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PRO accounts for artists
Sales via Facebook and Instagram store
Managing clients and sales via CRM
Artworks mailing lists
Sales of reproductions and digital copies
Read more

Rembrandt - the teacher: stories about the arrangement of the artist's workshop and his five pupils

In 1656, the Amsterdam appraisers came to describe the property of the finally ruined Rembrandt. In their inventory, in particular, it was mentioned that large rooms on the top floor of the artist’s house were for some reasons divided into tiny rooms. By that time, the years of glory and financial well-being of Rembrandt had been left behind, he had almost no customers, no apprentices, he only had debts and creditors around him. But in the 1630s-1640s, Holland’s largest, most influential and successful artistic workshop functioned in the "closets" invisible to the outside eyes.

Rembrandt - the teacher: stories about the arrangement of the artist's workshop and his five pupils
"In Amsterdam Rembrandt found many orders and many pupils. So he took a barn to Blomgracht, where everyone took a room, often separated from the other only by a paper or linen wall so that pupils could write from nature without interfering with one another … "
Arnold Houbraken, a Dutch artist of the XVII century, engraver and historiographer

"He was a highly industrious, tireless individual. Success provided him with large sums of money, and his house in Amsterdam was full of many children who were given to him for teaching. Each of them paid him one hundred guldens per year, so Rembrandt made between 2,000 and 2,500 guilders annually from his tuition fees and the sale of student work. This sum did not include the sales of his own paintings and prints."
Joachim von Sandrart, a German artist and art historian of the 17th century, sometimes called the "German Vasari".

Differences in the workshops of Rubens and Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s method differed significantly from the style of teaching adopted, for example, in the workshop of his older colleague Rubens. Rubens recruited pupils for his workshop in Antwerp in order for them to help the artist in his work. A great Flemish, popular not only in Flanders, but throughout Europe, received a huge number of commissions from everywhere, and the workshop was necessary for him, above all, to cope with this endless stream. The structure of the work was usually as following: Rubens sketched and corrected the painting at the very end, and his "staff" was given the whole main stage. To increase the speed and efficiency of work, Rubens shared the duties: some of the pupils painted the background, others were focused on details — they worked on foliage or clothing, the master himself corrected the whole work and execute the most "important" parts — hands and faces.

The work of Rembrandt’s workshop was arranged in a different way. There, the pupil was not the "staff" of a master. He rather participated in the art discussion initiated by the master of the workshop, rather than making "technical" works under the recognizable "label". Rembrandt offered the subjects to his pupils — sometimes those that interested him (as a rule, the Old Testament themes), sometimes completely new ones, for which there was no established canon in fine art, so the student had to develop a theme independently, think about its composition, add unordinary details or new characters.

Actually, the "closets" were needed for the same purpose — to individualize the search, to reduce mutual influence, to awaken and develop independent artistic thinking.
"Sometimes there was no picturesque sample for the story, and the student had to create it himself," — Rembrandt’s biographer Pierre Descargues tells about the artistic search of Rembrandt’s pupils. "For example, for the Gideon’s sacrifice, they had to look into the Bible, the Book of Judges, to find out that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, touched Gideon’s offerings with the tip of his staff, causing fire to spring up from the rock to consume the offerings. For the artist, the main thing was: rock, angel, staff, kneeling man and fire. Not some "Burning Bush", but a sacrificial gift, and a sign on it that the Ancient One sent to the youngest in the house of Joas — Gideon, choosing him to fight the enemy."

At different times in the workshop of Rembrandt Gerrit Dou, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Willem Drost, Aert de Gelder and others were taught by Rembrandt.

Everyday life of Rembrandt's workshop

Rembrandt realized perfectly well that his tasks were complicated. That’s why he followed the rule never to take beginners. There were three types of pupil in Rembrandt’s workshop. Firstly, there were the pupils aged between twelve and fourteen, the boys who wanted to become painters. In the second group were the assistants, who after training with Rembrandt remained in the workshop and helped with instruction and production. They were painters who made their own paintings in the style of the master, some of which are considered to be genuine Rembrandts to this day. Finally, there were the ‘amateurs', who took drawing and painting lessons as part of a good upbringing and did not need to make a living from painting.

Teaching was a lucrative business; Rembrandt received around a hundred guilders tuition fees a year for each pupil. It was an additional criterion for selection of random people. The memoirists, who are not very friendly to Rembrandt, after many years would calculate the "profits" of the artist and display him as a grumbling miser, "an eccentric who despised everyone" and tell how the students joked drawing coins on the floor, indistinguishable from the real ones, and Rembrandt leaned down to put them.

Although the majority of Rembrandt’s pupils already had the concept of painting by the time they came to the workshop, one does not need to think that they were spared the routine duties of the apprentices. In the same way as in the workshops of hundreds and thousands of other artists, Rembrandt’s pupils were rubbing the pigments and filtering the oil, cutting the canvases and pulling them onto the stretcher, wiping the dust from the windows to let in more light, preparing props and moving heavy armchairs for the Amsterdam burghers, who came to pose for portraits.

The conditions in the workshop of Rembrandt contributed pupils to the work: the plaster busts of the great men of antiquity, that Rembrandt collected, looked at them from the shelves, the walls were covered with other objects of his personal collection of rarities: weapons of different times and peoples, glistening metal helmets, robes of expensive fabrics — all this could be useful for paintings on historical themes. There were also large folders with drawings and etchings of Rembrandt, to which the students had unlimited access. In addition, the most valuable collections of drawings of Renaissance artists were to their services, from Durer to Raphael, which Rembrandt collected and for which spared no expense in his best times.

A room in the Rembrandt’s house with part of his collection: on the walls you can see the already me
A room in the Rembrandt’s house with part of his collection: on the walls you can see the already mentioned shelfs with plaster busts, and in the ceiling area — animal horns and even a stuffed crocodile. Photo: rembrandthuis. nl

By the way, malicious talks had it that he did not even bother to clean from dust and dirt the pieces of art he purchased at auctions, he just hung them on the wall, so the whole house was packed up with exotic rubbish. But no one would deny that the workshop of Rembrandt was always bustling with life, and the expression "creative disorder" described it as perfectly as possible.

However, no matter how democratic Rembrandt’s workshop was compared to the studio of his more successful (from the career and public points of view) colleague Rubens, it’s hard to deny the obvious: Anthony van Dyck came out of the studio of the latter, and Rembrandt did not have such significant followers.

"Among the pupils of Rembrandt there were a lot of mediocrities and even complete lack of talent, which today is reverently venerated and misappropriated praised", argues the author of the book "Rembrandt's Eyes" Simon Schama. "But even in cases when their performance level speaks of the famous craftsmanship, none of the pupils, colleagues, assistants of Rembrandt has ever achieved the originality of the idea that the "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"," The Shipbuilder and his Wife": Jan Rijcksen and Griet Jans"or "The Mennonite Preacher Anslo and his Wife" have. The misfortune of the most zealous students was that if only they (sometimes easily, sometimes in agony) instilled Rembrandt’s technique to their natural abilities, as their teacher had already radically revised the foundations of his own style. By the beginning of the 1640s, when a new cohort of pupils had appeared in his studio, including some of his most talented followers: Carel Fabritius and his brother Barent, Samuel van Hoogstraten, Rembrandt gradually abandoned the Baroque
The baroque style replaced the Renaissance, and it sought to shock the soul, in contrast to the Renaissance art, which kept the distance between an artwork and the audience. It surely succeeded: the pictorial pearls of those times are the true treasures. Read more
style in the paintings on historical themes, thus his bright, rich color and dynamism, to which he gravitated throughout the previous decade (like "Belshazzar's Feast" and "The Blinding of Samson"), were substituted by a much denser, sculptural manner of painting and more contemplative and poetic subjects. His palette was for the most part reduced to the famous set of four colors: black, white, yellow ochre and red earth."

A sample of the mature psychologism of Rembrandt is a portrait of the shipbuilder Jan Rijcksen with his wife and Mennonite preacher Cornelis Klaus Anslo and his wife Aalte. Neither of the Rembrandt students could achieve such a depth of penetration into the secrets of the human personality and family relationships, as well as "instinctive drama" (as Simon Schama successfully phrased).

Rembrandt School. Rembrandt with pupils drawing from the nude. 1640's. Paper, pen and wash in brown
Rembrandt School. Rembrandt with pupils drawing from the nude
The nude is the genre focused on the aesthetic aspect of the naked human body. The term traces its origin to the Latin nudus (“naked, bare”) and is cognate with the French nudité (“nudity”). Read more
. 1640's. Paper, pen and wash in brown ink over black chalk with white body color. Darmstadt, Hessisches Landesmuseum.
Follower of Rembrandt, Study of a Male Nude from the live model, probably 1640s, pen and wash in bro

Follower of Rembrandt, Study of a Male Nude from the live model, probably 1640s, pen and wash in brown ink with white body colour, British Museum, London

This and the previous drawings, made in the workshop of Rembrandt, attest to the tradition of studies of nude nature under the guidance of the artist. Given the importance for Rembrandt and his followers of the light and shadow, the researchers suggest that like-minded people could gather for night classes of nude nature and work in the light of the oil lamps that were hanging according to a specially designed "strategic plan": so that artificial lighting created an expressive play of shadows.

Further on, we will tell you about several pupils of Rembrandt, who managed if not to exceed the teacher, but to achieve considerable fame.

Govert Flinck (1615-1650)

Govert Flinck was perhaps the best pupil of Rembrandt and one of those who gained well-deserved popularity in Holland and Germany. Having managed to learn from the master of historical compositions of Lambert Jacobs, Flinck got to the studio of Rembrandt relatively late — at the age of 18. He would stay in Rembrandt’s studio for three years, become quite successful, especially as a portrait painter, and died nine years earlier than Rembrandt, at the age of 45, and his name, despite Flinck’s considerable talent, would forever remain inextricably linked with the name of his teacher.

We owe Flinck to "alternative" portraits of those people who are so familiar to us from the work of Rembrandt himself and his wife Saskia.

  • Govert Flinck. Rembrandt as shepherd with staff and flute
  • Govert Flinck. A Young Woman as a Shepherdess ("Saskia as Flora")
It was Govert Flinck who, along with Rembrandt, was one of six selected artists, who at the beginning of the 1640s were invited to decorate the largest and presentable room at that time in the whole city — the great hall of the Kloveniersdoelen ("musketeers' shooting range"). Flinck’s "The Company of Captain Albert Bas and Lieutenant Lucas Conyn" is a kind of response to the "Night Watch". And it must be said, representatives of the company of Captain Albert Bas had much less reason to take offense at the artist than the representatives of the company Frans Banning Cocq, depicted by Rembrand. In contrast to the risky and dynamic "Night Watch", all the characters of the painting of Flinck are evenly lit, and their faces are equally well read by the viewer. Govert Flinck’s canvas was more traditional and, of course, did not cause such censures of customers as "Night Watch".

What do Govert Flinck’s most famous picture of "Isaac Blessing Jacob" and "Danae" of his mentor Rembrandt have in common?

The stories were taken from two completely different contexts — biblical and ancient. In one case, the forefather Isaac mistakenly blessed the wrong one: although his first-born child was another son, Esau (the one who sold the birthright for a lentil stew), Isaac’s wife Rebekah, using the blindness of her dying husband, summed up the second son — her favorite Jacob. In another case, the seductive princess of Argos Danae, sealed in the underground copper house by King Acrisius, who fears death by the hands of an unborn grandchild, invitingly extends her hand to the lover Zeus, who impregnated her in the form of a shower of gold.

  • Govert Flinck: Isaac Blessing Jacob
  • Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Danaë
But notice how many compositional finds Govert Flinck borrowed from Rembrandt: Isaac’s gesture and his hand itself are so similar to Danae’s gesture and hand. The similarities are found in the depictions of a lush bed and a lumen of draperies behind it — with the difference that Flinck placed these attributes of a love date in a far more pious context. The inclined Rebekah reminds of the nurse of Danae from the painting of Rembrandt and unexpectedly proves to be the link between two completely different stories. Both women become mediators in the case, though not quite legitimate, but having far-reaching consequences: from the love affair of Danae and Zeus, the great hero Perseus will be born, who beheaded the Gorgon Medusa and saved Andromeda, and the blessed by father Jacob will become the ancestor of the tribes of Israel.

Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-1678)

Samuel van Hoogstraten was called the most original person from the Rembrandt workshop: he was not only a painter and graphic artist, but also an art theorist and an extraordinary poet.

"Samuel van Hoogstraten", we could find rare details in Rembrand’s biography by Pierre Descargues, "./recalled the difficult moments when the teacher’s exactitude plunged him into deep sorrow. With tears in his eyes, without giving himself a break, the pupil did not eat, did not drink and did not leave the workshop until he corrected his mistakes. If this was violence, it was not generated by power, but by exactingness. In fact, Rembrandt-the teacher believed that the young people who came to him were too absorbed in ready-made ideas "

Hoogstraten himself in a letter to his brother told about the wisdom that Rembrandt gave him: "When I asked my teacher Rembrandt many questions, he quite rightly replied, 'Try to put well in practice what you already know. In doing so you will, in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about."

  • Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Self-portrait, 1640, at 34 years old.
  • Samuel van Hoogstraten. Portrait of a young man in a red cap
20-year-old Samuel van Hoogstraten, from the point of view of art critic, showed remarkable insolence when he decided to depict himself as his teacher. His work is clearly copying (and perhaps partly parodying) Rembrandt’s "Self-Portrait, 1640, at 34 years old", where Rembrandt painted himself at the peak of his glory. Imagining himself in the same classic niche and a similar pose, as well as in a beret, a beloved Rembrandt headgear, Hoogstraten made a kind of declaration of intent and demonstrated the seriousness of his ambitions.

From another pupil of Rembrandt, Carel Fabritius, Hoogstraten was infected by a fascination with optical illusions and visual illusions. Together with Fabritius, they studied the laws of perspective and mastered the latest inventions — the telescope and camera obscura. Later, Samuel van Hoogstraten would become famous in the Viennese court of the Habsburgs as a master of optical illusions and deceptions.

Hoogstraten painted relatively few paintings — this was due to the versatility of his interests and

Hoogstraten painted relatively few paintings — this was due to the versatility of his interests and his reluctance to confine himself exclusively to painting. As a writer he was known no less than as an artist, and his book "Introduction to the Academy of Painting", published in Rotterdam in 1678, put Hoogstraten among the first-rate theoreticians of the XVII century (in contrast to Rembrandt, who did not devote his almost 30-year-old history of teaching a single treatise or article). So it’s no wonder, as it turned out, in one of the early self-portraits, Hoogstraten portrayed as his attributes not the palette and brush, but the pen and paper.

And they think that it was the clever and astute Samuel van Hoogstraten who was the first to assess and theoretically formulate what the grandiose innovation of the Rembrandt’s "Night Watch" was: many other contemporaries either did not understand the painting, or found it not very successful.

Nicolaes Maas (1634-1693)

Nicholas Mas. Self-portrait
1685, 63×50 cm
One of the last masters of the "Golden Age" of Dutch painting, young Nicolaes Maas appeared in the studio of Rembrandt at fourteen years old. Although Rembrandt usually preferred older students and did not take novices, he accepted Maas. "Maitre immediately set him in front of a mirror", says Pierre Descargues. 'He gave him a sheet of paper, a pen, a brush and brown ink and told him to draw a self-portrait. It was his manner of awakening self-consciousness in the pupils."

However, portraits in the spirit of Rembrandt didn’t bring Nicolaes Maas fame, he became popular for his genre scenes instead, and as a portraitist he became famous only after he had refused to follow Rembrandt, but immediately began to imitate another artist — Anthony van Dyck.

The court portraits of Nicolaes Maas show that not much from Rembrandt’s artistic manner was left in his: one can find neither Rembrandt’s strained psychologism here, nor his specific reddish-ochre colors, nor his intriguing chiaroscuro. We can see sophistication, secularity, palatable variety of palette and such recognizable "detail of van Dyck" - expressive hands with long thin fingers instead.

Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680)

Ferdinand Baltasars Bol was one of the most diligent pupils of Rembrandt and a master whose destiny developed, perhaps most unenviable for author’s vanity (if only Bol knew about it): his paintings in various museums and collections would be very often attributed to Rembrandt.

Dutch burghers with millstone collars, Old Testament heroes in turbans, women, intently bent over the books — all these recognizable Rembrandt heroes in Bol’s work are so numerous that even specialists sometimes find it difficult to determine to which of them, the pupil or the teacher, belongs one or the other painting.

Like Hoogstraten, Ferdinand Bol in the late 1640s went through the temptation to assimilate his own

Like Hoogstraten, Ferdinand Bol in the late 1640s went through the temptation to assimilate his own self-portrait to the Rembrandt’s appearance: he used such attributes as recognizable beret and precious regalia on the chest with which Rembrandt, in periods when his soul was seized with vanity, loved to decorate himself.

  • Ferdinand Bol. Minerva (copy after Rembrandt’s painting)
  • Rembrandt van Rijn. Minerva in Her Study
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
This drawing by Ferdinand Bol repeats Rembrandt’s Minerva. The useful practice of copying in the workshop of Rembrandt was encouraged. One of the pupils of Rembrandt, whose name remained unknown to us, even collected a whole folder of drawings with subsequent editing by Rembrandt — his notes, refined lines, sharpening or obscuring individual details, etc. helped students to grasp the diabolically subtle difference between a mediocre picture and a magnificent drawing. By the way, many unsigned pupils' works later got into the art market and were issued for the work of Rembrandt. Some contemporaries of the artist even claimed that he himself did not mind that high-quality copies of his works made by pupils were sold under his name — after all, Rembrandt’s studio was not only an educational but also a commercial entity.

Gerrit (Gerard) Dou (1613-1675)

Gerrit (Gerard) Dow. Self-portrait
1645, 12.4×8.3 cm
This artist of the "Dutch Golden Age" is considered the first pupil of Rembrandt. Unlike many others taught by Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Gerrit Dou met Rembrandt in their common hometown Leiden. And it happened much earlier than the beginning of the loud glory of Rembrandt — Dou was about fifteen, and Rembrandt was only a little over 20 years old.

Gerrit Dou spent about three years in the Rembrandt’s workshop, but the influence of Rembrandt on his art was not too significant.

Subsequently, their ways would split: Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, and Dou stayed in Leiden. Though it won’t stop him from becoming famous for his scrupulously and very carefully painted paintings with a smooth enamel surface. Rembrandt, in spite of the tastes of his contemporaries and the displeasure of customers, would avoid totally smooth surface more and more: he would work with thick paints, purposely gave volume to the strokes, which results in a relief surface, so annoying for the rich customers, and to get a "knobby" surface, he would add to the paints ground quartz and silicon oxide.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn. An Old Woman Reading, 1655
  • Gerrit Dou. Old Woman reading a Lectionary (portrait of Rembrandt's mother)
Recommended exhibitions and views
In these two remarkable for the quality, but completely different in the manner of execution portraits of the reading woman (it is suggested that both Rembrandt and Dou could paint it from Rembrandt’s mother Cornelia van Rijn), one can vividly see what distinguished Rembrandt from many of his pupils and conditional followers — sometimes exceptionally skillful, but still remaining within the classical paradigm of art.

Title illustration: Rembrandt’s Self-portrait (detail).
Author: Anna Vcherashnyaya