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.