Rembrandt’s FOUR SENSES at Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Glasses Seller, c.1624-1625

Leiden’s Museum De Lakenhal, opened on 1st May, 1874 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary this year. Kicking off this celebration is the presentation of Rembrandt’s Four Senses – His First Paintings. Rembrandt created this series, his earliest known work, when he was around 18 years old and living in Leiden. In addition to The Glasses Seller (Sight) from the museum’s own collection, the presentation consists of three works from The Leiden Collection, New York: The Operation (Feeling), The Three Singers (Hearing) and The Unconscious Patient (Smell). The fifth sense, Taste, is missing. Together, the four paintings can be seen in the museum for 150 days. They are all very small and are shown in the room containing other Leiden old master.

The series of senses shows that Rembrandt has been a stubborn and experimental artist from the start. Particularly since the 16th century, the senses have generally been depicted as personifications of elegant women with fixed attributes. But that’s not how Rembrandt does it. He chooses everyday scenes that are recognizable to everyone. These early works were not successful in all respects. But they also initially exhibit those qualities that would later make Rembrandt an innovative and celebrated painter: his use of chiaroscuro, his loose brushwork and his unique eye for the interaction between ordinary people with characteristic expressions.

Rembrandt’s Senses occupy an important place in Leiden art history. The jubilee museum makes the local developments and cultural connections that have characterized the city’s illustrious past clearly visible. At the heart of the permanent collection presentation, the four Senses hang among other works by the young Rembrandt and paintings by friend and competitor Jan Lievens and star student Gerrit Dou. How quickly Rembrandt developed technically and formally can be seen, for example, in Musical Company , which he composed in 1626, about two years after the Senses . And what is striking in the piece Resting Travellers, made about five years later by an anonymous painter from Rembrandt’s Leiden environment, is the successful play with light and dark. The fact that Leiden had a fertile artistic climate in these years is evident in the creative exchange with Jan Lievens, whose Old Woman Reading with a delicately rendered headscarf was an unmistakable source of inspiration for Rembrandt. The face of the young Jan Lievens even appears in Rembrandt’s The Three Singers and again in his Musical Company

Already at the opening of Museum De Lakenhal in 1874, the city felt it was a loss that there was no work on display by its most famous ‘son’, Rembrandt van Rijn. An important moment in the history of the museum was the purchase of The Glasses Seller in 2012. This panel, part of Rembrandt’s Senses, shows the novice artist during the years he worked in Leiden. His studio must have been a stone’s throw from where Museum De Lakenhal now stands. Two of Rembrandt’s Senses , The Operation and The Three Singers, were added to The Leiden Collection of the French-American collector Thomas Kaplan in New York in 2007. The third, The Unconscious Patient , only surfaced in 2015 at an auction in New Jersey. Kaplan purchased it in 2016. Since then, the series has been on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 2016 and the Rembrandt House in Amsterdam in 2016-2017. The reunion of the Senses in the city where Rembrandt created his series therefore represents a first, both for Leiden and for Museum De Lakenhal.

Rembrandt’s Four Senses — His First Paintings continues at Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden until 16th June