In 1642 in Leyden, Holland, Rembrandt van Rijn, a painter and miller’s son, experiences the death of his beloved wife Saskia and, during her funeral, finishes her portrait before her face fades for him forever. Later, while working on a painting commissioned by Captain Banning Cocq, Rembrandt depicts the sixteen gentlemen of the civic guard as disfigured. After humiliating them at a public unveiling of the painting, Rembrandt refuses to apologize and loses the portrait commissions that had assured his income. Still racked with grief about Saskia’s death, Rembrandt longs for another wife and marries the cold and shrewish Geertje Dirx. Ten years following Saskia’s death, Rembrandt has become bankrupt, and his house and its furnishing are sold at auction. He then paints a beggar and tells him the Biblical story of David and Saul. Geertje harangues Rembrandt about their poverty, and he learns that Govaert Flinck, an old student of his, is now making a handsome living painting aristocrats. Rembrandt, however, refuses to compromise his art for money. Because the king was once Rembrandt’s patron, Rembrandt finally agrees to see the prince, but goes instead to his father’s mill in Leyden and reads from the Bible at dinner. When he returns to Amsterdam, he meets his new housemaid, Hendrickje Stoffels, and paints her portrait. Jealous of Rembrandt’s attentions toward the kind and beautiful maid, Geertje threatens her. Rembrandt is intent on marrying her, but knows that half of Geertje’s money will go to Rembrandt’s son Titus if he remarries. When Hendrickje becomes pregnant, Geertje charges her with “unchastity, concubinage and immoral conduct.” Hendrickje is tried before a jury of Lutheran elders and is ex-communicated from the church. A forced sale of Rembrandt’s property drives him and Hendrickje into the country. When he sells a painting of the Blessed Virgin to an art buyer for the cardinal in Paris, the court purloins his paintings for his creditors, claiming that he has no right to sell his own work. Hendrickje cunningly becomes Rembrandt’s art dealer and the official owner of his paintings and is able to sell them. Hendrickje then gets sick from nursing their baby and sends the child to her mother.
In light of Hendrickje’s failing health, Rembrandt decides to marry her and, as Titus arrives with his bride, Rembrandt sends for the baby and Hendrickje’s mother. He then paints Hendrickje’s portrait as he did when they met, and she falls dead while posing. Years later, in 1669, Rembrandt has become a beggar and recites profound words to a group of young painters, who finally recognize him. He then begins a self-portrait, muttering the Biblical words of King Solomon, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”