Rembrandt: Gore, fame, and the one-name club
Arts & Culture

Rembrandt: Gore, fame, and the one-name club

An artist with exceptional talent is called “a Rembrandt.” So just how did the name of that 17th-century Dutch painter and printmaker become a synonym for artistic greatness? Was it simply talent? Or maybe clever branding? Discover answers through the virtual offerings of Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition at the National Gallery of Canada, including a lecture on Wednesday, May 19 entitled Why Rembrandt?

Heroine from the Old Testament, 1632-1633, by Rembrandt Van Run. Purchased 1953 by the National Gallery of Canada.


A Woman of Mystery
Heroine From the Old Testament (pictured above) is the star attraction and catalogue cover girl at the Rembrandt exhibition. this painting from 1632–33 was purchased by the national gallery in 1953 from the Prince of Liechtenstein. Rembrandt scholars can’t agree who she is meant to represent. Speculation includes such Biblical characters as esther and Bathsheba. and who was the sitter? Some say Rembrandt’s wife Saskia. Others say his sister lisbeth. Rembrandt loved creating ambiguous paintings like this one to confound the public. We’re still guessing four centuries later. 

Competitive Gore
Rembrandt is best known for his dramatic portraits. But he also recreated Biblical scenes. none is more spectacular and surprisingly gory than The Blinding of Samson in this summer’s exhibition. A man thrusts a dagger into Samson’s right eye. Blood spurts. The villainous delilah brandishes a pair of scissors and a chunk of Samson’s hair. His strength is gone. There is some speculation this horrific scene was created, in part, to out-shock another gory painting, Prometheus Bound, by Rem- brandt’s idol Peter Paul Rubens, showing an eagle devouring Prometheus’s liver. 

Rembrandt, the penniless
Rembrandt made and lost fortunes. His paintings commanded high prices. And by the mid-17th century, he was the best-known artist in the Netherlands. But he spent more than he earned. He invested badly in real estate and overseas trading ventures. He was a shopaholic, filling his mansion with expensive bric-a-brac that he used as props in his paintings. And, in mid-life, he faced intense competition from younger, flavour-of- the-month artists whose names are now forgotten. Despite his fame, Rembrandt went bankrupt in the 1650s, a decade before his death. 

Self portrait leaning on a stone sill, 1639, Rembrandt Van Run. Etching on laid paper. Purchased in 1951 by the National Gallery of Canada

How to be Famous
The Dutch worshipped Italian artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Titian, who were so famous they could use only one name. Rembrandt decided in 1632 to join the one-name club despite not really being famous yet. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn started signing his paintings with only his first name. This was unprecedented for dutch artists. The marketing scheme worked. Fame arrived. From 1632 to 1635, he painted about 100 pictures, many of them portraits commissioned by wealthy merchants. His fame remained even after his commissions dropped in later years.