Leyden’s Painters, a Fanatic and a Hero
Rembrandt of the Rhine—His early life at Leyden—Jan Steen—Jan van Goyen—Brewer and painter—Pictures for beer—Jan Steen’s grave—His delicacy and charm—His native refinement—A painter of hands—Jan Steen and Morland—Jan Steen and Hogarth—The Red Sea—The Flood—Jan of Leyden—The siege of Muenster—Gigantic madness—Gerard Dou—Godfrey Schalcken—Frans van Mieris—William van Mieris—Gabriel Metsu—Beckford’s satire—Leyden’s poor pictures—The siege of Leyden—Adrian van der Werf.
Leyden was the mother of some precious human clay. Among her sons was the greatest of Dutch painters, Rembrandt van Rijn; the most lovable of them, Jan Steen; and the most patient of them, Gerard Dou.
Of Rembrandt’s genius it is late in the day to write, nor have I the power. We have seen certain of his pictures at The Hague; we shall see others at Amsterdam. I can add nothing to what is said in those places, but here, in Leyden (which has ten thousand stuffed birds, and not a single picture by her greatest son), one may dwell upon his early days and think of him wandering as a boy in the surrounding country unconsciously absorbing effects of light and shade.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606, probably in a house at the corner of the Weddesteg, near the Wittepoort, on the bank of the Rhine. It was the same year that gave England Macbeth and King Lear. His father was a miller, his mother the daughter of a Leyden baker: it was destined that the son of these simple folk should be the greatest painter that the north of Europe has produced.
They did not foresee such a fate, but they seem sufficiently to have realised that their son had unusual aptitude for him to be sent to study law at the University. But he meant from the first to paint, and when he should have been studying text-books he was studying nature. The old miller, having a wise head, gave way, and Rembrandt was allowed to enter the studio of Jacob van Swanenburgh. That was probably in 1622, when he was sixteen; in 1624 he knew so much more than Swanenburgh had ever dreamed of that he passed on to Amsterdam, to see what could be learned from Peter Lastman. But Lastman was of little use, and Rembrandt soon returned to Leyden.
There he set up his own studio, painting, however, at his father’s house—possibly even in the mill itself—as much as he could; and for seven years he taught younger men at Leyden his secrets. He remained at Leyden until 1631, moving then again to Amsterdam and beginning the greatest period of his life. At Leyden he had painted much and etched much; perhaps the portrait of himself in a steel gorget, at The Hague, is his finest Leyden picture. It was not until 1632, the year in which he married his Saskia, that the first of his most famous works, “The School of Anatomy,” was painted. Yet Leyden may consider that it was she that showed the way; she may well be proud.