Rembrandt’s Year

Rembrandt’s Year

2006 marks Rembrandt's 400th birthday, and an array of exhibitions, from the sublime to the silly, will open in Amsterdam, Washington and beyond. As the aesthetic hype escalates, can great art withstand great commerce? Can consummate genius triumph over cute?


Can great art withstand great commerce? Can genius triumph over cute? Rembrandt 400, an array of birthday celebrations scheduled in the dozens across his homeland of the Netherlands, should be an opportunity to showcase and explore the genius and the mystery of Holland's greatest Old Master painter. Instead, the 2006 event teeters precariously close to becoming comical, a farce of itself.

Gloriously inspired exhibitions in Amsterdam, such as "Rembrandt- Caravaggio" (at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum) and "The Jewish Rembrandt" (at the Jewish Historical Museum), are seated, like wedding guests, uncomfortably close to events like the Rembrandt Ice Sculpture Festival, Make Your Own Rembrandt and Rembrandt: The Musical. Peter Greenaway has even created an installation at the Rijksmuseum entitled Nightwatching, based on the characters who appear in Rembrandt's most famous work, The Night Watch. It occurred to me that the only thing missing is Rembrandt: The Comic Book, until I realized there probably were trademark issues to be had with Rembrandt: The Ninja Turtle.

But for those willing and able to brave–or ignore–such events as a citywide waving of banner-sized reproductions of Rembrandt's paintings in Leiden, or life-sized bronzes replicating The Night Watch on the Rembrandtplein in Amsterdam, Rembrandt 400 promises treasures in the form of spectacular, once-in-a-lifetime exhibitions–as "Rembrandt-Caravaggio" is sure to be–that offer new insights and inquiries into almost the entire oeuvre of Holland's seventeenth-century "master of light."

While most of these exhibitions will not travel, others are planned worldwide, with surveys of Rembrandt's etchings in Germany, Denmark and the United States, along with exhibitions of other Dutch Master painters like Frans van Mieris, opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on February 26. The Dutch spectacle, however, is by far the largest, expected to bring about 1.5 million tourists to the Netherlands–several hundred thousand more than usual–and some 90 million euros along with them.

Born in Leiden on July 15, 1606, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn settled in Amsterdam in 1631, setting off a rivalry between the two cities that is clearly being re-enacted during this anniversary year. He set up shop in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, painting commissioned portraits and teaching. In 1634 he married Saskia Uylenburgh, the cousin of his neighbor and patron, the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh. Saskia, believed to have been the model for his painting of the goddess Flora, bore Rembrandt four children, only one of whom, Titus, survived childhood. When Saskia died in 1642 at the age of 30, Rembrandt immediately took up with his newly hired nanny, Geertje Dircx–a move that alienated him from his patron and did not exactly resonate well with the community. When he later left Geertje for a younger woman, Hendrickje Stoffels, courts ordered him to pay alimony to Geertje; instead, he had her committed to an institution. Soon after, Hendrickje bore him a daughter, Cornelia.

Though these troubles wore on Rembrandt's artistic and commercial successes, he continued to spend flagrantly, and landed himself in bankruptcy in 1656. Seven years later, Hendrickje died in a plague epidemic, followed soon after by Titus. Rembrandt survived a year longer than his son–he died in October 1669 and was buried in an anonymous grave in Amsterdam's Westerkerk.

Rembrandt 400 recaptures that life in all its drama in what Rembrandt scholar Gary Schwartz calls the painter's "catch-up operation" to Vermeer–who, says Schwartz, has "overtaken" his Amsterdam contemporary in general popularity. "Rembrandt doesn't touch people the same way Vermeer does," he acknowledges.

Schwartz, currently at work on what he describes as "the Rembrandt book of first resort" (to be published by Harry N. Abrams in late 2006), takes a positive view of Rembrandt 400. Despite such productions as Rembrandt: The Musical, which performs more than a few contortions on the truths of Rembrandt's life for the sake of a good story, Schwartz takes heart in the fact that many museums are now beginning to study their Rembrandt holdings more closely and to "trot them out" for communities that rarely get a chance to see them.

The full array of exhibitions in Holland alone proves dizzying: From January 26 to February 19, the Rijksmuseum will feature "All the Rembrandts," an exhibition of the museum's entire collection of Rembrandts, many of which will then travel across town to be part of "The Jewish Rembrandt" or to be absorbed into "Rembrandt-Caravaggio." Those works included in the latter exhibition, however, will therefore not be part of "Really Rembrandt?" a comparison of real Rembrandt paintings with others, previously attributed to the master and since determined fakes, which runs from March 9 to May 24, also at the Rijksmuseum. Others will travel to the United States as part of "Rembrandt and the Golden Age: Masterpieces From the Rijksmuseum" at the Dayton Art Institute, Phoenix Art Museum and Oregon's Portland Art Museum.

The jewel of Rembrandt 400, however, will not travel. "Rembrandt-Caravaggio," which examines the Italian painter's influence on Rembrandt, spotlights such works as Caravaggio's The Supper at Emmaus (1600) and Amor Vincit Omnia (1601-02), as well as Rembrandt's The Blinding of Samson and Saskia as Flora. Juxtaposing the two "masters of chiaroscuro," the exhibition aims to define the distinctions between Northern and Italian Renaissance paintings and to highlight the respective glories of each. (A last-minute bonus addition to the exhibition, "Rembrandt and Van Gogh," also at the Van Gogh Museum, presents twenty-five paintings, drawings and letters by the two artists that reveal the younger Dutchman's indebtedness to his predecessor.) Other exhibitions, such as "The Jewish Rembrandt" and "Rembrandt's Mother: Myth and Reality," offer viewers a more personal look at the artist and the figures who comprised his world, and examine various legends surrounding Rembrandt's relationships with women and with the Jews who were among his most important patrons and friends.

But with so much taking place, will people even see the exhibitions? Or will they be overwhelmed–even turned off? Is what's good for Holland tourism, in the end, what's good for Rembrandt?

Schwartz believes it is. "Exhibitions of works by lesser-known masters will get attention because they'll also have the name 'Rembrandt' on them," he says. "So people who get sucked into a Rembrandt exhibition will hopefully be so taken in, they'll come back for something more specialized. It's like poker: You play your hands. When the cards aren't there, you toss it in; and when you have a good hand, you play it for all it's worth."

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