Originally published in I amsterdam Magazine (Mar 2019)
Amsterdam’s artistic legacy
Cities around the Netherlands are joining in an immense celebration of Rembrandt’s work, life and influence in 2019, which is 350 years after his death. As the city that Rembrandt spent most of his career in, many of the special exhibitions take place in Amsterdam, along with Haarlem, Leiden, The Hague and Leeuwarden.
At the centre of the festivities, Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece, The Night Watch, will undergo an extensive restoration in the Rijksmuseum. But this doesn’t mean it’s behind closed doors. The museum has come up with an innovative procedure that allows visitors to continue to view the painting during the restoration. From July 2019, the painting will be encased in a glass chamber, designed by French architect Jean Michel Wilmotte, as a team of experts research the painting in meticulous detail using advanced computer analysis and use their findings to restore it to its former glory. Best of all, everyone is welcome to tune into the restoration project online.
The Night Watch is one of the most revered paintings in the entire art history canon. Rembrandt broke new ground with his technique and subject matter, telling an evocative story through portraiture, which was traditionally stiff and stoic. Rembrandt arranged his military figures in a loose ‘energetic’ composition, depicting the characters in action. The artist was also fearless in his pursuit of exploring new techniques, and inspired countless others with his use of chiaroscuro, or dramatic contrasts between light and shadow. He also favoured honest realism and took no prisoners in his lifelike depictions of bodies, features and emotion when painting portraits, portraying his subjects as realistically as possible: a characteristic not entirely appreciated by his critics or indeed patrons.
The original influencer
Rembrandt supported the income he made from selling paintings by teaching art classes. His students such as Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol became well respected Dutch artists in their own right. It’s estimated that Rembrandt taught as many as 50 students during his career, meaning that his studio was one of the busiest art enterprises of the 17th century.
However, you needn’t live in the same century as Rembrandt to learn from him. Many generations of artists have been influenced by his work – from subject matter to lighting. Several contemporary Dutch photographers are evidence of Rembrandt’s influence continuing to thrive. Hendrik Kerstens’ work emulates Rembrandt’s portraiture in a series of photographs of his daughter, Paula and Margriet Smulders’ theatrical artworks featuring flowers, fabric, water and ink take inspiration from Rembrandt’s dramatic lighting. Rembrandt and other Dutch masters are also noticeable influences in the work of Sasha Goldberger, Carla van de Puttelaar, Desiree Dolron and Hellen van Meene. Furthermore, the term ‘Rembrandt lighting’ is commonly used in modern photography studios, describing a set up using a light and reflector to create a dramatic effect. British artist Glenn Brown is another who took artistic cues from Rembrandt. His playful appropriations of well-known paintings and etchings were showcased in a solo exhibition at the Rembrandt House Museum in 2017.
The fact that countless artists and scholars continue to look to Rembrandt for inspiration is further proof that his work is as relevant as it ever was. Considering that Rembrandt completed approximately 80 self-portraits throughout his career, comprising 20% of his oeuvre, some commentators have even pointed out that Rembrandt would feel right at home amongst this generation of selfie-takers.
Amsterdam’s most prominent resident
Aside from the staggering number of exhibitions and events that are part of the 2019 celebrations, there are hundreds of ways to delve into Rembrandt’s connection with the city he called home for most of his career. Walking around Amsterdam, the artist’s legacy is impossible to miss. Rembrandtplein was named in his honour, where passers-by can pose amid full-scale statues of The Night Watch, and the artist himself. Rembrandtpark was dedicated to the artist and countless street names reference his family and those close to him: Hendrijkje Stoffelstraat, Saskia van Uijlenburghkade and Titus van Rijnstraat.
Rembrandt in popular culture
Another venture that points to Rembrandt being alive and well in the 21st century is a ‘new’ Rembrandt masterpiece created in 2016 using 3D-printing technology. In the project titled ‘The Next Rembrandt’, a group of data scientists and developers used pixels from all 346 of Rembrandt’s artworks to produce an entirely new work. The resulting image was a portrait of a man that incorporated Rembrandt’s signature techniques. The artist has also been brought back to life via cinema and the stage. Peter Greenaway’s 2007 film, Nightwatching unveiled the artistic process behind Rembrandt’s most famous masterpiece along with compelling insights into his romantic life. Rembrandt’s life story was even reimagined for the stage in 2006 for ‘Rembrandt the musical’.
A Rembrandt of your own
As is typical of artists who achieve such high recognition, Rembrandt’s artworks are reproduced for prints, posters and postcards galore. If you don’t have a genuine Rembrandt in your home, you can order the next best thing via companies like Budgetschilderij, a company that produces hand-painted replicas of artworks by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and more.
There’s also seemingly endless assortment of merchandise and memorabilia available for sale. Rembrandt himself was an avid collector of art and exotic artefacts, and his home on Nieuwe Doelenstraat would have once resembled a museum. It seems fitting that today, anyone who feels so inclined can fill their homes with Rembrandt-themed stationery and ceramics, carry their groceries in The Jewish Bride tote bags, wear The Night Watch in the form of socks and baseball caps and buy their children Rembrandt colouring books and doll house-sized printing presses.
Whether you brush with Rembrandt toothpaste, smoke Rembrandt cigars, collect handblown Rembrandt glassworks or use the Rembrandt brand of Royal Talens paints in your own masterpieces, there are references to the artist’s name all around. Over the years, die-hard enthusiasts have even committed the artist’s works to their bodies, in the form of Rembrandt tattoos. There’s even a shade of tattoo ink known as Rembrandt Red.
Rembrandt made an indelible impression on the art world, changing the course of art history through his relentless pursuit of the new. Although Amsterdam has come a long way since the Dutch Golden Age, the culture of creativity and forward-thinking open-mindedness have carried through, a clear indication that Rembrandt still walks among us.