Rembrandt the Entrepreneur

In the 17th century being an artist also meant being a businessman—the two went hand in hand. Rembrandt asked top prices for his paintings. Until the end of his life his work was sought after by the city’s wealthy merchants and patricians and by other clients from all over Europe. Rembrandt worked in the city which was then the centre of art and commerce, of knowledge and power, and of creativity in the broadest sense of the word. In that period huge fortunes were earned on the canals, the world was run from canal-side houses and the finest works of art and the most ingenious ideas were let loose on the world. The Rembrandt House Museum is a place where the creativity and business acumen of past and present can be felt.

Rembrandt’s main source of income was private commissions for portraits. It is fair to assume that clients who ordered portraits from Rembrandt bought other works from him as well. We cannot be certain of this, however, as Rembrandt did not keep records of his workshop sales. The average price for a painting by Rembrandt was around 340 guilders; by comparison a skilled craftsman earned around 250 guilders a year.

Rembrandt earned money from the sale of his paintings and also did good business in his role as a teacher. We know that he had more than forty, probably even more than fifty pupils, who each paid him a hundred guilders in tuition fees every year. Von Sandrart maintained that this brought him an annual income of around two and a half thousand guilders. And as well as selling own works he also acted—as was customary—as an art dealer. He sold works by his pupils Ferdinand Bol and Leendert van Beyeren, bought and sold a pricy painting by Rubens and sold one of his etching plates to a fellow artist. He was also a regular client at auctions, even describing himself as a ‘dealer’ in two notarial documents.

Rembrandt did not bother with what in the seventeenth century were considered to be ‘better investments’; he had no shares in the Dutch East India Company and no city debentures. Without doubt his biggest investment was the purchase of the sizable building that is now the Rembrandt House. He bought this house in 1639 for the exceptionally high sum of 13,000 guilders, two-thirds of which was financed by a mortgage. Unfortunately the investment did not turn out well; Rembrandt stopped paying his mortgage in the 1640s, and this ultimately led to his bankruptcy in 1656.

Rembrandt’s bankruptcy did not, though, put a damper on his entrepreneurial passion, but his involvement could only be indirect as he still had outstanding debts. Rembrandt’s mistress Hendrickje Stoffels and his son Titus devised an arrangement whereby Rembrandt could still sell works of art without the proceeds falling into the hands of his creditors. Although less lucrative, Rembrandt’s output of paintings in those years equalled that of the first half of the 1630s: it was his most successful period as a painter and businessman.