The most celebrated painter active in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Rembrandt was born in Leiden in 1606 and spent the early part of his career in his native city. His portrait of Nicolaes Ruts in this room is dated 1631 on the small piece of paper extended in the sitter’s hand; this portrait marks the beginning of Rembrandt’s ascension to fame in Amsterdam. He moved there to paint for an increasingly wealthy merchant class, which benefited from networks of global trade, colonization, and enslaved labor oceans away. Though this is not obvious in the paintings themselves, the portrait of the fur trader, Nicolaes Ruts, is painted on a panel of mahogany, a wood imported to Europe from colonies in the Caribbean.
Rembrandt was renowned for his portraiture, highly naturalistic and rich with psychological presence, and over the course of his career his style developed from the tight, precise painting seen in Nicolaes Ruts to the broad, thickly painted strokes of his later portraits, like his commanding Self-Portrait, one of dozens of images of himself he made in various media throughout his life. This Self-Portrait may be the most impressive of all of them. He painted biblical and historical subjects as well. Though the subject of his enigmatic Polish Rider remains elusive, it is one of his most beloved works.
Known for his eccentric habits, some of which led to his financial bankruptcy in 1656, he spent the last fourteen years of his life in penury, dying at the age of sixty-three, his grave unmarked.