Rembrandt in Amsterdam


Rembrandt in Amsterdam Creativity and Competition Ottawa 5/14/2021–9/6/2021

Frankfurt am Main 10/6/2021–1/30/2022
Digitorial® to the Exhibition

Rembrandt: the art of this Dutchman still moves and fascinates us today. But how did a miller’s son from Leiden achieve such lasting international success? As a young painter and printmaker in the early 1600s, Rembrandt carved out a name for himself. He moved to the thriving and exciting city of Amsterdam, which became the stage for his art. In this capital of culture and commerce, he competed with countless other talented artists in an open art market the likes of which had never been seen before.

New Name, New Paths

New Name – New Paths

“Remember my name!” In 1631 Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn took his first steps on the Amsterdam art market.

In his native city of Leiden, the 25-year-old artist had already built a reputation as a wunderkind, impressing art lovers with his brilliance and inventiveness. Once in Amsterdam, he hit on a clever idea to stand out in the city’s overwhelmingly competitive art market: his first name would become his brand.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait in a Soft Hat and a Patterned Cloak, 1631 Etching with touches of drypoint on laid paper, 14.8 × 13 cm, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

    In 1631 Rembrandt signed this self-portrait with his monogram: “RHL.” As was customary at the time, it refers to his family and his birthplace: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Leiden (Rembrandt, son of Harmen, from Leiden).

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait in a Soft Hat and a Patterned Cloak, 1631 Etching on laid paper, 14.7 × 13.1 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

    On arrival in Amsterdam, Rembrandt changed his signature. Emulating the bold model of luminaries of Italian art such as Titian, Raphael and Michelangelo, he chose to use his distinctive first name as his brand. No other Dutch artist had yet dared do this.

Competition Far and Wide

It’s hard to believe, but in mid-17th century Holland there was one painter for every 650 inhabitants. The demand for artworks was enormous.

Pieter Codde, Connoisseurs Visiting an Artist's Studio, c. 1630 Oil on panel, 38.3 × 49.3 cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Acquired with lottery funds in 1976, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Staatsgalerie Stuttgart / Art Resource, NY

Always on the lookout for fresh talent, the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh invited Rembrandt to move to Amsterdam where he provided him with work painting portraits. The booming city with its worldwide trade networks was governed by the laws of a free capitalist market. Artworks were hot commodities. The broad art-buying public didn’t just consist of the wealthy mercantile class; in Amsterdam, even craftsmen and seafarers bought art.

“yea many tymes blacksmithes, Coblers, etts., will have some picture or other by their Forge and in their stalle. Such is the (…) delight that these Countrie Native[s] have to Paintings.”

Peter Mundy, 1640 English traveller

Money, Status and Consumption

The economic system of the 17th century Dutch Republic is known as European merchant capitalism. Economic and social status was no longer defined by inherited ownership of land but by the private possession of capital and means of production. Consumer goods, collectibles and luxury goods were a part of life back then, as they still are today. Private citizens paid vast sums for sugar, coffee and porcelain, but also for prints and paintings.

Job Adriaensz Berckheyde, The Stock Exchange in Amsterdam, c. 1675–80 Oil on canvas, 62.2 × 52.8 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

“In this house [the stock exchange] the entire world gathers to bargain. You will find (...) merchants from Poland, Hungary, as well as Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Muscovites, Persians and Turks, yes, sometimes even people from India and other foreign lands.”

Filip von Zesen, 1664 German poet, Beschreibung der Stadt Amsterdam (Description of Amsterdam)

Portraits as a Springboard

Recognizing his opportunities in portrait painting, Rembrandt made a name for himself on the art market.

Aspirational merchants and wealthy burghers – everybody wanted to be painted by the newcomer. Within a short time, Rembrandt had become one of the most sought-after portraitists in the city. His portraits convey liveliness and personality in a way never seen before. They secured a lasting clientele for the young painter and printmaker.

  • Nicolaes Eliasz Pickenoy, Portrait of a Man, 1628 Oil on canvas, 196 × 126 cm, Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe

    Nicolaes Pickenoy was an established portraitist when Rembrandt arrived in Amsterdam. He depicted his bourgeois clients in stately poses modelled on court portraiture: the curtain, marble floor and carpet-draped table create a context of luxury. Status is everything!

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Standing Man (Andries de Graeff), 1639 Oil on canvas, 199 × 123.5 cm, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel / Art Resource, NY

    Rembrandt’s paintings broke the norm. This portrait shows Andries de Graeff, one of the richest men in Amsterdam at the time. In spite of the sitter’s exceptional wealth and status, Rembrandt emphasizes the palpable swagger in De Graeff’s pose and imbues the depiction with an immediate sense of liveliness.

Profoundly moving and always tinged with mystery, Rembrandt’s paintings never cease to surprise us. They show real people with all their singularities. Rembrandt himself described the aim of his art as the “strongest and most natural movement.”

But Rembrandt wanted to do more than just portraiture. He pulled out all the stops, ensuring breathtaking variety in his art.

picture credits Rembrandt van Rijn, The Drunken Lot, c. 1630–33, black and white chalk, traces of red chalk, with wash, on laid paper, 25.3 × 18.9 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Rembrandt van Rijn, Still Life with Peacocks, c. 1639, oil on canvas, 145 × 135.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Photo: Rijksmuseum

Small Country, Wide World

Small Country – Wide World

With 70,000 paintings churned out every year, the volume of Dutch art production was staggering. What was it about the Dutch Republic that produced artists capable of combining such quantity with such quality?

By the mid-1600s, the Dutch Republic was the richest country in Europe. The bustling metropolis of Amsterdam was home to the largest staple port on the continent. From there, sea-trading routes spread out across the globe.

François van den Hoeye, Panoramic View of Amsterdam, c. 1620–25 Etching and engraving on three sheets of laid paper, 24.3 × 122.4 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Photo: Rijksmuseum

“I can look in astonishment at the tremendous amount of goods shipped in from abroad, the multitude and strength of the ships (…).”

Caspar Barlaeus, 1632 Dutch historian

The Dutch Republic occupied a relatively small territory. It comprised little more than a strip of coast, with a small population and few raw materials. But thanks to global overseas trade, the young state gained enormous wealth and power.

The Struggle for Independence

The Dutch Republic was born out of a rebellion. The northern provinces of the Low Countries revolted against the powerful Spanish Habsburg dynasty, which had ruled the territory since the late 15th century. During the Eighty Years’ War (1568−1648), the northern provinces fought for their independence and for religious freedom. Calvinism, named after the Swiss Protestant reformer John Calvin, was widespread in the region, but its followers were persecuted as heretics by the Catholic Habsburgs. In 1581 the rebellious provinces proclaimed independence as a republic. From 1609 to 1621, a truce created the conditions for cultural and economic progress. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia at last secured international recognition for the young state.

A City in Transition

A meteoric rise! During Rembrandt’s times, Amsterdam saw a veritable explosion in population, art production and scientific discovery. The city became a crucible of ideas and influences from all over the world.

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Portrait of Isaac Commelin, 1669 Oil on canvas, 70.7 × 55.6 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Between 1600 and 1662, the population of Amsterdam grew from 40,000 to 210,000. Wars and poverty, as well as religious and political persecution drove tens of thousands of Europeans to the Dutch Republic. Especially in Amsterdam, with its strong labour market and relative religious tolerance, immigrants hoped to find a life free from the constraints of absolutist rule and religious dogma. People from other parts of the world also poured into the city.

Filip von Zesen, Map of Amsterdam, 1664 Engraving on laid paper, 24.1 × 46.2 cm, illustration from: Filip von Zesen, Beschreibung der Stadt Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Noschen, 1664), Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Rembrandt’s neighbours came from all over the world. He lived in the traditional Jewish quarter on the Breestraat (today Jodenbreestraat and Sint Antoniesbreestraat). These cosmopolitan surroundings are reflected in his drawings and paintings.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Two African Men, 1661 Oil on canvas, 77.8 × 64.4 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

    The Breestraat was home to an African community, which included Black sailors who worked for the Dutch trading companies. The name of one of them, “Francisco of Angola,” gives us a clue about the origins of some of Rembrandt’s neighbours.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Study of a black man, ca. 1650 Black chalk and ink, 9.6 × 8.4 cm, Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam

    Residents of the Breestraat, also included people who had been brought to the Dutch Republic as enslaved servants by Jewish families from the Iberian Peninsula. Slavery was officially banned in Amsterdam.

With Ships around the Globe

Sailing to far-off lands: during Rembrandt’s lifetime, the Dutch Republic became a colonial power.

Zeeman (Reinier Nooms), A View of the Amsterdam Harbor, ca. 1643–1664 Oil on canvas, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of the Walter and Frances Bunzl Foundation, 1991.300.

Golden Times?

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Rembrandt’s art, too, is intrinsically bound up in European colonial history. Objects from all over the world can be discovered in his images.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Tobit and Anna with the Kid, 1645 Oil on panel, 20.2 × 28 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt Rembrandt van Rijn, Tobit and Anna with the Kid (verso), 1645 Oil on panel, 20.2 × 28 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Christoph Schmidt

Rembrandt painted this oil sketch on tropical jequitiba wood. The wood was cut in the colony of New Holland in northeast Brazil, where it was used for the construction of boxes to transport sugar. Artists used discarded boxes as a cheap support for their paintings.

The Sugar Trade and Slavery

The Dutch Republic was pivotal in enabling the transatlantic sugar trade. It was responsible for the enslavement of West African children, women and men. Ships of the Dutch West India Company (founded in 1621 and known as WIC in Dutch) transported not just goods but also hundreds of thousands of people in chains across the Atlantic.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Abraham Francen, c. 1647-1667 Etching, engraving and drypoint on Asian paper, 15,9 x 21 cm, The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam, Copyright Museum Het Rembrandthuis © 2020

This print is executed on delicate Asian paper, a precious material brought to Europe via Pacific routes. Everyday objects, artworks and naturalia (natural products) from distant lands were traded as objects of wonder, and anyone who was anyone in the Dutch Republic boasted at least a small collection of them.

Rembrandt’s portrait of his friend Abraham Francen shows the apothecary surrounded by his art collection. The figure on the table would have originated from China and is a cult image in the religious teachings of Daoism. It has its place right next to a small religious triptych, which was also part of Francen’s curiosity cabinet.

The Art Room in the Rembrandt House Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam, Photo: © KIRSTENVANSANTEN

Rembrandt’s Workshop, Rembrandt’s Brand

Rembrandt’s Workshop – Rembrandt’s Brand

Rembrandt became so successful in Amsterdam that he was soon able to open his own business. His name stood for a large workshop, which he led as a commercial enterprise.

Rembrandt’s art was in hot demand with wealthy merchants, many of whom profited from the worldwide maritime trade. In 1634 the artist took the decisive step towards professional independence: he joined the Amsterdam Guild of Saint Luke, the official association of artists.

Rembrandt’s Funeral Medallion (recto), 1634 Brass, 2.8 cm (diameter), Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam Rembrandt’s Funeral Medallion (verso), 1634 Brass, 2.8 cm (diameter), Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

A rare historical object, Rembrandt’s guild medal survives to this day. His membership in the Guild of Saint Luke gave him the right to lead his own workshop and teach apprentices. By training younger artists and selling their work as well as his own, he became highly productive. He gained wealth and influence, not merely as an artist but as an entrepreneur.

“It [Rembrandt’s workshop] is filled with countless noble youngsters who are there for instruction and learning, each paying 100 guilders per year.”

Joachim von Sandrart, 1675, II, Book 3 German artist and art historian, Teutsche Academie

A Successful Workshop

Over the years, more than 40 apprentices and assistants worked with Rembrandt, turning his large workshop into a goldmine. Every pupil is said to have paid 100 guilders a year for their training. And Rembrandt made a further annual profit of 2,000−2,500 guilders by taking a commission on the sale of his pupils’ works. In comparison, an unskilled labourer earned about 300 guilders a year in the 17th century.

Jan van der Straet, Color Olivi (Invention of Oil Painting), plate 14 in the Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times), c. 1591 Engraving on laid paper, 23 × 29.7 cm, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Kupferstich-Kabinett, Dresden, © Kupferstich-Kabinett, SKD, Inv.-Nr. A 44995, Photo: Andreas Diesend

An Unmistakable Face

Rembrandt’s workshop did a thriving trade. As he strategically expanded his influence on the art market, his own face became a recognizable trademark of his brand.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639 Etching on laid paper, 20.6 × 16.3 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa / Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

    In this print, Rembrandt boldly presents himself as a confident, nonchalant gentleman. His curly hair and prominent nose are unmistakable. The artist’s face firmly belongs to the image repertoire of his studio.

  • Ferdinand Bol, Self-portrait, 1642; c. 1647 Etching on laid paper, 13.7 × 11.2 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main; Oil on canvas, 97.5 × 77.5 cm, Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, The James Philip Gray Collection, Photography by David Stansbury

    Rembrandt’s pupil Ferdinand Bol here imitates his teacher: poses and demeanour in his self-portraits closely emulate Rembrandt’s model. Many other pupils created and sold prints and paintings which “riffed” on Rembrandt’s style of self-portraiture.

Rembrandt’s face does not just appear in his self-portraits; he also lent his own features to role portraits (featuring a mythical or historical figure) and even character heads, known as tronies, which were very popular on the art market.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Tronie of a Man with a Feathered Beret, c. 1635–40, Oil on panel, 62.5 × 47 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague

    An intricate feathered bonnet adorns the head of the man to whom Rembrandt has lent his own features. This is not a self-portrait but a tronie, a genre that plays with identities, facial expressions and societal roles. It opens up underlying questions of self-knowledge: who is who, and who am I really?

  • Wallerant Vaillant, Self-portrait with Helmet, c. 1655 Oil on canvas, 63.7 × 57.7 cm, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, © Landesmuseum Hannover – ARTOTHEK

    Wallerant Vaillant, a French artist in Amsterdam, painted a self-portrait modelled on Rembrandt’s roleplay. With his gleaming helmet and lavish clothing, he might be playing the role of a soldier. Whatever the case, he gives an imaginative performance perfect for the stage.

One Signature, Many Hands

The “Rembrandt brand” worked strategically. The brand offered a recognizable painting style and unconventional pictorial themes.

Rembrandt and his pupils specialized in powerful scenes from Old Testament stories. One example is the story of “The Expulsion of Hagar” from the Old Testament (Gen 21: 9−14). Rembrandt recorded the version by his own teacher Pieter Lastman and created his own interpretation in an etching. Rembrandt’s workshop produced numerous variations. Their paintings are known for their warm, earthy colours and dramatic lighting effects.

Pieter Lastman, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, 1612 Oil on panel, 48.3 × 71.4 cm, Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Hamburger Kunsthalle / Elke Walford / Art Resource, NY
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, c. 1637 Black chalk on laid paper, 19.2 × 15 cm, Albertina, Vienna, Photo: Albertina Museum, © Albertina, Wien
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, 1637 Etching and drypoint on laid paper, 12.6 × 9.5 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
Barnet Fabritius, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, c. 1650–60 Oil on canvas, 109.9 × 109.9 cm, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Anonymous gift Image courtesy the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Govert Flinck, The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, c. 1642 Oil on canvas, 110.7 × 138.8 cm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Photo: bpk Bildagentur / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders / Art Resource, NY

A mother and her small son are banished to the desert. This dramatic theme was novel and quickly became highly popular on the Amsterdam art market.

Works by Rembrandt and his pupils sometimes look as if they are all by the same hand. Art experts often argue today about the authorship of these paintings. Did Rembrandt execute a particular work or was it one of his pupils? Not every “Rembrandt” that hangs in the world’s museums was created by Rembrandt himself. The brand wasn’t made up of the work of a single man but of a whole company with a “corporate identity.”

Rembrandt Workshop, attributed to Carel Fabritius, A Girl with a Broom, c. 1646/48–51 Oil on canvas, 107.3 × 91.4 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art

Rembrandt’s Lines, Rembrandt’s Hands

Rembrandt’s Lines – Rembrandt’s Hands

Rembrandt was a brilliant printmaker. He displayed his prowess in the graphic arts in drawings and prints, especially etchings.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-portrait Etching at a Window, 1648 Etching, engraving and drypoint on laid paper, 15.6 × 12.9 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

A self-portrait consisting of a thousand lines: Rembrandt presents himself as a modest printmaker, deep in concentration as he works on an etching. There is no hint of his fame as an artist and business owner. One wonders what image he is drawing on the plate, but the chosen perspective, from below, blocks our view. Our imagination is as important here as that of the artist, as he conjures up images from his own mind.

Etching – “Drawing” on Copper

Rembrandt shows himself at work on an etching plate. Piled underneath on a closed album are a stack of papers tilted towards him and a folded cloth. The copperplate lies on this uppermost cushioned layer. Rembrandt guides the etching needle with his right hand. To produce an etching, an artist must score lines into a soft, waxy ground that has been applied to the plate. The lines and dots exposed are etched into the metal when the plate is dipped in an acid bath. In contrast, drypoints are produced by drawing directly on the bare plate with a needle. In his self-portrait of 1648, Rembrandt combined both techniques.

Printmaking as His True Passion

The art of the line was dear to Rembrandt’s heart. His inventive etchings were never part of the mass production of the so-called “art factory” of the Dutch Republic.

Some impressions from a printmaker’s edition went for the price of a sausage, and were sold, like sausages, at market stalls, while others fetched record prices at fairs and auctions. While many were mass produced, Rembrandt printed his intricate etchings in small batches. They were avidly collected by connoisseurs during his lifetime.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1634 Etching, etching needle and dry-point, 26.6. x 22.3 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Photo: U. Edelmann

“His etchings have a lot in common with his way of painting. They are expressive and full of wit (...).”

Roger de Piles, 1715 French art historian and art theorist, Abrégé de la vie des peintres

The Hundred Guilder Print, probably Rembrandt’s most famous etching, is the subject of many legends. Its market price is said to have been 100 guilders, a hundred times what an average print would fetch. A rare print by Rembrandt could cost as much as a large canvas painting.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print), c. 1648 Etching, engraving and drypoint on India proof paper, mounted on Asian paper, 27.7 × 38.9 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa / Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

Rembrandt’s Hundred Guilder Print is one of the most sophisticated images in European art history. To this day, some mysteries around the work remain unresolved, but what do we know about it?

Bartering Frenzy

Prints were traded not just for money but also as tokens of friendship or objects of barter. Rembrandt was an avid print collector himself. He exchanged an impression of his famous, much admired Hundred Guilder Print for one of the most desired copper engravings of his time – Il Morbetto (The Plague). The latter had been engraved after a design by the great Italian artist Raphael, whose fame had not diminished but grown since his death. What a coup for Rembrandt’s art collection!

Marcantonio Raimondi (after Raphael), Plague among the Trojans (Il Morbetto), 1515–16 Engraving on laid paper, 19.8 × 25.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Photo: Rijksmuseum

From plate to paper: An etching can be printed many times. This portrait shows the Amsterdam print dealer and publisher Clement de Jonghe.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Copperplate for Etched Portrait of Clement de Jonghe, 1651 Copper, 21 × 16.5 cm, Amsterdam Museum, Amsterdam, Purchased with the support of the Rembrandt Association, Photo: Amsterdam Museum Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of Clement de Jonghe, 1651 Etching, engraving and drypoint on laid paper, first state, 20.7 × 16.1 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main / National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

De Jonghe proudly acquired 74 of the 300 copperplates that Rembrandt produced in total. As a publisher, he probably reprinted these plates for sale. But as a passionate collector he must have treasured a product directly from Rembrandt’s hand.

Breathtaking Variety, Unlimited Possibilities

Breathtaking Variety – Unlimited Possibilities

A man of many talents, during his lifetime Rembrandt was regarded as a prime example of a “universal artist.”

Rembrandt covered the whole artistic spectrum, producing portraits, landscapes and dramatic narratives in the form of drawings, prints and paintings. But his talent didn’t stop there. He also captured aspects of reality that are invisible and fleeting: light, mood, weather and all nuances of human expression. It is precisely this ability that accounted for his reputation as a “universal artist” among his contemporaries.

“But that old rascal Rembrandt is a strong idealist, who invites us to dream and peer into the beyond.“

Charles Baudelaire, 1864 French poet and art critic
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Heroine from the Old Testament, 1632/33 Oil on canvas, 109.2 × 94.4 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

    Delicate fabrics, vessels and jewellery shimmer in the light. The pale skin of the seated woman is illuminated. To this day it is unclear which mythical figure or story is shown here. The painting does not lend itself to a single reading. Rembrandt was more concerned with conveying atmosphere, imagination and sensual luxury.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Judith at the Banquet of Holofernes (formerly Artemisia), 1634 Oil on canvas, 143 × 154.7 cm, Museo National del Prado, Madrid, Photo: © Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

    This heroine cannot be identified either. What libation or potion is she about to drink? And what does the older woman emerging from the gloom have in her hands? Rembrandt’s depiction of hair, fur and glistening precious metal entices us to revel in and marvel at these mysteries.

Moments of Great Drama

Rembrandt was a gifted storyteller. Condensing whole stories into a single scene, he created images that are both innovative and compelling.

Rembrandt’s paintings often disturb or horrify. But despite their emotional power they can also exude tenderness and mystery. Especially in the depiction of human facial expressions, Rembrandt was interested in nuances, ambiguity and hidden irony.

Rembrandt van Rijn, David Playing the Harp for Saul, c. 1630–31 Oil on panel, 62 × 50.1 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, © Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main, Photo: U. Edelmann

David plays the harp before the aged king Saul, who is affected by depression – “tormented by an evil spirit,” as the Bible says. The scene from the Old Testament (1 Sam 16:14−23) that Rembrandt shows encapsulates only one moment, but this small painting conveys the whole tumultuous history of the two men. We can read reams in Saul’s facial expression alone. It reveals a bitter, sad king, so touched by tender David’s harp playing that it momentarily lifts him from his melancholy. But it also conveys his envy, distrust and wrath. These feelings, which Saul will one day harbour against his young rival, the future King David, are anticipated by Rembrandt in his moving depiction of the king’s facial expressions.

“It was Rembrandt’s huge painting The Blinding of Samson that terrified me, tormented me and kept me on a string. (...) I bore witness in the most horrible way.”

Elias Canetti, 1982 Bulgarian-British writer, in The Torch in My Ear, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.)
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Blinding of Samson, 1636 Oil on canvas, 219.3 × 305 cm, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

A scene of horror. On first seeing this cruel sight, we may wish to avert our eyes. Rembrandt tells the story of the biblical hero Samson, focusing on and visualizing the brutal blinding. Rembrandt was testing the limits of what can be depicted and viewed in a painting.

Rembrandt’s “Orientalism”

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Quoting antiquity

With the figure of Samson, right arm lifted and legs tensed, Rembrandt contributed to a visual tradition reaching back to one of the most famous works of European art history, the ancient Laocoön group. Numerous artists of his time, for example the celebrated Peter Paul Rubens, had already painted bodies writhing in agony, inspired in part by the ancient statue. As in the Laocoön sculpture, Rubens and many other artists combined the depiction of pain with heroic beauty. Rembrandt, on the other hand, showed raw violence in all its unvarnished horror.

Peter Paul Rubens, Prometheus Bound, c. 1611–18; Laocoön group of statues, photographed before 1906 Purchased with the W.P. Wilstach Fund, 1950, Photo: The Philadelphia Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY; Lacoön and His Sons, Athanodoro, Agesandro and Polidoro di Rodi, 40–30 CE, marble, 208 × 163 × 112 cm, Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Making the Invisible Visible

Nothing is more boring than a landscape? Not for Rembrandt, whose depiction of nature immerses us in weather and atmosphere. Even phenomena like wind, rain and the movement of clouds are made visible.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643 Etching, engraving and drypoint on laid paper, 21.3 × 28 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa / Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main
  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Landscape with a Stone Bridge, c. 1638 Oil on panel, 29.5 × 42.5 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Purchased with the support of the Rembrandt Association and A. Bredius, Amsterdam, Photo: Rijksmuseum

    A Dutch river landscape is bathed in an almost uncanny twilight that hangs over the trees. Rembrandt has made use of some bold brushwork to produce this mood. At upper right, he has applied the paint so thinly and loosely that the dark ground shimmers through, suggesting a gathering gloom.

  • Jan Asselijn, The Tiber River with the Ponte Molle at Sunset, c. 1650 Oil on canvas, 41.2 × 54 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Florian Carr Fund, New Century Fund, and Nell and Robert Weidenhammer Fund, Photo: Courtesy National Gallery of Art

    In contrast, the light-filled Roman landscape by Rembrandt’s Amsterdam colleague Jan Asselijn exudes a sense of dignified calm. The finely rendered details have nothing in common with Rembrandt’s “roughness.” With its sunny sky, clear structure and a longing for Italian warmth and the harmonious forms of antiquity, Asselijn’s painting appeals to changing tastes in the Dutch Republic around 1650.

“Rembrandt van Rijn: invented his own rules of painting … he did not visit Italy and other places, where the Ancients and art theory can be learned.”

Joachim von Sandrart, 1675, I, Book 2 Art historian and painter, Teutsche Academie

Unconventional Images, New Fashions

Unconventional Images – New Fashions

Rembrandt remained true to himself. He did not bend to shifting artistic tastes.

Like consumer culture today, the Amsterdam art market was in constant flux. What was valued one day was no longer prized the next. In the mid-17th century, tastes rapidly changed. A trend from France started to dominate in the Netherlands: art modelled on the rules of classical antiquity was becoming ever more popular. Classical art, with its lighter colours and clear forms, was very different from Rembrandt’s manner of painting. But while many paintings in the new style seem uniform and conventional to us today, Rembrandt’s works from his time in Amsterdam lost none of their depth or individual expressiveness.

  • Rembrandt van Rijn, Diana and Her Nymphs Bathing, with the Stories of Actaeon and Callisto, 1634 Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 93.5 cm, Bildersammlung der Fürsten zu Salm, Wasserburg Anholt, Isselburg Copyright: Wasserburg Anholt

    Rembrandt’s painting from 1634 shows Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and her virgin followers bathing in a river. The naked figures are scattered along the lower edge of the painting. Where should one look first? The entire composition seems impenetrable, while the eerie, gloomy bulk of the forest dominates the picture.

  • Jacob van Loo, Diana and Her Nymphs, 1654 Oil on canvas, 99.5 × 135.5 cm, National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen

    What a contrast! The Amsterdam painter Jacob van Loo presents Diana in the centre of the image, surrounded by her entourage. Their slender bodies glisten in the evening light. The group of figures is clearly arranged in the form of a pyramid. This painting from 1654 meets all the criteria of the classical art movement.

Body images

The firm, slender body and graceful pose reveal that Jacob von Loo’s Diana is modelled on an ancient statue of Venus, the goddess of love. She embodies a timeless female ideal of beauty. But Rembrandt had little interest in this. His naked bathers have a “natural” bodily presence that is governed by gravity.

Venus de’ Medici, 1rst century BCE Marble, 151 × 42 × 56 cm, Uffizi Galleries, Florence

It is not just the composition of Rembrandt’s Diana and Her Nymphs that is unusual, the work is also striking for its content. Rembrandt has combined two stories from ancient mythology in one image, that of the hunter Actaeon and that of the nymph Callisto. No other artist had done that before.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Diana and Her Nymphs Bathing, with the Stories of Actaeon and Callisto, 1634 Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 93.5 cm, Bildersammlung der Fürsten zu Salm, Wasserburg Anholt, Isselburg Copyright: Wasserburg Anholt


Rembrandt was an extraordinary artist, an entrepreneur and a brand. On the art market he had something to offer in all genres, and the art-buying public in Amsterdam was fascinated by his work. But after riding a wave of success for two decades, he fell on difficult times. The change in tastes led to his economic decline and eventual ruin.

Yet his art remains unforgotten. Unconventional, innovative and mysterious, Rembrandt’s magic continues to captivate us.


The big secret

A man is seated on a barrel with his legs apart. He is an art critic. With his pipe he arrogantly points at some portraits brought before him for his esteemed appraisal. A group of onlookers hang on his every word. But Rembrandt depicts the critic with donkey’s ears. It is worth taking a close look at this biting satire sketched by Rembrandt.

At the bottom right of the drawing we see the figure of an artist relieving himself on the spot while the critic delivers his verdict. Rembrandt makes clear what he thinks of the critics of his time!

Rembrandt van Rijn, Satire on Art Criticism, 1644 Pen and ink, corrected with white, on laid paper, 15.5 × 20.1 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, image source: Art Resource, NY

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