Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age

Rembrandt van Rijn, ‘Man in Oriental Costume ('The Noble Slav'), 1632. Bequest of William K. Vanderbilt, 1920. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century was a period of great wealth for Holland, then the Dutch Republic, when trade blossomed with countries all over the world. Cities which were sending ships to Asia, Africa and the Americas were among the richest in Holland, and their history is still visible in their townhouses, canals, churches, city walls and harbours.

Art also blossomed, not least because the newly rich were keen to display their wealth on the walls of their mansions. Commissions were plentiful, particularly of portraits, and Dutch painters such as Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer rose to fame. But none rose higher Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. (Like Leonardo and Titian, he took to using only his first name.)

The theme year begins with the first of three special exhibitions at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, continues with presentations at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Maurtshuis in The Hague and culminates with the Young Rembrandt exhibition at the Museum De Lakenhal in his birthplace, Leiden.

AMSTERDAM

Rembrandt House

Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam some time in 1631 or 1632, lured by the demand by property owners to fill their homes with art. In modern parlance, he was an overnight sensation and he quickly became the foremost Amsterdam painter.

Rembrandt lived and worked in the house on Jodenbreestraat between 1639 and 1658. With a 17th century inventory as a guide (drawn up for selling purposes when Rembrandt was declared bankrupt), the house has been meticulously refurbished with furniture, art and objects from the period.

The Rembrandt House owns the virtually complete collection of Rembrandt’s etchings, selections from which are on permanent display. There are also temporary exhibitions of work by some of his contemporaries and pupils, while current artists inspired by his work are shown in the modern wing of the museum. Daily demonstrations of etching and paint preparation show how Rembrandt and his apprentices worked, and a workshop lets visitors try their hand at their own etchings.

Rembrandt was declared bankrupt in 1656, brought down by a tangled love life which required him to pay the equivalent of alimony, an insatiable appetite to acquire expensive, exotic collectables and, crucially, a change in taste which made his style less fashionable and left his services less in demand.

The house is as close as you can get to Rembrandt the man. You can’t even visit his grave. After dying bankrupt, he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Twenty years later, as was the custom, his remains were dug up and disposed of with others in an unmarked mass grave.

The Rembrandt House is marking the anniversary year with three special exhibitions: Rembrandt’s Social Network (Feb 1-May 19) is devoted to the artist’s family, friends and acquaintances and the role they played in his life and work, as seen in informal paintings, drawings and prints, some of which have rarely, if ever, been put on public display. Inspired by Rembrandt (Jun 7-Sep 1) features artists influenced by the Master, including Picasso and Degas. Laboratory Rembrandt (Sep 21-Feb 16, 2020) sees his former workshop transformed into a lab-like setting to reveal insights into his techniques and processes.

Rembrandt House
Rembrandt House

 

Rijksmuseum

The Rijksmuseum possesses the largest collection of Rembrandt paintings in the world, including two recent additions previously rejected as being by him. It is also the most representative collection, with works from every decade except the 1650s.

Hanging in the magnificent Gallery of Honour, Rembrandt’s most famous and monumental painting, The Night Watch’ (1642), depicts an Amsterdam militia, the Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. Commissioned as part of a series of six militia paintings and taking nine kilos of paint to complete, it hung at one time in the Amsterdam Town Hall. Before that, it was even bigger; because it did not fit in the intended place, they trimmed off a piece!

In 2019 visitors will be able to see the museum’s entire collection for the first time – 20 paintings, 60 drawings and 320 prints – in All the Rembrandts (Feb 15-Jun 10), including landscapes, portraits, nudes, scenes from daily life, biblical narratives and self-portraits.

Visitors admire ‘The Night Watch’ in the Rijksmuseum
Visitors admire ‘The Night Watch’ in the Rijksmuseum

 

THE HAGUE

With the most historic sites per square kilometre in Holland, The Hague oozes culture and history. During the Golden Age it was home to well known masters such as Jan van Goyen, Paulus Potter and Jan Steen.

Mauritshuis

The Mauritshuis is home to the best of Dutch painting from the Golden Age and the largest Rembrandt collection after the Rijksmuseum. Its intimate rooms include masterpieces such as Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and ‘View of Delft’, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius and Rembrandt’s iconic ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp’ and final self-portrait, painted in 1669, the year he died. (Rembrandt painted around 80 self-portraits, more than any other artist up to that time.)

Rembrandt and the Mauritshuis (Jan 31-Sep 15) features all 18 paintings in the Mauritshuis collection which are – or have been – attributed to Rembrandt. Eleven of these are considered authentic works, while others have a question mark about their authorship or are no longer considered to be by Rembrandt and are rarely, if ever, on display. 

The Mauritshuis
The Mauritshuis

 

LEIDEN

In the 17th century Leiden was the largest city in Holland after Amsterdam and, also after Amsterdam, the Dutch city with the most canals – 28 kilometres of them. Today it is still full of Dutch charm, with over 3,000 historic monuments still breathing the atmosphere of the city’s Golden Age.

Rembrandt was born in Leiden in 1606, the ninth child of a miller, and it was here that he first started drawing, sketching and painting. Leiden honours its most famous son with a number of landmarks. These include the recently opened Young Rembrandt Studio, a small, 17th century dwelling where he served an apprenticeship with the painter Jacob van Swanenburg, who was known for having studied painting in Italy. There is a seven-minute video ‘hosted’ by Swanenburg in his reconstructed studio in which he talks about his famous pupil’s skills and discusses painting materials and techniques of the time.

Starting from Museum De Lakenhal, In the Footsteps of the Young Rembrandt is a walking tour linking all authentic Rembrandt locations in the inner city. The themed signs along the walking route provide an impression of Leiden in Rembrandt’s time.

With a remarkable lack of foresight, Rembrandt’s birthplace at Weddesteeg 2 disappeared behind a printing business in the early 20th century. That was then demolished to make way for the apartments which stand there today. A memorial plaque on the wall marks the spot. However, it is worth dropping by to see a fine, Rembrandt-themed sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol in the small square. From here too you can see a replica windmill similar to the one Rembrandt’s parents owned and it is a short walk to the modern Rembrandt Bridge over the Rhine, the river which gave him his name.

Sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol opposite the site of Rembrandt’s birthplace
Sculpture by Stephan Balkenhol opposite the site of Rembrandt’s birthplace

 

The Rembrandt theme year ends in the Museum de Lakenhal (cloth hall), which reopens in Spring 2019 after a major refurbishment and extension. Leiden’s municipal museum of local history and the fine and decorative arts, it has several early Rembrandts as well as works by his tutors, Swanenburg and, later, Pieter Lastman, and contemporaries such as Jan Lievens and Gerrit Dou. Old Masters include Lucas van Leyden and Jan Steen, while there are also works by modern artists such as Theo van Doesburg, Jan Wolkers and Erwin Olaf. The centrepiece is Rembrandt’s ‘The Spectacles Salesman’ (1623-24), painted when he was 17, along with ‘History Painting with Self-Portrait‘ (1626).

The exhibition Young Rembrandt (Nov 3-Feb 9, 2020 ) will show the exceptional talent of the ‘rookie’ artist between 1624 and 1634. Special loans from all over the world, some of which will be seen in Holland for the first time, will return to Leiden after almost 400 years. These include ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ (‘The Noble Slav’), (1632) from the Metropolitan Museum in New York and ‘Self-Portrait’ (c.1628) from the Rijksmuseum.

NEWS Dealer of Dutch Old Masters Jan Six has announced the discovery of a new Rembrandt for the second time this year. The painting in question, ‘Let the Children Come to Me’, was misattributed to a ‘Netherlandish School’ by the German auction house Lempertz in a 2014 sale, where Six bought the canvas for €1.5m. According to Six, the painting’s true identity became apparent when he noticed a portrait of the young Rembrandt in the background which was typical of the artist’s other works. Other experts have since backed up the claim, along with X-rays and MRI scans, and the painting will be exhibited in Leiden next year.

 

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