Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn's life reads like a novel. Poor boy becomes successful, marries into money, becomes a social painter, looks beyond wealth to spirituality, overcomes disaster, slowly slides into obscurity, but is remembered as a master painter over 300 years later. His work ranges from youthful mastery of technique, enjoyment of earthly delights to mature and sorrowful spiritual meditation. That is probably why his name is synonymous with "masterpiece."

Rembrandt was born in Leiden to Herman Gerritsz. van Rijn, a miller and Cornelia Willemsdochter van Zuytbrouck, daughter of a baker, on July 15, 1606. He was the eighth of nine children. Holland became a world power when Rembrandt was just a boy. The twelve year truce with Spain created Holland's independence, trade, colonial and sea power. With this new-found stability, Dutch culture had room to flower. Holland became a place for artists to grow and become successful. Franz Hals' (b. 1580) work typifies the rambunctious young nation full of life and optimism and self-centeredness. He preceded Rembrandt in time and style. Vermeer followed Rembrandt, typifying later seventeenth- century Dutch culture-- refined, restrained, quiet. The Dutch middle class was the driving force for culture. Their taste dictated what was popular. The nation had enjoyed a brief golden century of cultural ascendancy that declined as the sevententh century closed.

Rembrandt's lower- middle -class roots may have given him the great vitality so abundant in his art. Holland was democratic, so it wasn't unusual for a baker to groom a son to be an artist. Rembrandt entered the Latin school in Leiden at about seven years of age; then at fourteen (1620), he was enrolled at the University of Leiden. His painting talent must have dominated because he left in less than a year when his family realized he was only interested in painting.

At the age of 15 in 1621, Rembrandt was apprenticed for 3 years to Jacot Isaacsz van Swanenburgh-- an architectural painter known for his views of hell. Scholars say Rembrandt was very little influenced by Swanenburgh. Rembrandt was less interested in the classics than in the Bible-- possibly encouraged by his pious mother. His early portraits of her show her praying or reading the Bible. He later transferred this interest in the Bible to Biblical painting. By age 18, Rembrandt was apprenticed to Peter Lastman, who encouraged him to become a "history " painter. Lastman's style of bold naturalism, drama and use of chiaroscuro may have influenced Rembrandt, but the young painter left the apprenticeship after only six months. He started his own studio with another young painter. Although encouraged to study in Italy, Rembrandt preferred to stay in Holland and develop his own skills and style. Between 1625- 1631, Rembrandt produced an extraordinary amount of work, Baroque in style, full of rich costumes, exotic armor and accessories, romantic with many emotional, expressive self-portraits and likenesses of family and friends.

By 1631, Rembrandt was looking toward Amsterdam, involved with an art dealer there named Hendrik van Uylenburgh. After his father's death in 1630, Rembrandt must have felt free to make a move to the more challenging marketplace.

Rembrandt's first large group portrait, the "Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," in 1643 established him in Amsterdam. His career flourished and his popularity increased and climaxed by the end of the 1630s. Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh, his dealer's cousin. This was, by all accounts, a love match. He immediately saw a rise in his social status as well as financial condition through her contacts and dowry. Rembrandt became wealthy; his paintings were in demand and he was much sought after as a teacher.

Once successful, a newly rich Rembrandt spent lavishly, collected art, costumes, armory, and props for his paintings. He never saved or invested, depending, instead on his incoming commissions to cover his debts. By 1639, he bought a large house on Joden-Braestraat pushing himself into financial jeopardy. This period of his life is marked by many portraits of his wife Saskia in historical and Biblical costumes. He is thought to have become a character of extremes before Saskia died in 1641. His paintings of this period reflected his character-- powerful, emotional, violent at times. Some scholars say all of this led to his later melancholy spiritual nature and paintings.

In 1640, Rembrandt's mother, Cornelia, died. By 1642, Saskia followed, after a year of sickness following the birth of their first child to live beyond infancy--- Titus. Rembrandt's last etching of Saskia shows her weak, eyes half shut, looking into the distance. Geertghe Dircz, a widow, came to nurse Titus after Saskia's death. She and Rembrandt formed a relationship which ended in a breach-of-promise suit in 1650. Rembrandt was responsible for her admission into a "correctional" or mental institution. Her family later rescued her.

Historians say that Rembrandt's bitter suffering and fall from popularity developed deeper insight, clarity, and balance into human nature,. He turned to religion for strength and inspiration. He developed friendships with religious scholars and intellectuals and began to use his son, Titus, in many Biblical scenes. Rembrandt struck a close relationship with Hendrickje Stoffels, a servant in his home, with better results than he had with Geertght. The friendship seems to have steadied him and allowed him to work. In all, Rembrandt drew back from the highly social life he led in the 1630s and gained some perspective and balance in his paintings. He went his own way stylistically with a more restrained approach and less elaborately descriptive detail. His manner became broader, simpler, with increasingly thick applications of paint. Rembrandt seemed to be reaching for the"essence" or spiritual nature of the subject he depicted.

Rembrandt's debts and lack of commissions caught up with him in 1656. He transferred ownership of his house to Titus, trying to save it from creditors, but was forced to apply for a "cessio bonorum" and declare himself insolvent. A bankruptcy sale was held, but he lost the house. Hendrickje and Titus became partners in an art dealership for Rembrandt; he became their "employee" in 1660, saving himself from his creditors. Hendrickje never became Rembrandt's wife, but she cared for him and Titus after they moved to a small house in a poorer area of the Rozengracht. Church authorities repeatedly criticized the couple publicly but the "peasant woman" stayed with Rembrandt until she died in 1663.

After Titus took over the dealership in 1663, he continued caring for his father. In 1668, Titus married Magdalena van Loo, but he died within the year. Rembrandt spent the last year of his life living with Cornelia and Hendrickje's 15 year old daughter. His last self-portrait was painted that year-- it shows a blurring and darkening of his features. Finally, Rembrandt died alone on October 4 and was buried in the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, forgotten by all but future generations of lovers of great art.