Culture and Recreation

Fine Art

Why is Rembrandt considered the archetype of the modern artist?

To understand the similarities between Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) and the modern artist, it’s important to note that this master portrait-painter, who broke ground in his use of light and shadow, was in his own time criticized for his work: Some thought it too personal or too eccentric. An Italian biographer asserted that Rembrandt’s works were concerned with the ugly, and he described the artist as a tasteless painter. Rembrandt’s subjects included lower-class people, the events of everyday life and everyday business, as well as the humanity and humility of Christ (rather than the choirs, trumpets, and celestial triumph that were the subjects of other religious paintings at the time). His portraits reveal his interest in the effects of time on human features—including his own. In summary, the Dutch artist approached his work with “psychological insight and….profound sympathy for the human affliction.” He was also known to use the butt end of his brush to apply paint. Thus, he strayed outside the accepted limits of great art at the time.

Art critics today recognize Rembrandt as not only one of the great portrait painters, but a master of realism. The Dutch painter, who also etched, drew, and made prints, is regarded as an example for the working artist; he showed that the subject is less important than what the artist does with his materials.

Among his most acclaimed works are The Syndics of the Cloth Guild (1662) and The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1665). The first painting shows a board of directors going over the books, and Rembrandt astutely captures the moment when the six businessmen are interrupted, thus showing a remarkably real everyday scene. The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of the most moving religious paintings of all time. Here Rembrandt has with great compassion rendered the reunion of father and son, capturing that moment of mercy when the contrite son kneels before his forgiving father. Through his series of self-portraits, Rembrandt documented his own history—from the confidence and optimism of his youth to the “worn resignation of his declining years.”


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