Although he’s most famous for his 1642 painting The Night Watch, Rembrandt created hundreds of paintings, drawings, and etchings in his life. Working during the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, he painted portraits and landscapes and explored themes from the Bible and classical antiquity. In honor of the artist’s birthday (he was born on July 15, 1606), read on for 15 facts about Rembrandt.
1. REMBRANDT WASN’T HIS LAST NAME—OR HIS BIRTH NAME.
His full name—Rembrant Harmenszoon van Rijn—requires a bit of parsing. Harmenszoon means that his father’s name was Harmen, and van Rijn refers to where his family lived, near the Rhine River. So his full name means Rembrant, son of Harmen, from the Rhine. For reasons that are unclear, he added the silent “d” to his signature, changing it from Rembrant to Rembrandt, in 1633.
2. HE SIGNED EARLY ART WITH HIS LATIN MONOGRAM.
Educated at The Latin School in Holland, Rembrandt studied religion, mythology, and ancient Roman works, speaking in Latin with his fellow students. His Latin name, Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis, referred to his birthplace of Leiden, Holland—Rembrant, son of Harmen, of Leiden. Early in his career, Rembrandt signed his artwork with his Latin monogram “RHL.” Soon after, he began signing his name "RHL-van Rijn," then he briefly switched to "Rembrant," and finally, his most remembered moniker: "Rembrandt."
3. HE MARRIED HIS ART DEALER’S COUSIN.
Rembrandt’s art dealer was Hendrik van Uylenburgh, a man who helped Rembrandt get commissions from wealthy art patrons. Rembrandt lived in Uylenburgh’s house in Amsterdam and painted portraits of the society people that Uylenburgh brought him. In 1634, Rembrandt married Uylenburgh’s cousin (although some sources say she was his niece), Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia came from a wealthy family, and with her fortune and Rembrandt's increasing salary, they were able to move to a trendy, affluent neighborhood in Amsterdam.
4. HE OUTLIVED FOUR OF HIS FIVE CHILDREN.
Rembrandt dealt with much loss throughout his life. He and Saskia had four children: Rumbartus, Cornelia, another Cornelia, and Titus, born in 1641, who was the only child to survive infancy. Saskia died nine months after Titus's birth, likely of tuberculosis. Twelve years later, Rembrandt had a daughter, also named Cornelia, with his housekeeper and lover, Hendrickje Stoffels. Stoffels died, likely of the plague, in 1663, and a few years later, Titus died at age 26 in 1668. Rembrandt died the following year and was buried in an unmarked grave.
5. A LOT OF MYTH SURROUNDS HIS LIFE…
Because scholars don’t have a ton of primary or contemporaneous sources, myth plays a big role in many of his biographies. Inaccurate information is often repeated as fact, and books and films, such as the British movie Rembrandt (1936), have propagated misconceptions about the artist such as that he was low-born and uneducated (neither of which is true—he was the ninth child of a well-off miller and a baker's daughter, and was educated straight through university). Although multiple biographies state that he was born into poverty, was illiterate, stingy, a slob, and worked for Sweden’s court, art scholars have proven these assertions false.
6. …AS WELL AS HIS MOST FAMOUS PAINTING, THE NIGHT WATCH.
Another oft-repeated legend is that his patrons hated his work on The Night Watch (which, despite another myth surrounding the painting, actually takes place during the day) so much that the painting brought about his downfall. Art historian Walter Liedtke of the Metropolitan Museum of Art refuted this claim, pointing out that Rembrandt got commissions from Amsterdam’s government and other important customers after The Night Watch was unveiled in 1642. Rather than being a failure that led to Rembrandt’s bankruptcy, his most famous painting was popular even in its own time.
7. HE ACHIEVED GREAT WEALTH AND SUCCESS…
Although Rembrandt’s wife Saskia came from a wealthy family, he earned plenty of money in his own right for his art. Starting in the 1630s, Rembrandt set up a studio and, when he wasn’t busy working on portraits for wealthy clients, he taught students. In 1639, he paid 13,000 guilders (an enormous sum) for an upscale town house, which serves as The Rembrandt House Museum today.
8. …BUT LOST IT ALL.
Rembrandt's "Self-Portrait with Beret and Turned-Up Collar" (1659). Wikimedia Commons
By the late 1640s, Rembrandt’s overspending caught up with him. He was earning less money because he was getting fewer commissions to paint portraits, he lost money on bad investments, and some of his paintings had been damaged or lost at sea. He couldn’t pay his mortgage, and in 1656, he declared insolvency. He moved his family (Titus, Hendrickje Stoffels, and their daughter Cornelia) to a smaller home in Amsterdam, sold his printing press, and auctioned off his massive art collection. By this time, Stoffels stepped in and began managing his affairs. She opened a small art shop to sell his paintings, and through her oversight, Rembrandt was able to concentrate on his artistic output once again.
9. HE REPORTEDLY PAINTED HIS DEAD PET MONKEY.
Arnold Houbraken (1660 to 1719) was a Dutch painter who wrote biographies about artists, including Rembrandt. According to Houbraken, Rembrandt was halfway through painting a portrait of a family when his pet monkey, Puck, died. For some reason, the artist decided to paint the dead animal into the portrait, alongside his depiction of the family. The family didn’t like it, and they allegedly told him to either remove or paint over the monkey. Rembrandt stubbornly refused and lost the commission. While no painting has yet been discovered to definitively have the monkey, modern Rembrandt scholars think it sounds like something he would do.
10. WE’RE NOT CERTAIN IF SOME OF HIS PAINTINGS WERE REALLY HIS.
Since the late 1960s, as part of the Rembrandt Research Project, scholars have examined the artist’s works to determine whether certain paintings were actually his. Some art historians claim that Rembrandt created thousands of drawings, paintings, and etchings, but others argue that many of his works were actually done by his students and assistants (and should be attributed to the School of Rembrandt). Because he didn’t sign all his drawings, scholars disagree about the authenticity of certain works, such as A Weeping Woman. In 2015, a team of art historians and restorers determined that Saul and David was indeed Rembrandt’s work, not that of his students.
11. HE NEVER LEFT THE NETHERLANDS.
Although some art historians inaccurately claimed that he lived in Italy, England, and Sweden, Rembrandt most likely lived his entire life in the Netherlands. Historians attribute Rembrandt’s strong use of chiaroscuro—the contrast between light and dark—to his teacher’s Italian influences. As a young man in Amsterdam, Rembrandt studied with Dutch painter Pieter Lastman, who had been to Italy. Lastman taught him techniques from Italian artists such as Caravaggio.
12. IF YOU LOOK CLOSELY, YOU MIGHT RANDOMLY SPOT HIM.
Rembrandt created more than 90 self-portraits, but he also liked to insert himself into his other paintings. He paints his face as a spectator in the crowd in several pieces of art, such as The Stoning of Saint Stephen (his first known painting), Raising of the Cross, and possibly even The Night Watch.
13. HE MAY HAVE BEEN STEREOBLIND (UNABLE TO SEE FULLY 3D).
In 2004, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School posited that Rembrandt was stereoblind: his eyes were unaligned, so he was unable to see in 3D. Published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the article argues that the artist’s oil paintings and etching self-portraits show that he had unilateral strabismus, meaning that his eyes were not properly aligned with each other. If Rembrandt was indeed stereoblind, his lack of depth perception would mean that he saw everything flattened, which could slightly help him recreate objects and people in 2D paintings and drawings.
14. A NEW REMBRANDT PAINTING DEBUTED IN 2016.
ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN // AFP // Getty Images
Thanks to the wonders of machine-learning algorithms and 3D printing, a group of data scientists and engineers from Microsoft working with a Dutch advertising agency created a new Rembrandt painting, called The Next Rembrandt. Using specific data points such as color, geometry, paint, and the face shape and direction of the people in his paintings, the team 3D-printed a new Rembrandt to give the painting texture … and it looks pretty authentic!
15. YOU CAN VISIT WHERE HE LIVED AND WORKED IN AMSTERDAM.
Rembrandt’s town house in Amsterdam, where he lived and worked for nearly 20 years, is now a museum called The Rembrandt House Museum. Built in 1606, the property houses collections of Rembrandt’s etchings, exhibits by artists whom he has inspired, and 17th century furniture. The museum also hosts etching workshops and paint preparation demonstrations.