Rembrandt’s windmill

It was long thought that Rembrandt van Rijn was born in a windmill. It’s not true, although he was the son of a miller and – logically enough – a baker’s daughter.

Rembrandt was born in Leiden, Holland, on 15 July 1606 in a house on the rampart looking over the river Rhine whose two arms meet there. In front of the house whirled the sails of two windmills, one of which was used by his father and grandfather to grind corn. Rembrandt was the eighth of nine children.

The family was of modest means, but his parents took great care with Rembrandt’s education. He began his studies at the Latin School, and at the age of 14 he was enrolled at the University of Leiden. The program did not interest him, and he soon left to study art – first with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburgh, and then, in Amsterdam, with Pieter Lastman, who was known for his historical paintings. After six months, having mastered everything he could, Rembrandt returned to Leiden, where he set himself up as an independent artist.

Rembrandt’s famous etching of a windmill (1641) is not of one that stood outside the place of his birth. The print shows the so-called Little Stink Mill, a windmill that stood on the city wall on the west side of Amsterdam. The mill was owned by the Leathermakers’ Guild and its nickname derived from its activity of softening tanned leather by treating it with cod liver oil. Rembrandt drew the mill and its surroundings in such detail that it seems likely he began the print on site and then finished it in the studio. Rembrandt’s landscape etchings were all produced between 1640 and 1653. In 1639 he had purchased a house on the Breestraat in Amsterdam (the present Rembrandt House Museum, which holds most of the artist’s 280 etchings). From there he could quickly go outside the city walls and many of the subjects of his landscape etchings can be found within walking distance.

Rembrandt imbued his etchings with something more than mere representation. The mill has a personality, standing sentinel over its owner’s dwelling, which has clearly been there a long time. The extraordinarily high regard Rembrandt’s contemporaries had for his etchings was understandable, for in less than four decades he had pushed the relatively new medium to its expressive limits. While later printmakers tried to coax more from their etchings by altering the process, attacking the plate with new tools, and printing on unexpected surfaces, no one ever achieved greater results than Rembrandt armed only with a simple etching needle and copper plates – and, of course, his genius.

Rembrandt was so accomplished at the technique of etching that critics thought he had discovered a secret process. Arnold Houbraken, the celebrated biographer of Dutch painters, wrote, “He had a method all his own of gradually treating and finishing his etched plates, a method which he did not communicate to his pupils. …Thus the invention has been buried with the inventor.” Etching had always been regarded as a somewhat mysterious process, and its alchemy seemed to involve special ingredients in the protective coat, the strength of the acid bath and the time allowed for the acid to bite into the plate. Occasionally the physical or mental health of etchers has been impaired by excessive inhalation of acid fumes, and this, too, contributed to its aura of strangeness and mystery.

In 1956 – the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth – the art world was stunned by the news that a cache of 75 of Rembrandt’s original etching plates had suddenly reappeared in the possession of a lawyer from Greenville, North Carolina. Robert Lee Humber, the owner, had secretly purchased the copper plates in 1938 from Alvin-Beaumont, a French collector. Most of the plates were worn and had been reworked since Rembrandt’s time. In 1993 the collection was sold to a group of private collectors, dealers and museums from around the world including six Dutch museums and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.

Rembrandt’s windmill no longer exists. But there is a replica of the wooden cornmill built in Leiden by Jan Put in 1619, when Leiden’s city walls were adorned with 19 windmills. In 1640 it was destroyed by fire, but soon rebuilt. In 1729 the wooden windmill was replaced by a stone one demolished in 1817 and in 1987 the present replica was built – a reminder of times past.

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