Rembrandt van Rijn is undoubtedly considered one of the Great Masters of painting and etching. As with all of us, his life was marked by both success and tragedy. He suffered the death of his wife and 3 of his 4 children, and endured significant scandal and bankruptcy. It would be reckless to hold Rembrandt up as the standard for which we should strive, yet there is merit to gleaming insights from his remarkable life.
During his career, Rembrandt received a fair degree of criticism for his unconventional methodologies. Ironically, it was often this deviation from the norm that resulted in the extraordinary nature of his artwork. Some say he was intentionally “bucking the system.” I’d suggest that his motivation was not externally motivated defiance. Rather, he was intensely determined to be true to self.
“Instead of being commissioned, the subjects for most of his works were chosen by Rembrandt himself. Other contemporary portrait painters, like Van Dyck, Velazquez, or Hals, worked almost exclusively on commission, which meant they had to abide by the narrow restrictions on the form imposed by the expectations of the sitter. Make me look good, whatever you do.” Roger Housden
Rather than painting in order to please patrons, Rembrandt honored his sense of creative expression. He chose artistic integrity over financial security. Some of his most moving and memorable works were produced as a result of the resulting creative freedom. He painted in order to reveal souls, not capture images. Holland was a magnet for refugees, and many of his subjects were poor Jewish neighbors (he was the first of his time to paint Jesus as a young Jewish man). He captured the moods of everyday people as they went about in ordinary life – teaching a toddler to walk, cleaning, and sleeping. All because he was free from the ties that come with needing to please others.
I’d imagine that if Rembrandt had restricted his artwork to the parameters set by patrons, his paintings still would have been remarkable. We simply would have never known that we missed the best part of him. The same is true of our lives – although seemingly fruitful from the outside, we often don’t experience the fullness of life that we were intended to live. We too, miss the best part.
I’m challenged by the contrast of Rembrandt’s freedom with my frequent bondage to the opinion of others, and to the commitment to make life work on my terms. I want a life freedom, yet find myself bowing down to the idols of approval and control. The struggle is revealed daily…
~ When I find myself angry with my older children for making poor choices, or with my young children when they exhibit less-than-expected manners. Not always because I want what is honoring to God, but at times because I want affirmation that we’re good parents. Rather than live a life marked by patience and encouragement, I become a slave to approval.
~ When I’m not willing to go to my husband and ask for forgiveness after an argument, even when I know that I was in the wrong. Rather than living a life marked by love and freedom, I become a slave to the illusion of control.
~ When I maintain a safe distance from friends instead of entering into the messiness of relationship. Rather than living a life marked by integrity and long-suffering, I become a slave to the attainment of safety and acceptance.
I want to live a life marked by peace, integrity, humility, and vibrancy.
Yet I also want to win the approval of others, control of my life, and experience safety in relationships – all which come with strings attached. Ties that bind. Chains that enslave. By my own hand.
We see the cycle of bondage as it played out in Israel’s history. Until they were delivered.
We are still in need.
I am still in need…
Our enemy, our captor is no pharaoh on the Nile
Our toil is neither mud nor brick nor sand
Our ankles bear no calluses from chains, yet Lord, we’re bound
Imprisoned here, we dwell in our own land
Deliver us, deliver us
Oh Yahweh, hear our cry
And gather us beneath your wings tonight
Our sins they are more numerous than all the lambs we slay
These shackles they were made with our own hands
Our toil is our atonement and our freedom yours to give
So Yahweh, break your silence if you can
Andrew Peterson “Deliver Us”
The majority of us will not leave a portfolio of priceless artwork for which we will be remembered. Our legacy will be more subtle, yet no less significant than that of Rembrandt’s. We’ve each been given a unique palette of talents, experiences, and predispositions with which we paint upon the canvas of the world. We leave our mark on those we meet, indelibly altering the composition and tone of their lives.
Daily, we choose for whom we are painting.
Do I take the talents and abilities that I’ve been given to fulfill the expectations of others (or myself)? In doing so, I become a slave to that which I hope to attain.
Or do I choose to live life as a student of the Master? Trusting his guidance, studying his ways, and painting to please him alone… and as a result, leaving behind a legacy that bears a resemblance to the Master himself.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1