Born to a family of millers in Leiden, Rembrandt left university at 14 to pursue a career as an artist. The decision turned out to be a good one since after serving his apprenticeship in Amsterdam he was singled out by Constantijn Huygens, the most influential patron in Holland.
In 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh. In 1649, following Saskia's death from tuberculosis, Hendrickje Stoffels entered Rembrandt's household and six years later they had a son.
Rembrandt's success in his early years was as a portrait painter to the rich denizens of Amsterdam at a time when the city was being transformed from a small nondescript port into the economic capital of the world. His historical and religious paintings also gave him wide acclaim.
Despite being known as a portrait painter Rembrandt used his talent to push the boundaries of painting. This direction made him unpopular in the later years of his career as he shifted from being the talk of the town to becoming adrift in the Amsterdam art scene and criticised by his peers.
"Claudius Civilis is a painting drunk on its own wildness. It is a painting that would not just be the ruin of Rembrandt's comeback, but also the ruin of his greatest vision. Or so I think, for I can't be sure. None of us can, because we don't know what the big picture looked like. What we're looking at here is a fragment, a fifth of the original size, the bit rescued from Rembrandt's knife. This may just be the most heartbreaking fragment in the entire history of painting.
The painting was commissioned as a stirring depiction of the legendary story of how the Dutch nation came to be born. What they got was Rembrandt's version of history: ugliness, deformity, barbarism; a bunch of cackling louts, onion chewers and bloody-minded rebels. The paint slashed and stabbed, caked on like the make up of warriors. Despite making him bankrupt he's saying: these are your flesh and blood, rough and honest, your barbarian ancestry. They made you Dutch."