Reading Rembrandt: An Indigenous Lens
The exhibition Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition, currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada, explores the transformative central decades of Rembrandt’s career in the context of the Amsterdam art market, bringing his paintings, prints and drawings into dialogue with works by friends, followers and rivals. It also probes the conditions of life in the Dutch Republic – a nascent democracy funded by global trade and colonialism – and the social, political and economic issues that are of continuing relevance today.
For its presentation in Ottawa, the Gallery has added two different voices that reveal the blind spots in the traditional art-historical narrative. They trace connections and explore the impact of the Dutch Republic’s colonial project on Indigenous and Black peoples in the time of Rembrandt. Beginning in the early 1600s, a booming economy brought dramatic shifts to Amsterdam society. Global commerce, which included colonization and slavery alongside reciprocal trade with other cultures around the world, made fortunes for many and brought to urban consumers an unprecedented range of luxury goods.
The Indigenous perspective, interjected throughout the exhibition, presents the opportunity to return to the early contact period, when there was a symmetry of power relations between Indigenous nations and the Dutch. The latter, like many other European powers, were seeking alliances with the Indigenous peoples who held power and position in the Americas. Rembrandt’s life coincided with many significant developments in the early contact period with Turtle Island, including the 1613 foundation of the first Dutch trading post and settlement, Fort Nassau (Albany, NY). Originally administered by the New Netherland Company, and after 1621 by the Dutch West India Corporation, the post established a trade relationship based in a novel currency unique to the North-eastern area: Wampum. The Tawagonshi Agreement, or Two-Row Wampum Treaty, set the terms of early relations between the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Dutch, yet it was the Algonquin-speaking neighbours of New Amsterdam – the Narragansetts and Pequots – who created the economy. Wampum, small northern whelks and hard-shelled quahog clams found in abundance on the north island, became the currency of the fur trade established during Rembrandt’s lifetime.
Wampum belts, collections of shells arranged according to Indigenous visual knowledge systems, were a special form of trade that signified partnership agreements. A replica Two-Row Wampum belt by Cayuga artist Jake Thomas and a Wampum belt by the Kanien'kehà:ka (Mohawk)-Italian artist Skawennati are on view in the exhibition. The belts represent the treaty relationship established in 1613 between the Dutch and the Haudenosaunee, as Dutch traders and settlers moved up the Hudson River into Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) territory. It serves as an evocative metaphor symbolizing two cultures coming together, travelling in parallel in perpetuity. By marking the meeting of peoples with trade interests and different world values, it provides a visual link to the context of the contemporary Indigenous art that is on view in the exhibition. National Gallery curator Greg Hill, himself Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk), curated the First Nations artworks, while Rick Hill, Tuscarora, provided the traditional knowledge of Two-Row Wampum.
Early trade focused on fur, in particular beaver and otter pelts, which had become a major commodity on the European market. They became popular for hats, and then were re-incorporated into culture in North America as a fashion accessory of the European traders. Another product, widely used by Indigenous people from southern Mexico into South America, became a highly treasured commodity. Cochineal is an insect that lives on cacti. When crushed, it produces the natural dye called carmine. The Dutch alchemist and inventor Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633) accidently discovered that mixing tin with the newly imported cochineal created the perfect scarlet colour. It became known as “Dutch Scarlet” and the hue took fashionable Europe by storm. With the tin-cochineal mix, blankets and broadcloths were produced. It also provided painters with a less expensive red pigment for their painting, a colour formerly reserved for depictions of royalty and religious figures.
Rembrandt painted many religious themes for a sympathetic consumer market. Early colonists brought with them their religious beliefs, at times with a view to proselytizing. While spirituality was important to many cultures, it can be said that Indigenous spirituality was inclusive, ready to incorporate new ideas and ceremonies. By consequence, Indigenous communities could relate to the beliefs of Christianity, which began arriving on Turtle Island with the Jesuits and other French priests intent on converting the Haudenosaunee. But as a force in colonization, Christian faith began spreading across North America, often led by the sharp end of the sword.
With the spirit impacted, the Indigenous body took an even greater toll. The inclusion of contemporary Indigenous work brings the subject of disease and “the Great Dying” into the dialogue of the exhibition. During the “Dutch Golden Age,” Europeans brought with them smallpox, chickenpox, bubonic plague, measles, influenza and so on. These diseases did not exist in the Americas. Indigenous peoples had no immunity, and it is believed by scholars that upwards of 90% of the Indigenous populations were decimated. The Reserving Series by multimedia Plains Cree artist Ruth Cuthand resonates with this tragic history. Her beautiful, intricately beaded works depict the microbes and germs responsible for these deaths, combining colourful beads with disease to invoke the elements of trade with Europeans.
To honour this special exhibition, the Six Nations community has agreed to lend the Two-Row Wampum to the exhibition for a short while. Not only does it remind us of these early relations and the respect inherent in the agreement, but it also announces that Rembrandt and his contemporaries are being welcomed to Canada by their Indigenous hosts.
Rembrandt in Amsterdam: Creativity and Competition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, is on view at the National Gallery of Canada to September 6, 2021. For details on related talks and events, including Gerald McMaster's conversation with artist Rick Hill and NGC curator Greg Hill, consult the NGC website; the catalogue is available from the NGC Boutique. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.