Rembrandt van Rijn is so famous that even those with no interest in art probably know what he’s famous for – his use of light that brightens points of interest and causes the remaining parts of the image to drop out of sight. This phenomenon appears not only in his paintings, but also in his etchings, now on display in an 85-item exhibit at Bozar (Beaux-arts) in Brussels.

What makes Rembrandt's lighting different from other artists’ lighting?

To hear historian Hendrik Van Loon tell it in his 1937 book “The Arts,” the elusive light for which Rembrandt is known came from the natural light peculiar to where he lived and worked – the Low Countries -- specifically Holland and Amsterdam.

There, said Van Loon, a native of Rembrandt county, skies swept clean from unceasing rain produce a clarity and a harsh brightness that turns even the most ordinary articles of daily use -- a tin plate, a brass pail, a tile floor, a dead herring, a can of beer – into enchanting objects that lose their commonplace character.

Magic of the North Sea

Of course, other lands have skies and seas, too; except there everyday objects stay everyday objects.

Van Loon contends that it was the reflection of the immense body of water – the North Sea -- surrounding the country on all sides that affected the light.

Because historians don’t usually link Rembrandt’s use of light to the climate of his native land, it’s likely that Rembrandt didn’t mention the sway climate held over his work – assuming he knew. But on some level he knew when he refused to study in Italy, preferring to study in his own land where he stayed throughout his life.

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Most artists born outside of Italy in Rembrandt’s day didn’t turn down the chance to study Italy’s Renaissance masters. Even Rembrandt’s fellow countryman, Peter Paul Rubens, chose to study old Roman statuary for his figure painting.

A second historian pegs Rembrandt’s magic

A 1948 book about Rembrandt by historian Henri Dumont seemed to widen the story of Rembrandt’s refusal to study in Italy, positing that the way the Italian Renaissance captured light was too impersonal and too all-pervasive for Rembrandt.

As if to further Van Loon’s contention, Dumont said that the pale radiance of the reflected, sunless water in the windmill where Rembrandt’s father worked and where the artist spent a lot of time as a boy influenced his unusual sense of light. Dumont noted a “perpetual twilight” in the mill that dovetails with Van Loon’s description of the Dutch skies.

And even though Rembrandt’s subjects covered a wide range -- from biblical, mythological, and allegorical to scenes from daily life -- light was always the main idea.

This made him the first painter to consider light as his subject, and made the Low Country climate his certifiable collaborator.

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