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Is the Rembrandt Year being celebrated one year too soon? One year too late?

In a letter to the editor of the Dutch daily de Volkskrant, published on 6 August 2005, the art historian Irene Groeneweg argues on the basis of archival documents that Rembrandt is more likely to have been born in 1607 than in 1606.

The source for Rembrandt’s birth on 15 July 1606 is the second edition (1641) of a book on the city of Leiden by Jan Jansz. Orlers, bookseller, historian and burgomaster of Leiden. However, in two documents from the archives, the birth year of the artist works out to 1607. On 10 June 1634, when he registered his marriage in Amsterdam, Rembrandt declared that he was 26 years old. And on 16 September 1653 an Amsterdam notary took a deposition from "the honorable Rembrant van Rijn, renowned painter of this city, about 46 years old." If Rembrandt’s birthday was 15 July, which Groeneweg accepts, these ages place his birth in the year 1607.

Since Rembrandt had little contact with his family in Leiden when Orlers wrote his book, Groeneweg attaches more credence to the Amsterdam documents than the Leiden publication.

Groeneweg concludes: "It is therefore remarkable at the very least that art historians still assume unquestioningly that Orlers in Leiden was correct when he wrote that Rembrandt was born in 1606, while the only two archival documents that were signed by the artist himself make it clear that this is not right."

Groeneweg is right to point out this discrepancy. However, one can ask whether she is too assertive in accepting the Amsterdam evidence at face value. The Amsterdam documents may be the only ones Rembrandt signed, but there is a fourth piece of evidence that contradicts both other dates. On 20 May 1620 Rembrandt was inscribed, probably by his parents, in the university of Leiden. The registrar gave his age as 14. This would place his year of birth in 1605! Are we celebrating the Rembrandt Year one year too late?

If Groeneweg is right and Rembrandt was born in 1607, we have to assume that he matriculated at the university of Leiden at the age of 12 and that his parents erred by two years in giving his age.

Given the demonstrable error committed by the entire world in celebrating the advent of the third millennium a year too early on 1 January 2000, there is very little chance that any of the planned celebrations of Rembrandt’s birthday will be changed on account of archival evidence.

Gary Schwartz

To these remarks Irene Groeneweg responded on 15 August with a mail in which she contested the authority of the Leiden matriculation book. "We have known for a long time, "she writes, "that if any source is unreliable when it comes to ages, it’s the registration book of Leiden University."

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