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"Joseph and Potiphar's Wife" (1655): In this late painting, all the figures are fully clothed, including Potiphar's wife who is accusing Joseph (left) of attempted rape (image: Scala, Florence/Bildagentur Fur Kunst, Kulture Und Geschichte, Berlin)

Taking care not to trip on the ice-glazed pavements, Rembrandt van Rijn made his way through middle Amsterdam. As he turned into Sint Antoniesbreestraat, one of the city's most charming streets, he slipped his hand into the fold of his coat. The wind off the sea beyond chased his veins deeper into his body, but he was more concerned about finding the key that lay hidden in the swathes of wool that brushed his thigh. It had taken him years and a small fortune to obtain it, and he was not prepared to lose it now.  

It was January 1639, and Rembrandt had pledged a monumental 13,000 guilders for a house on the Breestraat, as the wide street was known. As he fumbled in his pocket for the key, he could try to reassure himself that his extravagant purchase was worthwhile. The building was perfectly positioned in the artists' district to attract the business he required to pay the sum off in regular instalments. He knew that a house like this, red-brick, imposing, crowned with a glorious inset pediment, would mark him out as a man of means and good taste. As an artist of 32, with an armful of important commissions already to his name, he could never have imagined that he would be handing the house over to his creditors before two decades were out. 

An exhibition that opened at the National Gallery last month and runs until January 18 shows how Rembrandt flourished as an artist in his late years, despite struggling beneath a growing tide of penury. Forced in middle age to declare himself bankrupt in the face of mounting house bills and the financial demands of a former lover, Rembrandt continued to produce paintings and drawings. His haemorrhage of savings appeared to do little to stem his creative output.

But this story of art triumphing over life was not confined to his final years. Rembrandt's first brush with poverty, which was in his case a relative term, happened decades earlier when he was still a young man. Certain habits he acquired during his early days on the Breestraat would prove to be prophetic of his later life. When — wrinkled,  bankrupt and crestfallen — he faced the challenge of conquering the earthly realities of a more frugal life, it must have helped that he had already sought them out as a young artist in the city.

Rembrandt was born into a large milling family in Leiden, south-west of Amsterdam, in 1606, four years after the foundation of the Dutch East India Company. The Dutch Republic was waging war to gain independence from Spain, but booming trade had transformed it into a rich country. Immigrants, many of them having escaped the regions still under Spanish rule, filled Amsterdam and Leiden with skilled labour. Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam in 1624 as a young student of the artist Pieter Lastman, whose studio was located on the Breestraat. The road ran through the Vlooienburg ("flooded") neighbourhood, a new addition to the desperately overcrowded city, constructed on former flood plains. It was cosmopolitan and bohemian, popular with artists, collectors and dealers.

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