Rembrandt and Amsterdam: Living and Working in a Global Trade City
Seated in an armchair, a young woman addresses us with the hint of a smile. She is dressed in a red velvet robe, richly embroidered in gold, over a brocaded skirt and a gossamer silk blouse with voluminous sleeves. Strands of jewels glitter in her hair and around her waist, and pearls adorn her ears, neck and wrists. An elderly attendant is combing her long, auburn hair. On a table behind them, covered with a Turkish carpet, we see an ornate ewer and basin, more jewels, and an open book. An inscription tells us that this scene was painted in about 1632 by the legendary Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69).
Who is this glimmering girl, and what mysterious story have we walked into? Costume and setting offer just enough clues to convey that this figure is no ordinary woman, but rather a character from history or myth. Yet, although this canvas is nearly four centuries old, its secrets remain unresolved. Visitors to the National Gallery of Canada can ponder this question for themselves as this intriguing painting, currently titled Old Testament Heroine, is a centrepiece for Rembrandt in Amsterdam, the first exhibition devoted to this artist ever organized by the Gallery. This landmark show, developed in partnership with the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany, brings paintings, drawings and prints by Rembrandt into dialogue with brilliant works by followers and competitors active in the dynamic art market of 17th-century Amsterdam.
In 1632, Rembrandt had reached a pivotal point in his career. Having established a successful art business in his hometown of Leiden, he was beginning to attract attention from serious connoisseurs. He could have been content, but a short apprenticeship in 1625 with the Amsterdam history painter Pieter Lastman had opened his eyes to greater possibilities. Leiden was a quiet university town with a limited art market. Amsterdam, a city three times the size, was fast becoming the cultural and commercial capital of Northern Europe. At age 25, Rembrandt moved to the metropolis to work as principal portrait painter for Hendrick Uylenburgh, a prominent art dealer. In 1634, he married Uylenburgh's cousin, Saskia, and registered as an independent artist. By the end of the decade, he had become the city’s most sought-after portraitist.
It is surprising that Rembrandt made his name in Amsterdam by painting portraits, because his training was in history painting: narrative subjects drawn from the Bible and Classical myth. Like novels and films today, history paintings brought gripping tales of love and war, betrayal and sacrifice into the homes of consumers. Theorists considered this the highest form of art, requiring dramatic action convincingly staged with accurate detail.
A highlight of the exhibition is one of Rembrandt's most ambitious history paintings, The Blinding of Samson, lent by the Städel Museum and never before shown in North America. According to the Old Testament Book of Judges, Samson's superhuman strength depended on a vow never to cut his hair. His lover, Delilah, persuaded him to reveal his secret and betrayed him to her Philistine allies. Rembrandt chooses the climactic moment when soldiers pin Samson to the ground and blind him. Delilah looks on with a mix of horror and fascination. In one hand, she holds a pair of scissors and in the other, a hank of Samson's hair. Some observers have recognized Rembrandt's wife, Saskia, as the model for Delilah. At the far right, Rembrandt wittily plays the role of a wide-eyed Philistine soldier, his pose echoing hers. It is as if, behind the scenes, the artist and his wife stand amazed at the brutal chaos his imagination has brought to life.
As it turned out, Rembrandt's talent for combining imagination and observation made him uniquely suited not only to paint histories, but also to revitalize the staid profession of portraiture. Rembrandt's singular gift, admired by observers from his own time to the present, was his attentiveness to the emotional complexities of lived experience. In Old Testament Heroine, we see this in the servant's gentle ministrations and in the young woman's animated gaze. We want to know what these women are thinking, and why. Applying the same approach to portraiture, Rembrandt imbued each patron with presence and character. Then as now, portraits were a means to remember loved ones and celebrate personal achievements. The exhibition traces the evolution of this highly personal art form across several generations of Amsterdam citizens and the talented artists competing for their attention.
If the identity of our "heroine" is fictional, the figure herself seems very real. Perhaps it is her frizzy hair, or the confident way she rests her hand on her rounded belly (in Rembrandt's time, curvaceous beauty was much admired). In fact, like Saskia, this unidentified woman is a familiar face in Rembrandt's work of the early 1630s. She appears, for instance, in several half-length character studies in which models in fantasy dress personify moods or engaging social types.
Rembrandt honed his face-painting skills with such studies, but his favourite face was his own. The original selfie expert, he painted, drew and etched more self-portraits than any other artist of his time. While some of his self-portraits were exercises in expression, one etching, painstakingly developed between 1631 and 1633, documents his ambition in a unique way. At the upper left, Rembrandt first signs with the initials RHL (for Rembrandt, son of Harmen, from Leiden) but then, at the upper right, changes to his now-familiar first name, "Rembrandt." As with celebrities today, it took grand ambition to expect the public to know you by first name only. Rembrandt was the only Dutch artist to do this, allying himself with renowned predecessors such as Titian and Michelangelo, who had done the same.
Rembrandt's commitment to observation from life encompassed landscapes and everyday subjects as well. The brooding Landscape with Stone Bridge, lent by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one of only eight Rembrandt landscape paintings known today. In numerous drawings and prints, he recorded the watery terrain and rustic villages on the outskirts of the city. In 1642, Rembrandt's wife Saskia died at the age of 29. Their son, Titus, was just nine months old. It is tempting to think that the artist's country rambles became a search for solace.
Between 1632 and Rembrandt's death in 1669, dozens of younger painters apprenticed with him in Amsterdam, creating a brand with international reach. Some followers became rivals by adapting to elite consumers' growing preference for brightness and elegance. The most successful was Govert Flinck, who studied with Rembrandt in the 1630s. Once on his own, Flinck developed a suave style that combined the lifelikeness of Rembrandt's portraits with a touch of glamour.
Others, such as Nicolaes Maes, took up the increasingly popular specialty of genre painting. As the exhibition shows, Amsterdam art lovers had a range of brilliant options from which to choose, and not everyone chose Rembrandt. It was this stimulating environment, rich with creativity and competition, that inspired the young artist from Leiden to reach his full potential as painter and printmaker, mentor and entrepreneur.
Amsterdam's thriving market for art and other luxury goods was fuelled by a global trade network that propelled the tiny Dutch Republic to power and wealth. Rembrandt was a child when the first Dutch trading ships arrived at Turtle Island. Today, we recognize that European colonization of North America and other parts of the world brought terrible suffering to Indigenous and Black people who were exploited, enslaved or stricken by disease. This exhibition offers a chance for fresh, inclusive perspectives on the European tradition and its legacy. Alongside the art of Rembrandt and his colleagues, the installation features works by contemporary Black and Indigenous artists who respond to this history in thoughtful ways.
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 of related talks and events, consult the exhibition webpage; the catalogue is available from the Gallery's 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.
Rembrandt in Amsterdam:
Creativity and Competition
Rembrandt in Amsterdam is accompanied by a richly illustrated scholarly catalogue edited by Stephanie Dickey and published in separate English, French and German editions.