'I doubt you will find any new document on Rembrandt, as all written documents, all notarial deeds, all registrations, all shreds of evidence on any aspct of his life is known and docemented', an American art historian and Rembrandt specialist told me a year and a half ago. In science you never can predict: this week (on 4 June 2019) all Rembrandtonians were amazed as a previously unknown document about Rembrandt’s life as a student at the University of Leiden became public. A Leiden University registration in 1620 was known, but now another registration has been found in the University’s archives relating to 1622. Exciting news, therefore, also for a study I am in the process of writing: Rembrandt. His legal and financial life (working title), see http://www.bobwessels.nl/blog/2017-11-05-rembrandt/
So, what’s the state of affairs?
Rembrandt, born on 15 July 1606, is enrolled at the University of Leiden on 20 May 1620 as an art student (‘litterarum’ or in present Dutch ‘letteren’).(1) The proof of this registration can be found in the University of Leiden Library, the so-called The Catalog Studiosorium, ie the original registration book of the university of that time. It reports in Latin on 20 May 1620: ‘Rembrandus Hermanni Leydensis Studiosus litteraturum annorum 14 apud parentes’, which means that the 14-year-old art student Rembrandt, son of Harmen, lives with his parents in Leiden.(2) The author of the relevant page on the University’s website submits that in all likelihood the registration takes only one year: ‘And the question is whether the then fourteen-year-old Rembrandt – a registration age that occurs frequently at that time – actually attends lectures. Did he sometimes register with additional benefits such as duty-free beer and exemption from duty at the militia?'.
Van de Wetering notes that registration at the University may have been done for tax reasons.(3) It is reported that, to attract students in Leiden in these days, students had the right each year to buy tax-free 194 liters of wine and ten wooden casks of beer, around 1500 liters.(4) As to the suggested exemption for militia duties concerned, Schwartz elaborates that an exemption from civil patrol (‘schutterij’) duty may have been the most important reason. Rembrandt’s father himself, in 1611, had been placed on an inactive list from the Leiden Civic Guard, because of an accident in the mill (the misfiring – ‘door ‘t affspringen’ – of a musket). Although being recovered from the injury, he was unable to use his hands for handling a gun. Also Rembrandt’s older brother Gerrit had suffered an accident and was disabled on both hands.(5) Taking into account that the Twelve Years’ Truce was nearing its end and the Leiden Civic Guard had to act against remonstrants mercenaries (‘waardgelders’) as well as other accidents in the family, this may have been a very good reason – so Schwartz – for Rembrandt ‘… to use his knowledge of the Latin language to pocket an exemption’.
Be it as it is, in 1620 no University for Rembrandt, but an apprenticeship with a professional painter. Literature follows the suggestion made by Rembrandt’s first biographer, Orlers, in 1641. He observes that Rembrandt’s parents were compelled to take him out of school prematurely and, at his own request, he was to be apprenticed to a painter from whom he would learn the basic foundations and principles of this, ie painting (‘… de eerste fundamenten ende beginselen van dien.’). Rembrandt by then is around 14 years of age. His biographer reaches a logical conclusion: ‘As a result of this decision they took him to a good painter (‘welschilderende’), Mr. Jacob Isaacxsz. Van Swanenburgh, to be instructed and taught by him’.(7)
And now, a new document has been discovered about Rembrandt’s student years in Leiden.(8) On the website, it is explained that students in Leiden had to rematriculate every year. Rematriculations were recorded in student registers (‘recensielijsten’). The student register of 1622 (no offering specific dates) is the only student register to have been preserved in the archive of the University Library for the years 1608-1649. The website describes that on the document found, Rembrandt’s name again occurs as: ‘Rembrandus’, with underneath: ‘* 14 15 Hermanni bij sijn ouders’ (Harmensz., living with his parents), with 14 crossed-out.(9)
The website notes that a new source has become available for reconstructing Rembrandt’s early years in Leiden, from 1606 till (around) 1632, when he went to Amsterdam. The website continues: ‘His rematriculation in 1622 is evidence that he was at least enrolled for two years, and possibly even longer. How serious a student Rembrandt was, is something which the historical matriculation and rematriculation documents held by the University Library cannot tell us. It makes it clear, however, that his time at Leiden University was more significant to the painter than was first assumed’. The website further suggests that the document, which is being kept at the University Library, ‘… proves that Rembrandt studied at Leiden University for longer than has always been assumed’. Hmmm. Enrolling for 1620 and 1622 does not say anything about 1621 (assuming that a meaningful ‘academic’ period equaled a year), nor whether Rembrandt may have been – what the Dutch sometimes call – an evening-student (‘avondstudent’). And what about the beer, the wine and the military duties?
What it clear is that the Leiden University Library has found a Rembrandtonian treasure, whilst marking the 444 years of Leiden University.
(1) Bikker (2019), 17, provides as date of registration 16 May 1620.
(2) http://nieuws.leidenuniv.nl/nieuws-2014/rembrandts-sporen-aan-de-universiteit-leiden.html. See also RD 1620/1. This Catalog also is named ‘volumen inscriptionum’ and covers 1618-1631, the register of all matriculations by Leiden students for that period. Rembrandt was registered by rector Reinerus Bontius (Reinier de Bondt), professor in medical science. Counting back, being 14 years of age on 20 May 1620, with a birthday being 15 July, his year of birth must have been 1605, see Schwartz (2006), 15, adding for his book that many other ‘facts’ have their soft side.
(3) Van de Wetering (2017).
(4) Büttner (2014), 18.
(5) See RD 1621/1. Schwartz (1984) suggests that the cause was an accident with muskets in the unregulated Leiden militia. It also could have been an accident in the mill.
(6) See RD 1611/1.
(7) Van Swanenburg’s art studio and workplace was located at what now is the Langebrug 89 in Leiden, presently housing the Young Rembrandt Studio, which includes a seven minutes video mapping, to explain Rembrandt’s life and work in Leiden.
(8) See https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/en/news/2019/06/document-discovered-about-rembrandts-student-years-in-leiden. Rembrandt's age therefore remains a soft fact.
(9) The archive document on the rematriculation of ‘Rembrandus’ in the Volumen recensionum from 1622 (ASF 30) is displayed on the website.
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