Born in Leiden, the son of a miller, Rembrandt Harmenz van Rijn was registered as a student at Leiden University in 1620, but does not seem to have remained there long. He studied painting under two history painters, firstly for three years in Leiden, then for about six months in Amsterdam under Lastman, then a leading artist.
In 1625 he established his own workshop in Leiden, specializing in history painting and portraits. He appears to have begun etching around this time, although his early etchings are not dated. Most of his earlier etchings were small portraits or figures, with many self-portraits - five in 1630 alone.
In 1631 he moved to Amsterdam, where he was initially very successful, mainly as a portrait painter, but also with history and religious paintings. He began to include more large biblical scenes in his etchings. He married Saskia van Ulenburgh in 1634.
In 1640-1 he etched his first pure landscapes. From 1642 his output of etchings fell to an average of about six per year, with his last self-portrait etching in 1648, although he continued to paint them.
As a painter he fell rather out of fashion from the late 1630s, and his largest commissions (such as the Night Watch) were not well received. He got into serious financial difficulties in the 1640s, partly because of his art collecting, culminating in his bankruptcy in 1656. This was followed by sales of his collections in 1657, and of his large house in 1658. After he moved in 1660 he lost his printing-press and virtually ceased etching.
His wife had died at the age of thirty in 1642, and he later formed a relationship with Hendricke Stoffels, originally his maid. In 1649 he was sued for breach of promise by her predecessor, Geertge Dircx.
He worked closely with his son Titus (1641-68), the only surviving child of his mariage, and his death and that of Hendricke in 1662 were heavy blows.
Rembrandt is, with Dürer and Goya, one of the giants of the European print, and certainly the greatest etcher ever to live. Altogether he produced over 300 prints, showing equal innovation in, and mastery of portraits, figures and nudes, landscapes and narrative subjects (mostly religious).
His prints are called etchings for convenience, but he also made considerable use of the engraver's burin and especially the dry-point on his etched plates. Some of his plates have no actual etching at all.
For his most productive years he had his own printing-press in his house, and it is clear he undertook the whole process himself for the early impressions. He was unprecedented for the number of states of a print he would sometimes create - as many as six or eight. Some states were printed in a handful of copies before he resumed work on the plate again.
He also made much use of surface tone - leaving a thin film of ink on some parts of the plate before printing - to achieve the effects he wanted. Sometimes he would return to a print some years old, as with the Three Crosses, and transform it. He also experimented with the effect different kinds of paper produced.
Many of Rembrandt's plates survive, and have been overprinted and reworked completely by later hands - sometimes several times. In addition they were much copied, even up to the C19.