Why Rembrandt Is Considered One of Art History’s Most Important Old Masters


Multiple Mediums

During the Renaissance, master artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo worked with different materials across several disciplines. Rembrandt adopted this multifaceted approach to his practice as well, excelling in painting, printmaking, and drawing.


While Rembrandt is praised for each of his talents, he is perhaps most well-known for his paintings. An expert at capturing the contrast between luminescence and shadows, he produced painted works that evoke emotion through dramatic tonality.

This theatrical treatment of light is evident in his most famous painting, The Night Watch (1642), a large-scale group portrait of a militia company.

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburgh' known as ‘The Nightwatch' (1642) Photo: Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain {PD-1923})

In addition to this distinctive use of light, Rembrandt's paintings also showcase his skilled brushwork. His earlier pieces, like The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), are rendered in refined strokes, while his later works, like The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669), convey a more expressive approach to painting. In both cases, however, it is clear that Rembrandt excelled at his craft.

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp' (1632) Photo: Mauritshuis online catalogue via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘The Return of the Prodigal Son' (1668) Photo: Hermitage via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain {PD-1923})


In addition to paintings, Rembrandt also produced graphic prints. These were created using two techniques: etching and drypoint. In both cases, an image is incised onto a metal plate, which is covered in ink to make a print. While etching employs chemicals to create this initial image, the drypoint process entails drawing directly onto the plate with a needle-like instrument.

Rembrandt mastered both of these methods, culminating in a collection of roughly 300 prints.

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

Photo: Autopilot via Wikimedia Commons GNU Free Documentation License


As a draughtsman, Rembrandt specialized in sketched portraits, studies of animals, and genre art, or depictions of everyday life. To create these compositions, he primarily employed black and brown ink as well as red, white, and black chalk.

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘An Elephant' (1637) (Photo: Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain {PD-1923})

Diverse Subject Matter

In his paintings, prints, and drawings, Rembrandt explored a wide array of subjects. This eclectic iconography includes landscape paintings, like Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638). His evident appreciation for the outdoors is not surprising, as he famous advised artists to “choose only one master—nature.”

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘Landscape with a Stone Bridge' (1638) (Photo: Rijksmuseum via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain)

His oeuvre also features a penchant for portraiture, ranging from realistic depictions of his contemporaries to a comprehensive collection of roughly 100 revealing self-portraits.

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘Self-Portrait, Staring' (1630) Photo: Web Gallery of Art via Wikimedia Commons Public Domain {PD-1923})

Lastly, he regularly explored narrative art, including biblical stories, historical depictions, and portrayals of everyday life. By artistically exploring seemingly straightforward scenes, he was able to recognize and reveal unexpected elements of his subjects.

According to A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, both Ancient and Modern (1908), he explained: “Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.”

Rembrandt Paintings Dutch Golden Age Old Masters

‘The Windmill' (Etching) (1641) Photo: Google Art Project via Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)


Today, Rembrandt is regarded as a famed painter and one of the greatest printmakers of all time. His work is exhibited in world-class museums, from Amsterdam's acclaimed Rijksmuseum to Paris' iconic Louvre Museum. Fittingly, the versatile artist's influence is even evident in contemporary design, inspiring everything from algorithm art to artistic action figures.

watching Rembrandt

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Kelly Richman-Abdou

Kelly Richman-Abdou is a Contributing Writer at My Modern Met. An art historian living in Paris, Kelly was born and raised in San Francisco and holds a BA in Art History from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Art and Museum Studies from Georgetown University. When she’s not writing, you can find Kelly wandering around Paris, whether she’s leading a tour (as a guide, she has been interviewed by BBC World News America and France 24) or simply taking a stroll with her husband and two tiny daughters.

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