It is now beginning to dawn – this year is the 350th anniversary of the death of Holland’s finest son and arguably the greatest old master painter. Throughout the country, and doubtless in other galleries around the world, exhibitions are opening to celebrate the work of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, better known simply as Rembrandt.
There is not going to be any shortage of work to show. While of the work of many old masters only a handful of paintings exist, there are close to three thousand works by Rembrandt extant. Not surprisingly, one of the finest and largest collections is at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
The twenty-two paintings, sixty drawings and more than 300 prints in its collection are on show for the first time together in a series of themed rooms, all painted in a rich dark blue. Not surprisingly, it is the prints that dominate and the first thing that strikes you at the start of your visit is their size – they are very small, some only 5 or 6 cms. Many of the early works are self-portraits as Rembrandt learned to draw faces and express human feelings. The first room is almost like a show of Polaroid selfies. But also in the room is one of the early painted self-portraits, a small head-shot of an enigmatic young man half in shadow. Some of the prints are no bigger than postage stamps but the delicacy of execution is breath-taking.
Rembrandt was a unique and original painter. In his early days he largely eschewed the religious allegories, fine landscapes and society portraits that were the stock in trade of painters at the time, preferring to concentrate on the real life going on around him. The small street-scene etchings are almost like sets of cigarette cards – fifty beggars, fifty buskers, fifty artisans.
Rembrandt was essentially a storyteller, depicting characters from all walks of life, in all circumstances, almost like a painterly equivalent of Shakespeare. All human life is there – the great and the good along with the mendicants and vagabonds, from the sophisticated full-length portraits of Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit to the pair of small etchings showing, in one, a man pissing by the roadside, in the other an old woman doing the same. There seem to be quite a lot of Falstaffs in these pictures for whom an older Rembrandt would, apparently, have been fairly well cast.
Evidently, Rembrandt was no beauty merchant, no flatterer. In the room labelled Intimacy there are a number of prints and drawings of mainly nudes. But these are all saggy bellies and droopy breasts, none of your Rubenesque voluptuous sensuality here. There is also a picture of a couple, skirt around the chest, breeches below the knees in the full throws of sexual intercourse.
But even many of the formal group portraits have an informality, an immediacy about them. The six Sampling Officials are looking up as though they have been rudely interrupted in an important meeting and the guards of The Night Watch are not posing but going about their nocturnal business.
What is interesting to see, having all these pictures together, is how Rembrandt changed and developed over the years. His early work, both painting and drawing, were incredibly fine, but as he got older his painting became bolder and more free – compare and contrast Tobit Accusing Anna of Stealing the Kid of 1626 (painted when he was nineteen or twenty) with the trowel-it-on The Jewish Bride of the late 1660s or the shadowy self-portrait of 1628 with the 1661 Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul. In his later years there was also more of a tendency towards landscape and religious paintings.
All the Rembrandts does not claim to be a retrospective. It is what it is – the Rembrandts belonging to the Rijksmuseum, and as such is a comprehensive survey of the artist’s work, no less interesting because much of it was produced only a few minutes’ walk from where it is now hanging – they have not come home, they never left. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the world’s greatest collection of one of the world’s greatest artists.
No doubt major celebrations are planned for the actual anniversary on 4th October when Rembrandt died in 1669 aged 63 but in the meantime the crescendo of hard-to-avoid events leading up to it will be enough to keep us all busy and amazed for most of the year. Michael Hasted 14th February 2019
All the Rembrandts continues at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam until 10th June.