Questions to arouse interest. What are these men doing? How are they dressed? What makes you think some one has interrupted them? At whom are they looking? Why do you suppose the one syndic has risen? Why do you think the man standing behind the others wears no hat? What do you think his duties were? Which man looks the oldest? the youngest? How has the artist avoided a stiff arrangement of the figures in this painting?
Original Picture : Ryks Museum, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn (rëm’ brant van rin’).
Birthplace : Leiden, the Netherlands.
Dates: Born, 16o6; died, 1669.
The story of the picture. This picture represents the syndics of the Cloth Merchants’ Guild, in a room of their Guild House, busy going over their accounts. In these days of great corporations and societies of all kinds, it is easy for us to understand what a Cloth Merchants’ Guild might be.
History tells us that as far back as the time of the Romans there were what were called merchants’ corporations or guilds organized for mutual aid and protection. Among the very first known was a fishermen’s guild, in which all the members met and decided the rights of the various members to use the water front, and also, no doubt, planned to take away the privilege from all who were not members.
In the Netherlands the guilds were many and very influential. Besides the general officers usually appointed by the king, there were a certain number of officers whom the members themselves chose, called masters, deans, wardens, or syndics. It was the duty of these syndics to visit the workshops and salesrooms of all members of the guild, at all hours, to see that the rules were enforced. They were also expected to examine candidates for apprentice-ship and mastership. Each guild had its own costume or uniform. Even to this day a remnant of these old customs remains, and in England every twenty years a few of the cities celebrate, by a very important and imposing parade, what is known as “guild day.” Many cities still have the old Guild Houses where these meetings were held, and there is not a cathedral or church building of any importance in the Netherlands or Belgium in which some great event connected with these guilds is not represented by either a painting or a sculptured monument. And so it is little wonder that Rembrandt should paint such a picture as this.
It is as if we opened the door suddenly upon the syndics, who look up to see what has disturbed them. One man has half risen from his chair. All five are dressed in the uniform of the guildblack coats, broad white collars, and large black felt hats. Each figure is a complete portrait in itself and bears, it is said, a speaking likeness to the syndic painted.
Some time before this, Rembrandt had had an unfortunate experience. He had painted a wonderful picture called the “Night Watch.” But in that great painting he had allowed his feelings as an artist, and his love of a fine composition, to make him forget man’s vanity. So, although a great many prominent men had posed for this picture, he had neglected to paint them all in conspicuous positions. Those upon whom the bright light fell were delighted with the picture, but the majority, who were in the shadow, did not like it at all and so refused to pay any money toward buying it. The truth is they had each expected a good portrait, and instead he had painted a masterpiece in composition.
So in this later picture he was careful to make a good likeness of each of the syndics, as well as to make an interesting composition.
These five syndics are gathered around a table covered with a rich oriental cloth woven on a dark red ground. The plain paneled walls of the room are brown, filling the picture with that rich golden-brown tone for which Rembrandt is famous and which gives to his pictures their mysterious and peculiar charm.
It is said that the other portraits in the Ryks Museum, Amsterdam, where this picture is hung, look dull and lifeless beside it. And, strange to say, it was painted when Rembrandt was fast losing his eyesight and when, too, he was in great financial difficulties. The order for the picture was given him by an old friend who thought first of his need, but later of his great genius. It was Rembrandt’s last important order before his death in 1669.
Although these men are looking toward us, no two are in exactly the same position. The light from the window falls full on the face of each syndic; even the servant is not placed in the shadow. Suppose these men had been represented as of exactly the same height ; that would have given us a straight horizontal line across the picture even straighter than that of the wainscoting above, which is broken by the corner of the room. Thus we would have had a stiff, uninteresting arrangement.
Art students from all over the world go to the Art Museum to study and copy parts of this wonderful painting. Joseph Israels tells us he made a copy of his favorite figure, which was “the man in the left-hand corner with the soft gray hair under the steeple hat.”
Questions to help the pupil understand the picture. Where are these men? Why have they met here? What is their trade? For what purpose were the guilds formed? Tell about the first guilds and their purpose. In what country were these guilds most popular? Where do they still exist? Who were the syndics? What were some of their duties? What was the place ‘ called where they met? What do we have in our country in the place of syndics and guilds? Of what benefit are they? How are the syndics in this picture dressed? At whom are they looking? What can you say of the man standing behind the syndics? Which syndic seems to be the most important? What unpleasant experience had the artist had that influenced him in painting this picture? In what ways do the positions of the six men differ? What can you say of the composition of this picture? the light and shade? What qualities of greatness do you find in this picture? How did Rembrandt happen to paint it? What colors did he use? Where is the original painting?
The story of the artist. Rembrandt was born in Leiden, the Netherlands, in 1606. In those days, when there were no newspapers and no one cared to set down the daily events in the lives of great men, it was only what the man actually accomplished that was recorded. So we know very little of the early life of Rembrandt. Some authorities declare he was born in a windmill, but most agree that as his father was a prosperous miller, the son was no doubt born in a very comfortable if not elegant home. However that may be, we know that Rembrandt spent many happy hours with his brothers and sisters high up in this windmill, and here it is believed he first studied the effect of light and shade on objects.
From the small window in the tiny room at the top of the mill little light could be expected, and as he did much of his painting here his studies were mostly in shadow. Often he must have looked from this little window down upon the quaint city of Leiden, built upon its ninety islands joined by at least a hundred and fifty bridges; upon its wide streets, rose-bordered canals, houses built in rows, each with its own windmill, and the picturesque rows of trees. The largest building of all was the University, for which Leiden is still famous. Rembrandt attended this university, we are told, and as he looked at it he must have recalled its history and how bravely the Dutch people fought when the Spanish army tried to capture the cityhow they braved famine and pestilence as they awaited the arrival of Prince William of Orange. As a reward for their courage, William offered his people either a great gift of gold or a university; and, although the people needed the money to rebuild their houses, they chose the university.
Rembrandt is one of the great artists who is known to the world by his first name. His father’s name was Gerrit Harmens and he was called Harmens van Rijn (by the Rhine). According to a custom of those days the name frequently told where the man lived. His son was called Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, meaning Rembrandt, son of Harmens by the Rhine.
Rembrandt’s great love for good pictures, and his desire to draw, caused his parents to send him to an artist to study. He studied with this teacher at home for three years. Then he spent several months in Amsterdam studying, but finally decided that nature should be his teacher. He was then only sixteen years old, but he fitted up the little room in the mill as a studio, and here he continued his study. He painted his father, his mother, and his brothers and sisters many times. Then he painted his own portrait by looking in a mirror, and, by assuming various attitudes and different expressions, he received much valuable practice which, later on, helped him greatly.
His first great work was a portrait of his mother, painted when he was twenty-three years old. Two years later he went to Amsterdam, where his pictures brought large prices and pupils flocked to him from all parts of Europe. Once he painted a window with- a servant standing near it that was – so real it deceived every one.
About this time he married the beautiful Saskia, whose picture he has painted so many times. His home was furnished extravagantly, and nothing was too good to give Saskia.
There are three great paintings by Rembrandt which mark three epochs in his life. The first was “The Anatomy Lesson,” painted for Doctor Tulp, representing the Professor of Anatomy lecturing to his class. It is said that Rembrandt hid behind a curtain and, without their knowledge, observed the class during several lessons that he might secure natural expressions and positions. This picture was painted shortly after his marriage to Saskia, and through it he became famous. It -marks the beginning of the happiest part of his life.
The second great painting was the ” Night Watch,” which was not appreciated because he failed to give all the figures equal prominence. This picture marks the beginning of his fall from favor, and it was about this time that his wife, Saskia, died.
Crushed by both sorrow and misfortune, Rembrandt still continued to paint. His choice of subjects, however, changed noticeably. He now painted more of the sorrow, poverty, and distress of life. His house, with all its beautiful furnishings, was sold.
Then came his great painting, ” The Syndics of the Cloth Hall,” in which he seems to have concentrated all his wonderful genius. But, masterpiece that it is, the picture won no popularity, and so the last years of Rembrandt’s life were spent in increasing poverty and sadness.
Other noted pictures by Rembrandt are : ” Christ Blessing Little Children,” “Sacrifice of Abraham,” ” Portrait of an Old Woman,” “The Mill,” ” Saskia,” and “Supper at Emmaus.”
Questions about the artist. Who painted this picture? Why was he so named? Why do we know so little about him? Where is it believed that Rembrandt first studied light and shade? What other training did he have? How did he paint his own portrait? What was his first great painting? Tell something which illustrates how well he could paint. Was the greatness of ” The Syndics of the Cloth Hall ” appreciated when it appeared?