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How was Rembrandt’s ‘Storm on the Sea of Galilee’ stolen?

The dynamic Storm on the Sea of Galilee is the only seascape by renowned baroque artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Depicting Christ leading his disciples through a stormy ocean, the artwork was famously stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, and remains missing to this day. In this article, Singulart will explore the life of Rembrandt, the composition of Storm of the Sea of Galilee, and the infamous art theft of the Gardner Museum. 

The life of Rembrandt 

Rembrandt van Rijn was born into a prosperous family, in the Netherlands. From an early age, Rembrandt was introduced to religion, with his mother Cornelia often reading Scriptures to him and his eight siblings. Rembrandt received the best education offered at the time, studying at the Latin School in Leiden. Although he displayed an interest in literature and scripture, he abandoned his studies when he developed an interest in painting. 

For three years, he served as an apprentice to Jacob Swaneburgh, and then studied with Pieter Lastman. After a few months of studying with Lastman, Rembrandt had mastered chiaroscuro, the notoriously complex technique of contrasting light and dark within a painting. He also became adept at depicting historical and religious scenes, stating “Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”

Although Rembrandt briefly moved back to his hometown of Leiden, he was encouraged by his patron Constantijn Huyges to move to Amsterdam. It was in this bustling metropolis where Rembrandt met his wife Saskia, whose family connections opened up a world of new connections. Rembrandt’s 1632 artwork The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp propelled Rembrandt to a legendary status, leading him to become a burgess of Amsterdam and a member of the local guild for painters. 

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Rembrandt enjoyed the newfound fame and luxury his reputation brought him, but he and Saskia’s life would soon be plagued with troubles. They suffered considerable financial distress after purchasing a large home, and were devastated by the deaths of their three children during their infancy. Saskia died of tuberculosis in 1642, after giving birth to their son Titus, their only child to survive into adulthood. 

Rembrandt later entered into a relationship with his maid Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he had two children. While one of their daughters died during childbirth, their daughter Cornelia was born a healthy child. Rembrandt continued to paint, although his baroque style was falling out of favor with Dutch buyers, who favored more flamboyant, dramatic works. Rembrandt continued to suffer financial difficulties, eventually selling his possessions, his house and his printing press. 

He later turned to landscape painting, with The Mill being one of his most admired pieces, and his landscapes would later influence artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael. He also continued to receive commissions for portraits of notable figures. 

However, by the time of Rembrandt’s death in 1669, he was alone and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Westerkerk. After twenty years, his remains were destroyed. 

Storm on the Sea of Galilee

Storm on the Sea of Galilee is the only seascape painted by Rembrandt. The piece is based on the following verse from the Bible, Mark 4:39-41, when Jesus calms the angry ocean and saves his disciples: 

“He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633)

The painting depicts the scene, with an angry, swirling sea threatening to overthrow the boat that contains Christ and his disciples. The artwork demonstrates Rembrandt’s mastery of chiaroscuro, with the dark, rolling clouds overshadowing the right side of the piece. The left side is illuminated by a beam of light, showing viewers the disciples frantically trying to control the boat. It is a chaotic scene, enhanced by the contrasting light and shadows. The beam of light signifies hope, and indeed could suggest Jesus’s divine intervention. Another religious allegory can be seen in the mast of the ship, which takes the form of a cross. 

Gardner Museum Theft 

Sadly, the artwork remains missing after it was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. On March 18, 1990, thirteen artworks were stolen, with a combined worth of $500 million. The artworks were stolen in the early hours of the morning by two men posing as police officers. When they were let into the museum, they convinced the security guard on duty there was a warrant out for his arrest. When the security guard stepped out from behind the front desk, he was “arrested” by the two men, turned to face the wall and handcuffed. A second security guard arrived at the scene and was promptly handcuffed; at this point, the two men admitted they were not police officers and that their intention was to rob the museum. 

Although an alarm went off when the thieves reached the museum’s Dutch Room, they quickly smashed it and continued with the robbery. They attempted to take Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, but they found it too heavy and so left the painting on the floor. The two thieves cut paintings out of their frames, including Storm on the Sea of Galilee, A Lady and Gentleman in Black, The Concert by Johannes Vermeer, and Landscape with Obelisk by Govaert Flinck.

Despite exhaustive investigations by the FBI, the artworks have never been recovered, despite a $5 million reward for any information that could help the case. The frames still hang empty in the museum. 

After more Rembrandt-inspired works? Find them in our Rembrandt collection:

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