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Link between Rembrandt and the University

There are various links between Rembrandt and Leiden University

Enrolled at the University

Rembrandt, the ninth child of millers Harmen and Neeltgen, enrolled in the ‘Leydse Universiteyt’ on 20 May 1620. The University was founded in 1575, making it just under 50 years old at the time. Rembrandt opted to study the arts.

The University Library still has the admissions register from the time, with Rembrandt’s entry in Latin: Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis, studios[us] litterarum, annor[um] 14, apud parentes (Rembrandt Harmensz. from Leiden, student of the arts, 14 years old, lives with his parents). As far as we know, Rembrandt was only 13 at the time. He may have planned to start studying when he turned 14 or have been pretending to be older because stricter rules applied to students under the age of 14.

At any rate, students of such a young age were not uncommon at the time. Rembrandt had already been attending the Latin School on Lokhorststraat for several years, which was run by a professor of law. Pupils in the top class often enrolled in the University because the school was seen as preparation for further academic study. Early enrolment may have given them access to the library and enabled them to attend lectures.

The enrollment of 'Rembrandus Hermanni' in the album studiosorum in 1620. This admissions register can be seen in the University Library.

Painter’s apprentice and student

Did the young Rembrandt actually attend lectures? We really can’t be sure because there are no attendance registers or grade lists from the time. He may have enrolled in the University more for the advantages such as the University legal system, exemption from conscription in the civic militia and duty-free beer than from a burning desire to study. In around 1621, Rembrandt also became the apprentice of Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburg, who soon discovered Rembrandt’s extraordinary talent. City historian Jan Jansz Orlers wrote in 1641 that Rembrandt’s parents had sent him to school to learn Latin, so that he would be able to attend the ‘Leytsche Academie’. However, he also wrote that Rembrandt’s parents removed him from school (Orlers did not specify which one) because he was only interested in painting and drawing. Some historians, including Simon Schama, do not rule out that Rembrandt was both a painter’s apprentice and a student for a certain period of time.

Print of the anatomical theater at Leiden University, Willem Isaacsz. van Swanenburg after Jan Cornelisz. van ’t Woudt, 1644 (first ed. 1610). Leiden University Library.

Inspiration: the anatomical theatre

The academic environment of the University with all its research, scholars and students would have been an important source of inspiration for ‘Rembrandus Hermanni.’ In his Leiden period, he already produced an etching of anonymous scholars sitting in their studies, and his work shows that he was a learned man. The University had an anatomical theatre from 1594, one of the first in Europe, where physicians held public dissections. Although the anatomy lessons were chiefly for medical students, such as Nicolaes Tulp, they became something of a tourist attraction because members of the public could purchase a ticket and watch from the stands. Given his interest in anatomy, it is very likely that Rembrandt would also have come to watch. He painted his impressive group portrait The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp in 1632, soon after he left Leiden.

Inspiration: the Hortus botanicus

Rembrandt may also have gained inspiration from the Hortus botanicus, at the time the only botanical garden in the Republic that was open to the public. This was where the tulip was first cultivated, at the end of the 16th century. It was from Leiden that this flower from Turkey conquered the rest of the Netherlands and Northern Europe. The tulip features in Rembrandt’s painting Saskia as Flora.

There were cabinets of curiosities at both the Hortus botanicus and the anatomical theatre, with exotic animals, skeletons, plants and rarities that attracted the curious from the University and beyond. Rembrandt was also an enthusiastic collector of natural objects such as horns, shells and other curiosities.

Discovered by Constantijn Huygens

Rembrandt benefitted from an old boys’ network of prominent men, many of whom had studied in Leiden. His career got off to a flying start thanks to Constantijn Huygens, an influential diplomat and one of the greatest poets of the day. In around 1629, Huygens, who like his older brother Maurits had studied law in Leiden, visited the studio that Rembrandt may have shared with the painter Jan Lievens. In his autobiography, Huygens praises the great talent of this ‘young and noble Leiden painting duo’. Huygens was the secretary of stadholder Frederik Hendrik in The Hague. As adviser on Frederik Hendrik’s art collection, Huygens introduced both painters to the court in The Hague. Rembrandt soon received commissions from Frederik Hendrik, who had studied mathematics in Leiden. He also painted the portrait of Constantijn’s brother Maurits.

At around the age of 25, the ambitious Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam because there would be more opportunity for commissions and hiring his own apprentices in this, the biggest city in the Republic. But even in Amsterdam, as his portraits show, the Leiden connection was never far away.

Rembrandt Year

In the last Rembrandt Year (2006) reproductions of 27 paintings and prints that Rembrandt produced while still living in Leiden were hung on the facades of buildings in Leiden (the exhibition ‘Jonge Rembrandt Groot’). In this current Rembrandt Year, we are specifically focusing on the relationship between Rembrandt and Leiden University. This site tells the story of six paintings and one etching. Each canvas shows the links between the most famous Dutch master of them and the oldest university in the Netherlands.

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