Rediscovering the master Rembrandt at the Royal Scottish Academy

The Jewish bride by Rembrandt van Rijn
The Jewish bride by Rembrandt van Rijn
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The National Galleries of Scotland’s major summer show explores the strong links between Rembrandt and Britain, where he was revered even when his work had fallen out of fashion in his home land, writes Susan Mansfield

If Rembrandt’s home town has been a little slow to capitalise on the legacy of its most famous son, it is making up for it now. In Leiden today, visitors can stay at the Rembrandt Hotel and eat in the Rembrandt Restaurant. The town’s major art gallery, the Lakenhal Museum, is currently being refurbished, due to reopen in 2019 with Young Rembrandt, a major exhibition of early works.

Elshazzar's Feast, c.1635

Elshazzar's Feast, c.1635

A walking tour ‘In the footsteps of the Young Rembrandt’ takes visitors past the Latin School, where he was educated, and the university where he enrolled at the age of 16, though it’s not known if he attended any classes. The city’s botanical garden – Hortus Botanicus – founded in 1590, was visited by Linnaeus and Einstein, but there are no records of a visit by Rembrandt. “If only we had a piece of paperwork,” our guide says, wistfully.

Just opened this year is the Young Rembrandt Studio, on the ground floor of the 16th-century house on Langebrug where Rembrandt was apprenticed to history painter Jacob van Swanenburgh at the age of 14. While the interior is not original, and the studio would have been on the first floor, an entertaining seven-minute docu-drama introduces visitors to this formative time in the artist’s life.

Rembrandt left Leiden for Amsterdam when he was 17, returning a few years later to set up his first studio. But his ambitions were always bigger than his home town. Back in Amsterdam in 1631, he established himself quickly as the most fashionable portrait painter in the city which was then the buzzing commercial centre of Europe. In 1639, the year he was commissioned to paint ‘The Night Watch’, he bought a four-storey house in an up-and-coming neighbourhood, as might befit a famous artist, at a punitive cost of 13,000 guilders.

Around the time of Rembrandt’s tercentenary in 1906, the city of Amsterdam bought back the dilapidated building and handed it over to a trust, which made it into a print museum. A major overhaul in the 1990s created what is now the Rembrandt House Museum, restyling the interior as it would have been when the artist lived there, showing his living quarters, print workshop and studio. It is now a major visitor attraction.

But the mortgage on the house proved too much for Rembrandt. While he made a great deal of money, particularly in the 1630s and 1640s, he spent it just as quickly, buying up paintings, antiques, curios. The Rembrandt House has recreated his collection, based on the detailed inventory made when he filed for bankruptcy in 1656, from paintings and classical sculptures to Japanese suits of armour and a stuffed crocodile.

Rembrandt lived the rest of his life in more modest circumstances, and his late self-portraits show a man buffeted by the highs and lows of life. His wife, Saskia, died in 1642, and only one of their four children survived beyond infancy. By the time he painted what might be his last self-portrait – which hangs in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague – he had also outlived his partner Hendrickje, and his son Titus, who had died a year before at the age of 27.

Fashion in the art world was also changing. While Rembrandt continued to paint major commissions until the end of his life, taste was tending towards a more polished style and more classical subject matter. It would be nearly 200 years before Rembrandt was once again hailed as a genius in his home land.

Today, his name is in gold above the palatial halls of Amsterdam’s Rjiksmuseum. Crowds gather, whispering, in front of ‘The Night Watch’, now regarded as his masterpiece, and pause to admire famous works such ‘The Syndics’ and ‘The Jewish Bride’ and ‘Old Woman Reading’. However, the majority of the paintings in this significant collection were bought by the museum in the 20th century.

In Britain, the story is very different. In the 18th-century, there was what scholars describe as a “Rembrandt craze”, with a significant number of paintings – and an even larger number of prints – being bought by British collectors. Significantly, of the Rembrandt paintings now held in the Rjiksmuseum, seven spent time in Scotland, including an early self-portrait which was discovered in an attic in Glasgow in the 1950s.

The story of how Britain fell in love with Rembrandt will be told in the National Galleries of Scotland’s major summer exhibition, Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master, which opens tomorrow at the Royal Scottish Academy.

Highlights will include paintings such as ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’, ‘Girl at a Window’, ‘Landscape with the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt’ and ‘A Man in Armour’, and the only two portraits by Rembrandt of British residents. Rev Johannes Elison and his wife Maria Bockenolle were Dutch nationals living in Norwich painted by Rembrandt in 1634 as a commission for their son, Joan, an Amsterdam merchant. The important paintings – rare full-length portraits by Rembrandt – came to Joan’s sister in Yarmouth in 1677 when he died, and remained in the family until the mid 19th century. They are now on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Christian Tico Seifert, senior curator of Early Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish Art at National Galleries of Scotland, says: “Britain is still rich in paintings, drawings and prints by Rembrandt. There is no country apart from the Netherlands that has ever had such a density, and historically, there was much more. Of the famous paintings which have left the Netherlands, most of them have been in Britain, some for extended periods. In the 18th century, there was a craze for his work which is unparalleled anywhere else.”

Part of what fuelled the craze was the artist’s work in print-making. Not only was Rembrandt a prolific print-maker, which allowed his work to travel much more widely, he was a print-maker par excellence. “He was the first to really explore the mediums of etching and drypoint in an artistic way,” Seiffert says. “As objects they are just much more artistic than other prints being made at the time.”

In the middle of the 18th century, a complete catalogue of Rembrandt’s prints was published, one of the first to be made for a single artist, and was avidly seized on by collectors. “For the first time, you knew what there was, what you had, and what you were missing,” says Seiffert. “Collectors started to organise their collections according to this book. There was a very strong preference for portraits and figure pictures, and self-portraits were the pinnacle – an image of the master by the master.”

Rare prints – such as proofs or first impressions – began to change hands for high prices, and there was a lively market in fakes and forgeries. Reproductions of paintings, prints and drawings were made in great numbers, with paintings in major collections such as Chatsworth or the Duke of Buccleuch, reproduced in mezzotint for a much wider market.

The passion for Rembrandt had its own effects on British art, which the exhibition will explore, from Henry Raeburn to David Young Cameron, but the box office draw is still the chance to see a major collection of works by the master together in Scotland. “Hopefully, it’s a nice experience to see the art works,” Seiffert says, “but this is also a chance to tell a story that has never been told before.”

Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master is at the Royal Scottish Academy, 7 July - 14 October, £10-£15, www.nationalgalleries.org