Who’s who: the main characters in Rembrandt’s life
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden and came to Amsterdam when he was 25 to become a pupil of the painter Pieter Lastman. The art dealer Hendrik van Uylenburgh was Lastman’s neighbour, and it was through him that Rembrandt met his future wife Saskia, who was Hendrik’s cousin. Saskia van Uylenburgh came from a good family in Friesland, her father had been mayor of Leeuwarden, and she brought considerable wealth to the marriage. The couple’s first three children died not long after their births, but the fourth child – Titus – survived. Saskia died a year after he was born when she was only 29 years old, likely from tuberculosis. After Saskia’s death, there were another two women in Rembrandt’s life: Geertje Dirckx, who was Titus’s wet nurse and ran the household, and Hendrickje Stoffels, who had a child by Rembrandt out of wedlock.
For the exhibition The Private World of Rembrandt, the Amsterdam City Archives has brought together a variety of documents which introduce us to Rembrandt as a person. There are hefty books of marriage certificates, notaries’ reports, the wills of Saskia and Titus, registers of baptisms and deaths, and an inventory of possessions after Rembrandt’s bankruptcy. Some of these documents shine a light on the scandals and drama in Rembrandt’s life. There is a report by the Commissioner of Marital Affairs about Geertje Dirckx’s demand to receive a maintenance allowance from Rembrandt. Geertje and Rembrandt were involved for six years, but when the relationship failed to lead to marriage and he started seeing Hendrickje, Geertje was furious and filed legal claims against him. It was the start of a long a feud that resulted in Geertje being jailed in an insane asylum. There is also documentation about poor Hendrickje having to appear before the Church Council for fornication, since she was pregnant by Rembrandt but unmarried – this exhibit made the deepest impression on me. Saskia left all her possession to Titus, but her will stipulated that Rembrandt would be able access those funds as long as he never remarried, which may be why Rembrandt declined to marry Geertje or Hendrickje.
The archived documents and antique books are too delicate to be handled directly and the 17th-century handwriting is illegible, but through the use of Augmented Reality, the story unfolds in vivid detail. When you enter, you can take an iPad and headphones and you become connected, as it were, with the time of Rembrandt. By scanning an icon in the display cases which contains the books, you hear information about the document you’re looking at, narrated by the actor Kees Prins, and you can read the transcription on the iPad. This enables you to read the contents of the various deeds word for word. A number of the displays will also prompt a 3D portrait or painting by Rembrandt to appear on the iPad. It is about as close as you can get to the 17th-century artist.
While it was interesting to get to know Rembrandt better, some of the details that were revealed through the Augmented Reality and accompanying story on the audio left me with a conflicted impression of the man. The modern technology created an immersive experience of intimate moments from Rembrandt’s past, which made me feel very connected to the characters and involved in the story. It would seem that, like his paintings, Rembrandt’s life was dramatic, lively and defined as much by shadow as light.
Amsterdam City Archives
The exhibition The Private World of Rembrandt runs until 7 April 2019 at the Amsterdam City Archives. For the opening times and more information, see the Amsterdam City Archives website (in Dutch) and go and meet Rembrandt. Enjoy the exhibition!