Rembrandt van Rijn

Rembrandt: Exploration of Style and Color

The Baroque Period in the 1600’s would not have been complete without the Dutch painter and printmaker Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. His contiguous creation of iconographies made Rembrandt one of the most popular commissioners in his time. Rembrandt’s greatest creative triumphs are seen in his portraits of his contemporaries, illustrations of biblical scenes as well as his innovative etchings and use of shadow and light. Moreover, his extensive, yet developing use of dark and light palettes rendered lively and realistically in his portraits and self-portraits. Rembrandt’s success in creating dramatic and lifelike illustrations was due to his technique of chiaroscuro.

Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro technique was done by placing the point of greatest illumination on a central figure, and simultaneously muting the elements of the background. Through this technique Rembrandt could focus the viewer’s attention onto a specific action in a manner similar to the way in which stage-lighting functions in the theater. Furthermore, Rembrandt’s calculated manipulation of light and shadow frequently creates atmospheric moods surrounding his figures, thereby surrounding them with a sense of glowing enthusiasm, or even a sense of gloom and mystery. In one of his most pronounced works, The Night Watch profoundly displays this technique due to the use of bright colors such as yellow and white, in order to create a golden glow around the subject. Not only was the manipulation of chiaroscuro an important value in enhancing color, but also the application of textures.

Rembrandt van Rijn 1642 Oil on canvas 363 cm × 437 cm (142.9 in × 172.0 in)Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on canvas
363 cm × 437 cm (142.9 in × 172.0 in) Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt uses textures to enhance his work. In The Night Watch, Ernst Van de Wetering, a Dutch art historian, explains that the heavy use of impasto “reflected off the irregularities of its surface structure” and that “it comes out best in the gold embroidery and the depiction of golden and other gleaming fabrics.” (De Wetering, 1999) In the painting, I perceive that his use of impastos also accentuated the highlights due to the increased illumination of surfaces facing the light source and the exaggeration of shadows on surfaces facing away from the light source.

The lieutenant from The Night Watch

The lieutenant from The Night Watch

Analyzing from Rembrandts portraits, it also appears that his impasto technique was his intention in order to portray the illuminated parts of the faces, explicitly showcasing the skin and the wrinkles on the forehead. “When imitating other surface structures, such as human skin, the sparkle contributes to the extraordinary force of the light that is such a characteristic of Rembrandt’s paintings, including his self-portraits.” (De Wettering, 1999)

Portraits by Rembrandt have a special quality. The brilliant use of light to illumine faces, jewels and rich fabrics, similar to the golden clothes of the Lieutenant in The Night Watch; the effective use of a limited palette, and the rich, dark, transparent backgrounds all set off the subjects of his portraiture in a way never seen before and often imitated afterwards. In one of his self-portraits, Rembrandt completely paints the background with dark colors, nearly creating an opaque black. With the inclusion of the background, he also washes off his hair with black, as if it is blending with the color of the background. Contrasting with the dark colors are the vivid oranges, yellows, reds, and browns. These colors are applied in order to achieve the skin tones, wrinkles, and shadows of his neck and face. Rembrandt then applies his technique of chiaroscuro on his self-portrait to give more interest in his facial features rather than the objects surrounding it. The technique of using bright versus dark colors through chiaroscuro is also highly applied Rembrandt’s biblical portrayals.

Self-Portrait by Rembrandt himself

Self-Portrait by Rembrandt himself

In The Apostle Bartholomew, it seems as if Rembrandt’s object in this painting was to demonstrate his ability to make efficient use of paint. He has achieved the greatest possible expression in the most efficient way, knowing that our eye would automatically go first to the man’s face. Out of the evarious elements in the composition, only the side face is clearly defined due to the enhance lighting. Albert Blankert, a contemporary Vermeer scholar explains that “The overall effect is that as soon as we have finished surveying the man’s face our eye moves down to the knife, the standard attribute of Christ’s apostle Bartholomew since medieval times.” (Blankert, 1997) Rembrandt’s technique and color use is not only applied to his paintings, but also his biblical and scenic printmaking.


Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669 Saint Bartholomew, 1657 Oil on canvas, 122.7 x 99.7 cm (48-3/8 x 39-1/4 in.)

In one of Rembrandt’s etching, Adam and Eve Eating the Apple, color is purely defined in black and white. With these neutral colors, Rembrandt creates high contrast by placing the whitest white and the blackest black together, potentially creating a dramatic biblical scene. In the same print, color is symbolic. I observed that the dragon-like demon anticipating Adam and Eve is completely filled with black lines, representing black as malevolent and demonic.  The opposite is accomplished in another etching, The Death of the Virgin. In this print light lines create a heavenly and calm nature as the angels are represented floating above the Virgin. Rembrandt’s practice in etching help contribute to his development with his brushstrokes in painting.

Painting the portrait of Nicolaes Ruts contained vivid colors, differing textures and details due to Rembrandt’s fluid brushwork. The fur texture seemed to have been airbrushed in a way that has multiples layers of ocre, red, and white. Herman Knackfuss, a German writer and painter, praises Rembrandt’s brush work and claims, “Instead of diligent care with which he used to shade off the colours one into another, there is a boldness and certainty which attains the full measure of finish with apparently no effort at all…” (Knackfuss, 1899)

Rembrandt is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European art history and the most important in Dutch history. His contributions to art came in a period that historians call the Dutch Golden Age. I have analyzed the numerous numbers of portraits he has made over his life time. With this in mind, I also noticed the change in facial features of Rembrandt, including his style of work. He became more and more focused on the emotions of his subjects rather than creating a scenic composition. Rembrandt’s self-portraits form a unique kind of biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.


Annotated Bibliography:

Knackfuss, H. 1. (1899). Rembrandt. Germany

In this book, Herman Knackfuss, German painter and writer, meticulously writes an article about Rembrandt’s etchings and prints. Knackfuss emphasizes his style of printmaking and compares it to other printmakers in the 17th century.

Blankert, A., Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Blokhuis, M., Art Exhibitions Australia Limited, & National Gallery of Victoria. (1997). Rembrandt: A genius and his impact. Zwolle; Melbourne; Sydney: National Gallery of Victoria.

Scholars describe, interpret, analyze, and judge Rembrandt’s portraits and etchings. Images of the works are catalog with the inclusion of the analysis of his works. Moreover, other European compositions are also compared to Rembrandt’s work in order to understand the differences between the two artists and the similar paintings.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Buvelot, Q., White, C., & Mauritshuis (Hague, N. (1999). Rembrandt by himself. The Hague; London; New Haven, Conn.: National Gallery Publications.

This publication maps the many developments in Rembrandt’s self-portraiture during his life, and attempts to explain why this genre played such a dominant role in his work. It covers the background to Rembrandt’s work and the impact of his style on his contemporaries.