AMSTERDAM — There can be no doubt that Rembrandt van Rijn is the William Shakespeare of painters. Like the old English bard, he is an expert dramatist whose subjects can suffer in the deepest wells of tragedy or indulge in the capricious follies of comedy. And if Shakespeare has a talent for language, then the Dutch artist is a master of visual vocabulary by comparison. He enshrines the souls of his subjects in the peripheral details of the human form; somehow, hair, eyes, ears, and hands become evocative talismans of personality.
The Rijksmuseum is celebrating the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death by opening the lid on their entire collection of nearly 400 works. The once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, titled All the Rembrandts, includes 22 paintings, 60 drawings, and more than 300 prints. Perhaps the most comprehensive survey of the artist’s work this generation will ever see, there has never been a better examination of a painter who revolutionized portraiture and closed the Dutch Golden Age alongside compatriots like Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer.
Although it comes almost halfway through the exhibition, I recommend viewing “The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, Known as ‘The Syndics’” (1662) first. It’s arguably the best painting of the exhibition, foregrounding Rembrandt’s biographical and aesthetic developments with a glimpse of his late-style splendor.
After suffering financial difficulties in the 1650s, Rembrandt fell out of favor with the wealthy elites who buoyed his career with portrait commissions. Consequently, the Dutch painter largely subsisted on business deals with Amsterdam’s various guilds that were undoubtedly still enamored by the artist’s winsome and chaotic 1642 composition, “The Night Watch,” which has its own dedicated gallery on the top floor of the Rijksmuseum. Created exactly 20 years after that painting and only seven years before his death, “The Syndics” is an austere evolution of Rembrandt’s prowess for portraiture. He still finds his subjects in the midst of action, with the six men peering up toward the viewer from their ledger book. Here, though, there is a stronger emphasis on ornamentation. The painter ensures that the light shimmers upon the Syndics’ tablecloth, just barely catching the image of a moneybag in the shadows.
For an artist who teetered on the edge of financial ruin for much of his later life, it’s fascinating to see how Rembrandt illustrated poor people during his twenties. Born during the Netherlands’ transformation into Europe’s foremost maritime and economic power, the artist came from a miller’s family of the ascending middle class. When Rembrandt’s mother died, the family’s estate had an estimated value of almost 12,000 guilders (~$2.7 million in today’s currency). Nevertheless, the artist always depicts the impoverished without scorn.
The subject of “Beggar Seated on a Bank” (1630) extends his hand for alms and calls out to the viewer with exasperation. Here, Rembrandt gives the man his own face, perhaps sympathizing with the homeless person’s plight. But as with his other compositions, there is also a crudeness to his etchings. The harsh lines of his figures are borderline cartoonish and a far cry away from the soft style he would later become known for.
Though pornographic drawings were hardly rare in the 17th century, there is reason to pause for an extra beat on the ones Rembrandt drew. “The Monk in the Cornfield” (1646) is particularly lewd, depicting a clergyman breaking his vow of celibacy with a milkmaid who’s dropped both her pitcher and her skirt. Nearby is a reaper who apparently doesn’t notice the couple because of the high stalks of corn. With a lust for exhibitionism, Rembrandt imbues his risqué etchings with an erotic touch. Often, he combines his subjects into complicated knots of copulation. The strangest is “The French Bed,” which is another sex scene by the Dutch artist — only this time, the woman has two left arms. (Perhaps the extra appendage is for reaching the feather that dangles above the couple’s bedpost.)
Rembrandt seldom painted landscapes, and when he did they contained mostly imaginary vistas inspired by his time walking through the countryside. “Landscape with a Stone Bridge” (1638) is an example of the Dutch artist’s romantic tendencies. Although a bright noonday sun illuminates the left side of the canvas, a menacing storm cloud thunders through the right-half of the composition. The contrast increases drama, if also spoiling the climatological reality of the scene.
However, it seems like the artist’s landscape etchings were more in tune with reality. Historians believe that “Landscape with a Cottage and Hay Barn” (1641) depicts a country house along the River Amstel that Rembrandt would often pass during his walking routes from Amsterdam. The artist renders the cottage between the city and the nearby town, Kostverloren. There’s something so eloquently mundane about these etchings. Deprived of the human melodrama that populates his portraits, Rembrandt’s landscapes provide a rare look into the artist’s sense of tranquility. Images of the rural idylls outside Amsterdam likely reminded the painter of his childhood in the countryside.
Like most Netherlandish artists of his age, Rembrandt often imbued his paintings with biblical allegory. And given his proclivity for self-portraits, it’s unsurprising that he paints himself into the story of Samson and Delilah from the Old Testament. He casts himself as Delilah’s dutiful servant who gives the seductress the scissors needed to sap Samson’s superhuman strength from his magical hair. For such a violent scene, there’s something surprisingly jovial about the way Rembrandt paints the servant and Delilah.
If Delilah looks awfully similar to “The Great Jewish Bride” (1635) nearby, that’s because both women are likely modeled after Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Costumed in the guise of the ancient Jewish queen Esther, the artist renders the woman with flairs of regality and power. Described in the Old Testament as a beautiful woman, Rembrandt capitalizes on Esther’s cunning. She looks powerful holding a decree in hand as her wavy hair unfurls from the simple crown set upon her head.
Likely completed in the same year that his wife died from tuberculosis, “Student at a Table by the Light of an Oil Lamp” is a portrait of exasperation. The pupil massages his temples as he turns away from the book. He is barely visible. Rembrandt achieved this powerful contrast lighting by scratching crosshatched lines in the copperplate. According to the exhibition’s text, he would never make such a dark print again.