In the Studio With the Young Artist: Rembrandt in Kingston

Rembrandt van Rijn was nineteen years old when he returned to his native Leiden around 1625 as an independent young master. Over the next six years, he developed the trademark subjects, styles and techniques that established his reputation as the foremost master of painting in the Dutch Golden Age.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, c.1629. Oil on panel, 44.5 x 34.2 cm. Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Courtesy of The Clowes Fund, C10063.

Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges, on view at Kingston's Agnes Etherington Art Centre, presents the young artist during his boldly experimental early days. The exhibition is part of a global celebration of the Year of Rembrandt, marking the 350th anniversary of his death on 4 October 1669. “I wanted to showcase how this epic master, considered one of the most accomplished artists in the history of art, learned and grew over the course of a few years,” says Jacquelyn N. Coutré, formerly curator at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University and now at the Art Institute of Chicago. “To show Rembrandt as a person in process, and not the great master fully formed, is inspiring for us all.”

Touring the exhibition, Coutré stops face to face with her subject. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait, painted about 1629, shows an inexperienced yet ambitious young man of about 22. Half of his face is in deep shadow and, amusingly, he has pimples on his chin. To convey strands of hair, the young artist has scratched into the wet paint to allow the undercoat to show through. In this experimental, unconventional work, it is exciting to note elements already that will define Rembrandt’s mature style, such as a dramatic facial expression and a fascination with shadow and light.

Jan Lievens, The Hermit, c.1631. Etching on laid paper, 24.7 x 18.4 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Tracing his movement toward mastery, the exhibition, featuring 33 works by Rembrandt and six fellow artists, is drawn mainly from The Bader Collection and rounded out with North American loans. The works provide a rare and revelatory look at his artistic origins. The viewer is able to see where Rembrandt got his start, his city and his artistic circle. It was in Leiden, known for its university, its printing industry and its textile production, that Rembrandt refined his skills. An in-gallery interactive map of old Leiden highlights the streets and the influences the young artists shared, as does a short film about contemporary Leiden, which still embraces its 17th-century heritage. In Rembrandt’s network, friendship and rivalry characterized relationships among the artists, who learned from one another but were also competitors.

Chief among Rembrandt’s associates was the renowned Jan Lievens. The two experimented together, often painting the same subjects and using the same models. Their progress as printmakers is seen in two works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. For The Hermit, Lievens made eight laborious versions of his print – the sixth is on display – improving it each time. Rembrandt, for his part, worked on his first etchings in Leiden, including The Small Lion Hunt. “What I love about this etching is it demonstrates he was still learning,” Coutré says. “The lines are rather coarse, it is somewhat difficult to read, we don't see a range of tones. Rembrandt gets there eventually, but I find it exciting that in 1629 he was still struggling with this medium.”

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Small Lion Hunt, c.1629–30. Etching on laid paper, 16 x 12 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Rembrandt and his Leiden contemporaries focused on small-scale history paintings with biblical and mythological subjects, as well as “tronies,” or character studies. One of Rembrandt’s earliest etchings, Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open Mouthed of 1630, on loan from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, is a small work likely drawn before a mirror. Over Rembrandt’s lifetime, he was to capture his own likeness about 75 times. These have become famous studies celebrated for character more than beauty.

Evocative textures, typical of works by Rembrandt and his fellow artists, are evident in paintings such as Lievens' A Man Singing and Rembrandt's The Tribute Money. One can imagine the young artists observing the world around them, sensitized to exotic brocades and the heaviness of the textiles produced in Leiden, when observing the treatment of robes and draping of the clothing in their paintings.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Head of an Old Man in a Cap, c.1630. Oil on panel. Gift of Alfred and Isabel Bader, 2003 (46-031). Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston. Photo: John Glembin

Rembrandt's Head of an Old Man in a Cap is the signature piece of the exhibition. Painted around 1630, it marks the culmination of the artist’s years of refining his skill and predicts his finest artistic achievements. “In this work, he has arrived at his signature pictorial vocabulary of compelling facial expression, evocative textures, powerful chiaroscuro and deep psychological presence,” notes Coutré.

By illuminating the early years of one of the most revered artists of all time, the exhibition captures Rembrandt on the brink of his breathtaking leap from talented youth to virtuoso. Picking up the narrative around 1632, the Rembrandt exhibition currently being prepared by the National Gallery of Canada for 2021, will continue the story to Rembrandt's legendary Amsterdam period and the celebrated master’s great mature works.


Selections from Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges, on view until December 1, 2019, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University in Kingston, will make appearances at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2020 and 2021. 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.

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