Rembrandt, the fifth of six children, was born in Leiden, Holland in 1606. The Calvinist Northern Netherlands had recently gained their freedom from the Roman Catholics. Leiden was the intellectual and cultural centre of the Reformation and was endowed with a University. Rembrandt studied literature at this University, but soon began to study drawing as his true talent emerged.
In 1621, Rembrandt apprenticed with artist Jakob van Swanenburgh and later studied with Piter Lastman in Amsterdam. Lastman's style certainly influenced Rembrandt, although the two artists worked together for only six months. In 1625, Rembrandt returned home and shared a studio with a friend.
The influence of Caravaggio is evident in Rembrandt's early work. Perhaps due to the influence of his religious mother, biblical themes were the artist's favorite subject. He collected stage props to be used as embellishments in his paintings.
Because of the Reformation, the demand for church paintings during Rembrandt's lifetime was minimal. Citizens became the primary patrons of the arts; portraits and group portraiture therefore became prominent. Rembrandt's The Anatomy of Dr. Tulp established the artist as a master of the group portrait. The artist's ability to highlight each individual sitter as well as his careful composition and sympathetic rendering were considered unsurpassed at the time.
In 1634, Rembrandt married one of his sitters, Saskia van Vylenbrach. He continued to paint Saskia, often in costumes, throughout their marriage. The couple shared expensive tastes and lived well beyond their means. In 1639, using loans from family and friends, Rembrandt bought a large, majestic home. The debt he incurred in buying this home would cause his eventual financial ruin.
In 1644, Saskia died while giving birth to the couple's fourth and only surviving child, Titus. This event marked the beginning of Rembrandt's decline. His painting, the now famous 'The Night Watch' was not well received in its time. The subjects felt that they were not given equal prominence in the group portrait. Rembrandt's popularity decreased, although certain supporters continued to commission him and pay record sums. While his financial difficulties increased, so did his talent. Rembrandt's art expressed real and intimate human feeling with incomparable sensitivity. His coloring and the contrasts he created between light and dark were also outstanding.
Rembrandt is perhaps best known for the series of self-portraits he created over his lifetime which portray the artist in all life stages, from a hopeful youth to a disillusioned old man.
By 1645, Rembrandt was living with his servant, Hedrickje Stoffels, who gave birth to his daughter, Cornelia. In order to support the family, Rembrandt devoted himself to his work. Despite his efforts, he declared bankruptcy in 1656. His son Titus was able to provide for the family until Rembrandt's death in 1669.