Leiden Classics: Rembrandt's traces at Leiden University
Rembrandt van Rijn was enrolled as a student of the arts at Leiden University, but he was more interested in becoming a painter. What traces now remain of this famous phantom student?
Anyone with the slightest interest in the greatest 17th-century Dutch master will probably know that Rembrandt was born in Leiden; on 15 July 1606, to be precise. What is much less known is that he was also enrolled at Leiden University. Evidence of this fact can be found at the Leiden University library. The Catalogus Studiosorium, the original university register of enrolments of the time, reports on 20 May 1620 in Latin: 'Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis Studiosus litteraturum annorum 14 apud parentes'. This literally says that the 14-year-old Leiden arts student Rembrandt, son of Harmen, lives with his parents.
This historical volume is available for viewing in the Special Collections reading room, following a simple request with your library pass. A thrilling experience: suddenly the trail of the famous painter becomes very tangible indeed. Rembrandt’s parents, a wealthy miller and a baker’s daughter, wished to give their ninth child a good education. For four years, Rembrandt attended the Latin School in the Lokhorststraat before enrolling at the university. However, his studies at the university lasted, in all probability, no longer than a year. And the question remains whether the 14-year-old Rembrandt actually attended any lectures. University enrolment offered a number of advantages, such as tax-free beer and an exemption from home guard service. These may have been the primary reasons for Rembrandt’s enrolment.
During the same period, Rembrandt also became an apprentice to the Leiden painter Jacob van Swanenburg. It was Van Swanenburg who taught him the art of etching. Rembrandt later started an atelier in Leiden, where he frequently worked together with his friend, the painter Jan Lievens. He also took on students, such as Gerard Dou. During his Leiden period, Rembrandt mostly produced small paintings depicting allegorical or religious subject matters.
The Special Collections reading room at the University Library also reveals a substantial number of Rembrandt’s works: two rare drawings and approximately one hundred etchings. Leiden University is the only university in the Netherlands with its own art collection, including these 17th-century works. In the video series ‘Wereldschatten’ (World Treasures), the Leiden art historian Louk Tilanus discusses one of these drawings, a preliminary study for an etching representing Adam and Eve’s Fall from Grace. This quick sketch is a rarity because so few preliminary studies were preserved.
Although Rembrandt may not have actually have studied at the university, he must have been inspired by the scientific work taking place all around him, says Tilanus. The university had an anatomical theatre, one of the first of its kind in Europe, where physicians carried out public dissections of human and animal corpses. Tilanus: ‘It is very likely that Rembrandt, with his interest in anatomy, attended these events.’ The theatre was situated in a former church on the Rapenburg 70, the Faliede Bagijnkerk. This building is now home to the Administration and Central Services of Leiden University.
The renowned physician Nicolaes Tulp must also have visited the anatomical theatre: he studied medicine in Leiden in the period from 1611-1614. Tulp, who was later to become Mayor of Amsterdam, was also one of Rembrandt’s most important patrons after the painter moved to Amsterdam. Tulp’s anatomical lessons in the Amsterdam Weighing House were famous, and this is where Rembrandt completed his famous 1632 painting ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’.
Numerous Leiden art historians have studied this work and the reception of Rembrandt’s paintings. Art historian Eric Jan Sluijter, who completed his PhD in Leiden, also investigated eroticism in Rembrandt’s work. This resulted in the monumental study ‘Rembrandt and the Female Nude’ (2007).
Leiden archaeologists are also following Rembrandt’s trail. The precise location of his long demolished birthplace in the Leiden Weddesteeg was never completely certain. The university wanted to offer the answer to this question as a gift to the city of Leiden during the Rembrandt Year in 2006 (400 years after his birth). Leiden archaeologists translated old maps to modern coordinates and with the help of Russian and American satellites they were able, in 2007, to determine the location of the house where Rembrandt was born. A team of archaeologists will soon begin a soil investigation in the Weddesteeg to see whether they can find any remains of the foundations. Who knows what other traces they might discover.
(17 December 2013 - LvP)
The signposted walk entitled 'In the footsteps of the young Rembrandt’, also known in short as ‘The Rembrandt Walk’, can be obtained for € 2.95 from the Leiden Visitor Centre.