The Prodigal Artist
Perhaps no other artist captures the imagination and the heart of a worldwide audience more than Rembrandt van Rijn (July 15, 1606-October 4, 1669). Despite his continuing popularity as the greatest painter of biblical themes and an impressive body of scholarship about his work, Rembrandt's faith has not been recognized and articulated as much as it should be.
Here was a person whose phenomenal optic nerve was connected to the highest intelligence, tenderness of feeling, and complexity of character, yet many key details of his life and beliefs still remain uncertain. A vastly productive artist for over four decades, he left no personal diary. But he lurks in his paintings—not just in his famous self-portraits, but also in some subtle and not-so-subtle self-portraits embedded in other paintings and engraved works. One suspects that Rembrandt's self-portraits were not only a reflection of his identity, but also an attempt to forge his identity.
In the The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (published in a number of editions since 1992), the late Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen lucidly and lovingly built a bridge from Rembrandt's artwork to a broad audience. Through his sensitive musing on Rembrandt's magnificent painting The Return of the Prodigal Son in relation to his own spiritual journey, Nouwen has captivated many readers who use the book as a spiritual manual and guide. Though it reveals as much about Nouwen as it does Rembrandt or his painting, the book shows the power Rembrandt's biblical interpretation still has in the hearts of contemporary viewers.
Rembrandt's Prodigal Son is a monumental work of art, over eight feet tall and six feet wide. He probably painted it in 1668, the year before he died. This painting, perhaps even more than the self-portraits from his last year, sums up his life. What was that life like?
Husband, Painter, Rebel
One of the most renowned, even shocking, embedded self-portraits is his painting The Raising of the Cross (c. 1633). Rembrandt depicts himself wearing an extravagant beret (he subsequently made it the trademark of an artist) in the center of the painting as the main person erecting the cross. One would like to think that this shows an honest and humble Rembrandt who identified himself as one of the guilty ones who put Christ on the cross—and that may be true. But Rembrandt was still young, and this work was painted for a very prestigious patron—the head of state at the time, Frederick Henry of Orange—as part of five scenes from The Passion of Christ. So bold, so memorable! Modesty and pride could be terribly entangled in Rembandt's personality.
Rembrandt completed The Raising of the Cross just prior to his marriage in 1634 to Saskia van Uylenburgh. Saskia was the cousin of a picture dealer with whom Rembrandt became closely associated after he made his final move from his birth city of Leiden to Amsterdam in 1631/32. By every account, Rembrandt's union with Saskia was a joyous one. Amazingly, Saskia seems to have been willing for Rembrandt to depict her perched on his lap as he hoisted a glass in The Prodigal Son in the Tavern (1635), while many contemporary painters (Rubens included) represented their own marital relationships in a garden suggesting Eden. Not without reason did the renowned art historian Kenneth Clark called Rembrandt a "rebel"!
But after several of their children died in infancy, Saskia's health deteriorated rapidly, and she died in 1642—the same year Rembrandt created his most famous painting, the so-called Nightwatch. Her only surviving offspring was their dearly loved son, Titus. Rembrandt later painted Titus's portrait, just as he had continually painted Titus's mother both in dazzling health and dire illness on her deathbed.
One can only speculate what happened to Rembrandt after the loss of his cherished wife. He was a believer, but he had been living a famous and festive life. Suddenly being separated from a wife he adored no doubt made him come to terms with what eternal values meant for him. It was the lowest point of Rembrandt's life emotionally and spiritually. Many suggest that he hit rock bottom when he had to declare insolvency in 1656, though he could well have been relieved at not having to deal with his possessions. It is exhilarating to acquire worldly goods but a burden to maintain them.
Rembrandt was not yet old and still a man of the flesh. After Saskia died, he moved into a common law relationship with Geertge Dircx, a widow whom he had employed to help in the home and care for Titus. This relationship soured and exploded into legal wrangling. Eventually, with the complicity of her brother, Rembrandt had her committed to an asylum.
Rembrandt could not bring himself to marry again for both financial and probably emotional reasons. But in the early 1650's he entered into a relationship of deep sympathy with Hendrikje Stoeffels, a kind and sincere woman 20 years his junior who came to help in his household. As Rembrandt had painted his first great love, Saskia, he also drew and painted Hendrikje over and over again in the last decades of his life. There are conflicting stories of her appearing before the church consistory because of her irregular relationship with Rembrandt. It is clear that she loved and cared for him and his son until she died in 1663. She bore a daughter to Rembrandt, who outlived him. Titus died within a year before his father's death in 1669.
Anchored in the Bible
Though his own relationships were complex, Rembrandt valued women and rendered them with great sympathy in his art. He felt free to introduce women into biblical narratives even when they were not mentioned explicitly in Scripture in order to give balance and humanity to his representations. A prime example is Jacob Blessing Joseph's Sons (based on Genesis 48), in which Joseph's wife stands nearby, gazing pensively at her family.
Through all the ups and downs, lows and blows of his life, Rembrandt remained fixated on the Bible. He devoted himself to the depiction of biblical stories to a much greater extent than his contemporaries did. Biblical themes were not in fashion in 17th-century Dutch art. Rembrandt's Dutch colleagues specialized in landscapes, still lifes, and genre pieces. To a large extent, this was a reflection of the greatest legacy of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, in art: a greater freedom for artists to broaden their subject matter beyond explicitly religious themes. Why should art be focused only on religion if God is the God of all creation? Protestantism opened up the whole world as a legitimate subject for art.
But Rembrandt was not only an artist of his time, exploring these broader themes; he transcended it as well. He was very much the odd man out painting so many biblical subjects (which comprise about a third of his works). Somehow he knew his identity and authenticity was anchored to the Bible whether its themes were in fashion or not. The message of the Scriptures was at the root and core of his being. He clung to that.
The Prodigal Comes Home
Probably more than any of his other paintings, The Return of the Prodigal Son helps us sum up some of the contours of Rembrandt's complex life. We might wish we could make his life simpler and even sanitize it. But he was like the biblical characters he portrayed—by turns admirable and deplorable.
Everyone who knows Jesus' parable (Luke 15:11-32) identifies with the prodigal son, the elder brother, or the loving father—usually in that order! Rembrandt no doubt identified himself with the prodigal son enfolded in the bosom of a loving father. His willful behavior, whether in regard to sex or money, must have weighed heavily on Rembrandt's conscience and caused him enormous guilt and desire for forgiveness.
This painting speaks volumes of grace to all who behold it because Rembrandt tenderly recognizes each of the characters. The elder son is not diminished; he stands to the right with great dignity and solemnity. Between the father and elder son, a steward sits musing on the extraordinary scene that he has helped facilitate. The woman looking out from behind the column is likely the two sons' mother. The second woman seen in profile at the top left is likely the elder brother's wife. The inclusion of these figures, who are not mentioned in the biblical narrative, reminds us that women were central in Rembrandt's life.
Rembrandt not only read the Bible, he participated in it, knowing he was a sinner in need of redemption. He identified with all the characters he portrayed. He knew and could convey the meaning of God's grace through Jesus Christ as few have been able to through either word or image.
Laurel Gasque is the author of Art and the Christian Mind: The Life and Work of H. R. Rookmaaker and sessional lecturer in theology and the arts at Regent College, Vancouver, BC, Canada.