At home with Rembrandt: a look into the Dutch master’s life behind closed doors

As the new Rembrandt exhibition starts at the National Gallery we delve into the Dutch master’s home life and style.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, born to working-class parents in Leiden in the Netherlands in 1606, left university after a brief spell to be apprenticed to a painter and at 18 set up his own studio in his home town.
 
His work caught the attention of the court at The Hague, which brought him commissions, and at 25 he moved to Amsterdam to set up as a portrait painter.

With its great port, Amsterdam was Holland’s bustling trade centre. Magnificent gabled merchants’ houses lined the canals, while all manner of goods were unloaded at the docks, including rare animal specimens such as tortoise shells, which appealed to collectors — Rembrandt among them — for their cabinets of curiosities.
 
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Left: Rembrandt’s house; Right: Self-portrait from Kenwood House in Hampstead
 
Foreign merchants thronged the city, many in eastern robes and turbans, in colourful contrast to the black-clad local burghers. All this must have enthralled the young painter.
 
He lodged with art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, whose wealthy cousin, Saskia, 22, he married in 1634. Rembrandt earned — and spent — a lot, so in 1639, the year he was commissioned to paint The Night Watch, the couple bought a large house near the port.

The two-storey house with its stepped gable was built between 1606-1607 and remodelled in 1627 with a new front, an extra storey, and a triangular corniced pediment, which was the height of fashion.
  
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The house was expensive at 13,000 guilders, so Rembrandt took out a mortgage. Between 1652-6, he tried and failed to pay off the debt, and in 1659 was declared bankrupt.
 
Everything he owned was inventoried and auctioned off and he moved to a cheaper part of town. The inventory survives and was used to restore the house to look as it did in Rembrandt’s day.

The most important rooms of 17th-century Dutch houses were at the front. Rembrandt’s street door opens directly into a front hall, with black-and-white marble tiles and tall windows. Near the door there’s a dais with a fine chair, where women would sit to keep their slippers off the cold marble. Foot stoves, often fired by turf, helped to combat the cold and damp. In this room, Rembrandt had good furniture and paintings.
 
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Rembrandt’s print workshop: on an upper floor of his restored Amsterdam home

The saloon next door was equally grand, with a carved fireplace, Delft tiles, sculptures and a carved wooden box bed. A painting by Rembrandt of Saskia in this bed helps to recreate the room.
 
The big kitchen at the back is lined in white tiles, with hanging shelves, a wide fireplace and range. Metal utensils hang along the mantel, and blue-and-white Delft tiles line the fireplace. This room has another box bed, for the cook or housekeeper.
 
After Saskia died in 1642, leaving a baby, Titus, Rembrandt lived with his housekeeper, before falling for his maid, Hendrickje Stoffels, later his common-law wife, whom he also drew.
 
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The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild: known as ‘The Syndics’, about 1662
© Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 
 
The steep, winding stairs meant his collection of paintings, antiques, Roman busts, weapons, Japanese armour, a lion skin and furniture had to be hauled up through the windows, to turn up later in his paintings.
 
On the upper floors, he had a studio with a printing press, and a large painting studio at the top. 
 
In 1659, at Rembrandt’s bankruptcy sale, Titus bought the big mirror his father would have used for his self-portraits. On the way back it broke. It was a while before the artist painted more self-portraits but when he did they were among his greatest works.
 
Five are on show at the National Gallery’s new exhibition of late works which includes 40 paintings, many undoubtedly done in this house.
  • Rembrandt: The Late Works runs from next Wednesday until January 18. See www.nationalgallery.org.uk/rembrandt
  • For details about Rembrandt’s house see www.rembrandthuis.nl
  • For info on Holland, see www.Holland.com. You can fly there with easyjet.com.

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