Rembrandt's earliest self portraits show a curly haired, full-cheeked young man of 23, full of confidence, clad in dress above his station, literally wearing his ambition on his sleeve.
By the time we see his haggard face 40 years later — with dozens of portraits in between — we feel as though we know him like an uncle.
Despite the sense of familiarity, Rembrandt has remained a historical mystery.
For centuries, his personal story was shrouded by the romanticism of admirers who preferred to perpetuate the legend of an artist toiling away in obscurity in an all-consuming quest to unravel the secrets of the soul.
But as the Dutch celebrate his 400th birthday on July 15, some of those myths are being demolished. Compared with contemporaries such as Vermeer, his life is surprisingly well documented — with his bankruptcy and court cases providing a treasure trove of detail.
"What emerges is an unpleasant character, a cantankerous man who, at least on one occasion, showed extraordinary cruelty," said Rembrandt historian Gary Schwartz, referring to the artist's mistreatment of his mistress, Geertje Dircx.
Rembrandt's work and his life are open to the public as never before during the yearlong festival "Rembrandt 400." Nearly 100 oils have been loaned to Dutch museums, adding to the 49 permanently housed in the Netherlands.
A series of spectacular exhibitions highlight different aspects of his work. "Rembrandt: Quest for Genius" probed his use of light and motion. "Rembrandt and Caravaggio" paired him with the Italian Renaissance master whom he studied early in his career. "Rembrandt's Mother" sought to unscramble the various elderly women he and his students portrayed. "The Jewish Rembrandt," opening later this year, looks at his relationships with his Jewish neighbors and patrons and his biblical themes.
His birthday also is being celebrated with commercial silliness — Rembrandt spaghetti, Rembrandt chocolate, Rembrandt wine. Tourists photograph themselves standing amid life-size bronze re-creations of Rembrandt's most famous painting, "The Night Watch," in Amsterdam's Rembrandt Square.
The Rembrandt Ice Sculpture Festival drew 280,000 visitors. There are recorded Rembrandt walking tours, an internationally broadcast radio drama and a host of new books to add to the tens of thousands of publications about him.
"Rembrandt the Musical" premieres in Holland on July 15 for a six-month run. It focuses on his relations with the three women in his life, and portrays a romantic view of the artist as a rebel who disdains his patrons to remain true to his art.
"My hope for the Rembrandt year would be that somehow we would become free of images, that we look with fresh eyes," said Ernst van de Wetering, head of the Rembrandt Research Project and widely considered the world's foremost Rembrandt scholar. "So much research has been done, and so little of this research has come to the knowledge of the general public."
Van de Wetering dismisses the notion of Rembrandt as the impoverished artist driven to heights of creativity by his fiery emotions. Rather, he conceptualized his craft dispassionately, in a constant search for greatness. His inventiveness and originality did not come without hard work. He made small studies of light and shadow, of facial expressions — often his own — before incorporating them into historical works or biblical allegories.
Schwartz, an American who has lived in Holland more than 50 years, said the vicious side of Rembrandt's character was long overlooked by art historians. He said it really shocked him as he did research for his 1984 book, "Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings," based on some 500 documents from Rembrandt's life.
Schwartz said he identified 25 conflicts the artist had with his family, creditors, patrons and even sitters who claimed he cheated them. But Schwartz's new work, "The Rembrandt Book," published in Holland this month and in the United States in October, takes a softer view.
"I decided he was incapable of compromise. This caused him great problems, but it was one of the qualities that benefited his art," he said in an interview.
Not only was Rembrandt's character in doubt, but so was his inventory. Even now, uncertainty remains about dozens of paintings that may or may not be his. Recent analyses of paints, grounding, canvases, wood panels have led to a re-evaluation of what came from his own brush and what was painted by students or imitators.
Real Rembrandts or imitations?
A 1935 inventory listed 611 Rembrandt oils, but the Rembrandt Research Project has whittled that down by about half. Yet even van de Wetering changes his mind sometimes. The project was created in 1968 to settle questions of attribution.
New works are still being discovered. Two, borrowed from Warsaw Castle for exhibit, were long attributed to "Rembrandt's studio." Cleaned of grime, X-rayed and chemically tested while still in Poland, van de Wetering announced earlier this year that they came from the master's own brush.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden, 20 miles south of Amsterdam, the son of a miller. He moved to Amsterdam in 1631 where he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, the cousin of an art dealer who introduced him to wealthy clients.
After Saskia died in 1642, Rembrandt bedded his son's nursemaid, Geertje Dircx, but discarded her for his 23-year-old housekeeper, Hendrickje Stoffels. Dircx took him to court for breach of a promise to marry her, but Rembrandt took his vengeance by testifying that she was unbalanced and had her committed.
Rembrandt was never the poor struggling artist. He won fame from an early age and commissions kept flowing. But he was a miserable money manager and profligate spender. He went bankrupt and was evicted from his home in 1658. Four years later, he even sold his wife's grave site to pay off debts.
He painted self-portraits throughout his life, not to satisfy his ego or to explore his soul, but because he was a name brand and the works sold well.