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In spite of the decline in religious commissions in the Protestant Northern Netherlands, biblical or mythological subjects – traditionally considered the most elevated genre of painting – remained popular. The pan-European style of Mannerism, characterised by the exploration of the contorted human figure in daring poses, was also influential in the northern Netherlands, as seen in the works of Cornelis van Haarlem, Hendrik Goltzius and Joachim Wtewael. Artists from the predominantly Catholic city of Utrecht followed in the footsteps of Caravaggio, whose celebrated works they had studied during trips to Italy.

Unlike them, Rembrandt never travelled to Italy, but his handling of light and dark and the unremitting naturalism of his history paintings reveal the influence of Caravaggio. Rembrandt became one of the most famous painters of his day, running a large workshop, where his pupils followed the master’s powerful example. His penetrating exploration of the human face ensured his position as one of the most sought-after portraitists of his time (see Room 22).