nes t, 38.2 x 33.1 inches, Oil on Panel, Courtesy of Hoogsteder Museum Foundation, The Netherlands.

Jacob Backer, Two Girls with a Bird's Nest, 38.2 x 33.1 inches, Oil on Panel, Courtesy of Hoogsteder Museum Foundation, The Netherlands.

Rembrandt van Rijn founded the most influential Academy that ever existed in the Dutch Republic (1581-1795), training dozens of painters to work in the “Rembrandtesque” manner. His characteristic style became famous throughout the whole of Europe. Rembrandt’s artistic personality was breath-taking, and it is not possible to imagine Dutch art without him. Some pupils would rebel against their master’s revolutionary ideas, but others remained faithful to his method for more than a half-century after his death. Rembrandt was never an isolated genius, interacting intensely with other artists, visiting colleagues in their studios to see their latest works, as well as studying the most renowned artists of earlier periods, whose works he passionately collected and attempted to rival. At auctions he bid vigorously on albums of engravings and etchings by the likes of Albrecht Dürer.

In 1620, at only fourteen years old, Rembrandt enlisted as a student at Leiden University but was drawn irresistibly to the arts. Forgoing school, he opted instead for a position in the workshop of a Leiden painter. Not long thereafter, Rembrandt established his own studio in his hometown of Leiden in 1625 and took on pupils two years later. Similar teaching academies for young artists had already been founded in Haarlem and in Utrecht, with students paying an annual fee to be taught by an established master. Surviving contracts document that one of Rembrandt’s early students paid a yearly fee of 100 guilders in 1630.

In 1631, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, where all talent and money of the Dutch Golden Age accumulated and where he painted the portraits of wealthy burghers. The artist continued to paint and etch historical and biblical scenes in which he could express his intensely vivid imagination. Rembrandt quickly became a leading painter of the day and attracted students from all over, every one bewildered by his brilliance.

Rembrandt’s Academy in Amsterdam quickly became a serious endeavor for the artist. Rembrandt was very much aware of the activities in Antwerp of Peter Paul Rubens, at the time the most famous painter in the world. Rubens headed a highly specialized Academy that employed several trained master painters working under his supervision. A painting deemed a “Rubens” was not necessarily painted by the great man himself, but rather a product of his workshop, a sign of uniform quality. The concept appealed to Rembrandt, who wished to market his own brand, “Rembrandt.” To collectors far beyond the Dutch borders. The Academy was vital for this, as the help of his collaborators enabled him to physically produce the large output of paintings and etchings required to make his name in the world. Rembrandt’s ideal was remarkably similar to that of a factory, creating a veritable production line of paintings, drawings and etchings. More than three hundred years later, Andy Warhol started an almost identical enterprise with his studio filled with assistants producing uniform “Warhols,” which, not accidentally, he named “The Factory.”

Waves of aspiring artists born between 1615 and 1625 were drawn to the Rembrandt’s Academy, ranging from inexperienced youths to nearly fully-trained professionals who wished to conclude their training with a “master-class.” Many artists from this period show the influence of Rembrandt’s style, but not all may have actually studied with the master. Documents and other sources record some forty actual pupils. In fact, many of these students seem to have been so advanced that they were working as paid “mate” in the studio and actively collaborated on Rembrandt’s commissions, painting backgrounds, drapery and costumes. Rembrandt was also entitled to sell the paintings they produced in the Academy in the master’s signature style. Inexperienced pupils however, had to pay the annual tuition fee and spend their time drawing, grinding pigments and preparing panels and canvas. Around 1640, there were countless high- born children attending for instruction and tuition, all contributing the annual fee of 100 guilders.

Around the middle of the century fashions changed, and a lighter, more colorful and refined manner became the vogue in Amsterdam, inspired by the Flemish art of Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. Rembrandt’s painting, however, became increasingly dark and thickly applied. Students were still attracted by the Academy’s former prestige, but, upon leaving the Academy, quickly assumed the stylish Flemish manner. On a personal level, Rembrandt’s affairs were even less fortuitous. He led a turbulent love life and spent too much money on his collection of art and curiosities. In 1658, his possessions were sold at public auction and the artist was forced to leave his magnificent town residence and move to a small house in the city’s working district. Despite these turbulent events, the Academy continued, although in more modest form.

Arent de Gelder was Rembrandt’s last and most faithful student. He worked in the Academy between 1661 and 1663, after he had received his initial training. De Gelder worked until the end of his life in 1727 in a style strongly influenced by Rembrandt’s late manner of the 1660s. The explanation for his dedication may be that De Gelder was financially independent and did not have to adjust his style to appeal to the taste of clients. The “Rembrandtesque” manner became increasingly unpopular during the 18th century, as artists turned toward harder-edged realism. But Rembrandt was not completely forgotten; his stylistic tendencies were carried on by a select few of the students who attended the Academy. While Rembrandt’s expressive style was often criticized by his contemporaries, for a new generation of artists and art historians coming of age in the 19th century, the Rembrandtesque style was a welcome, almost radical rediscovery, echoing the latest developments of the new artistic avant garde. To a generation sick of neo-classical academic realism, they loved the loose manner and virtuoso - and yes - almost “modern” handling of paint.