In honor of the 350th anniversary of the great painter’s death in 1669, the Dutch museum chose an unconventional way of honoring the master who dominated the country’s art in the 17th century: They would show everything in their collection, all 22 paintings, and 60 drawings, and if not every single print (there are many duplicates among the 1,300 in the museum’s collection), at least one example of each design.
It’s a typically democratic way to present the artist’s work, not curated to convey a particular scholarly theme or thesis, but laid out bare in all its breadth and depth. And the impact was stunning. From small etchings, some barely larger than a postage stamp, to the pride of the museum’s collection, the 1642 group portrait “The Night Watch,” which is more than 14 feet wide, one marveled again and again at the economy, urbanity and wit of Rembrandt’s vision. “Nothing human is alien to me,” said the Roman playwright Terence, a man born a slave; and nothing human seemed alien to Rembrandt, born a miller’s son, who became for a time a rich man, and died in poverty despite being hailed as the greatest artist of his age.
The exhibition, scheduled to close Monday, begins with self-portraits, a room full of them, including a painting made around 1628, when Rembrandt was in his early 20s, and another made in 1661, when he was in his mid-fifties. The youthful portrait casts his smooth face in the shadow of thick and unruly hair, while in the older image he stares out at the viewer with his eyebrows raised sharply, as if to say what we often feel when looking on our weathered self: Can you believe how old I’ve grown? But the painted images are almost static compared with the myriad smaller etched self-portraits, with the artist mugging in front of the mirror, wearing fancy dress and strange costumes, trying on different hats, and struggling to convey with the accretion of thin black lines the contours and shadows of the three-dimensional world.
We take for granted that there is no single, true self, just a range of different selves that serve different purposes, and this troubling and distinctly modern sensibility seems fully present in Rembrandt’s self-representation. The authenticity of it lies in its multiplicity.
After this introductory gallery, the exhibition follows common themes with a loose chronological layout, covering his time as a young painter in Leiden, his move to Amsterdam, his phenomenal success as a portrait painter, his ambition to be a great history painter, the death of his beloved wife in 1642, the evolution of his style into something uniquely haunted and nervous, with the surface sketchy and suggestive rather than polished and precise, through his financial woes and finally his last years, in which he struggled to connect with an audience that favored a livelier, more finished, more colorful kind of painting.
Only in his very early works, including a 1626 work called “Musical Company,” does one sense any weakness as an artist (the figures are out of proportion, details of anatomy are odd and the colors unappealing). But his late work only grows in strength, including a touching 1660 portrait of his son Titus dressed as a monk, and “The Jewish Bride,” a double portrait of an older man and his younger paramour (perhaps a reference to Rembrandt’s relationship with his mistress, Hendrickje, who had formerly been his maid).
The Rijskmuseum claims to have the largest and most comprehensive collection of Rembrandts in the world, though much of it was assembled centuries after the artist’s death. Peter the Great, whose collection would become part of the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, acquired the first of that museum’s six magnificent Rembrandts in 1716. The Rijksmuseum added its first two Rembrandts (including “The Night Watch”) to its collection in 1808, and for many decades it wasn’t particularly noted for its holdings of the artist. Even today, there is no great painting from the 1650s, and other museums (such as the Hermitage) have smaller but perhaps more potent collections of major masterworks. As Jonathan Bikker, author of a new biography published in conjunction with the Rijskmuseum exhibition, explains, the Dutch museum took much of the 20th century to pull together its collection.
But Bikker says the trend during that period was to seek out autobiographical work, with less focus on the vast amount of work that was made to order, made to promote his career, or made simply because a subject caught the painter’s eye. Only in the 1970s did they acquire significant works from his earliest years, and only in 2015 did they obtain the magnificent 1634 matching pair of portraits, of Marten Soolmans and his wife, Oopjen Coppit, which boosts the institution’s claims of having the most significant Rembrandt collection in the world.
The slavishly autobiographical approach is out of fashion today, and when it comes to exhibitions, it’s more common (and often more rewarding) to focus not just on a single artist, but an artist in some larger social context (the National Gallery’s 2017 “Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting” is a fine example). If there’s a weakness to the Rijksmuseum show, it’s precisely this: That Rembrandt appears in splendid isolation, without context, seemingly without competitors, without precedents, influences or acolytes.
And yet that complaint feels more like an intellectual scruple than a real demerit. The sheer volume of Rembrandt etchings hammer home the larger point of the exhibition, which is the inexhaustibility of his invention and observation. Biblical scenes are imagined and reimagined, the lighting reconfigured, the major players emphasized or obscured. In 1632, he imagines the raising of Lazarus like the climactic scene of a grand opera, and 10 years later, he presents it intimately, like chamber music. In several cases, he repurposes his etching plates as they become worn out, adding patches of darkness to blot out the abraded parts, turning day into night and calling up great storms to hide what was no longer producing a clean print. This isn’t just a pragmatic concession to the natural decline of a copper plate — it also produces entirely new narratives, new moods and new ideas, all as exciting and compelling as the original one.
“His interest is entirely human,” says Taco Dibbits, general director of the Rijksmuseum. “He limits himself to that. There is no interest in architecture. Even his landscapes are human in his obsession to reveal the world around him.” He was also “the first artist to let us see into his bedroom,” Dibbits says.
And he did, indeed. We see his wife, Saskia, in bed, sometimes looking haggard and perhaps near death (she succumbed to what was probably tuberculosis at the age of 29). We also see people out of doors, but with great intimacy, including a man urinating, a monk breaking his vows with a woman in a cornfield, and another woman squatting on the ground and defecating. This might be shocking, given their proximity to biblical narratives and detailed, psychological portraits. But the more you acknowledge the limitless dimensions of this category — things he saw, things he thought worth remembering — the more coherent the life’s work seems. Nothing human was alien to him.
The impact of the first gallery’s self-portraits, especially the youthful one with floppy hair made in the late 1620s, seems to fade, somehow, throughout the show. Other artists who depicted themselves remain young in our collective memory — the exuberance of their early self-mythologizing persists as their defining image. But near the end of this exhibition there are images of St. Jerome, made throughout Rembrandt’s life. He is not only an old man, he is in many ways the saint of old people, a saint who embodies isolation, reflection, wisdom and the simple pleasures of having a mute companion like a cat or dog (or in Jerome’s case, a lion) at your side. There are enough of these St. Jeromes, and they convey such a range of invention and emotion, that one can’t help but sense some shared identity between the artist and the saint.
If so, then the exhibition ends this way: with a man’s life summed up as the things he saw, his intelligence all in the noticing of details, his wisdom defined by a capacious sense of curiosity, toleration and acceptance. He was us before we were us, which is to say, on the 350th anniversary of his death, the Rijksmuseum has reinvented Rembrandt once again, as a contemporary artist.