AMSTERDAM -- Art enthusiasts yesterday dressed up as the 17th-century nobles, beggars, priests, and prostitutes portrayed in the paintings of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn, honoring the 400th anniversary of his birth.
Celebrations centered on the cities of Leiden, where Rembrandt was born on July 15, 1606, and Amsterdam, where he did his greatest work, suffered personal tragedies, and died in 1669.
In Leiden, a torch-lit procession in period costume gathered by a statue of Rembrandt shortly before midnight Friday. After the clock struck 12, revelers toasted his memory, many with a drink of traditional Dutch jenever, or gin.
In Amsterdam, an opera based on Rembrandt's life opened last night at the Royal Carre theater. The city also was site of a series of major exhibitions of Rembrandt's work.
Beyond his mastery as a painter and printmaker, Rembrandt's enduring popularity lies in his ability to capture the essence of his subjects' characters with compassion for their humanity.
He was ``so preeminently good at rendering emotions, not just how we look but how we think and feel," said Perry Chapman, an art historian at the University of Delaware. ``His naturalism extends beyond realism to an attempt to portray the human mind, at least what we can see of it in the face."
She said Rembrandt's many self-portraits show his ``introspection and search for self-knowledge."
His birthday drew long lines or people to museums, as well as inspiring silliness such as ``Rembrandt"-branded products including chocolate, spaghetti, and wine.
In Rembrandt Square, Amsterdam set up a life-size bronze recreation of his famous painting, ``The Night Watch," giving tourists the chance to photograph themselves next to 17th-century soldiers with goatees and mustaches.
If he were alive today, Rembrandt might not be surprised at all the hoopla. Unlike many artistic visionaries unappreciated during their lifetimes -- for example, another Dutchman, Vincent van Gogh -- Rembrandt won acclaim from an early age, and his work was always in demand.
But his life wasn't always happy. His beloved wife Saskia died at age 29. He spent money faster than he made it and went bankrupt in 1658.
He also outlived his son Titus, the only of his four children with Saskia to survive infancy. Other relationships were troubled. Rembrandt himself was buried in an unmarked grave.
One art historian in the Netherlands repeated her contention made last year that, based on the few documents available, Rembrandt was born in 1607, not 1606, as is commonly believed. But it seemed unlikely the festivities will be repeated next year.