A seagull is sitting on Rembrandt’s head. Not his actual head – this year marks the 350th anniversary of his death – but a cast-iron statue in Amsterdam’s Rembrandt Square. On one side of the monument, neon palm trees tempt passers-by into Smokey’s coffee house. On the other, a brasserie called Titus, after Rembrandt’s son, cashes in on his name.
What would Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69), the finest painter, draughtsman and etcher of Holland’s Golden Age, have made of this commercialised scene?
I doubt he’d have minded much, because he was nothing if not materialistic. As well as a “painter”, he described himself as a “koopman”, or businessman. In his pomp during the 1630s and ’40s, when he had a thriving studio, Rembrandt splashed out on rare art, before going bankrupt in 1656.
No, what would have irritated him is the statue itself. Created by the Flemish sculptor Louis Royer in the mid-19th century, it is executed in a classical, idealising style – worlds apart from the raw, rumbustious realism that Rembrandt preferred.
With his toga-like cloak, and smooth, noble features, Royer’s Rembrandt could be an ancient orator. What he doesn’t resemble is any of Rembrandt’s more than 80 self-portraits, in which the artist doggedly depicted his distinctive bulbous nose, thatch of wild curls, and, as the years passed, wrinkles and sagging flesh. In short, Royer’s vision tells us much more about 19th-century Dutch values and ideals than it does about Rembrandt.
Last week, I found myself reflecting on this on my way to the Rijksmuseum, which is about to celebrate a “Year of Rembrandt”. Here in Britain, the BBC will mark his anniversary with a three-part television series, Looking for Rembrandt, broadcast next month.
The centrepiece at the Rijksmuseum is a comprehensive new exhibition titled All the Rembrandts. Opening next week, it will present all 22 paintings and 60 drawings by Rembrandt in the museum’s collection side by side for the first time, along with more than 300 of his prints. “The effect will be this explosion of creativity,” says Taco Dibbits, the museum’s director.
It’s a scintillating prospect – but can it tell us anything about this long-revered figure that we don’t already know? Perhaps. Arguably there’s a more intriguing question: what will it reveal about us? Because, as Royer’s statue of Rembrandt makes plain, every age refashions great figures from the past in its own image.
How, then, do we admire Rembrandt in 2019? For Dibbits, the answer is clear: the artist is a prophet of social media. “Rembrandt is the first Instagrammer,” he tells me boldly.
“No artist before the 20th century makes so many self-portraits. But he also makes images of his friends and family, the city’s streets, the countryside when he goes for walks. He’s the first person to register the world around him, and make it personal, which is what you see on Instagram. He’s very much of today.”
A visit to the museum’s conservation department – where Rembrandt’s prints and drawings are being framed ahead of the new exhibition – brings Dibbits’s point to life. In a bright, laboratory-like room, Erik Hinterding, the Rijksmuseum’s prints curator, leafs through a crate of Rembrandt’s works on paper, including two of his earliest, most dishevelled-looking self-portraits.
On an easel, three vigorous black-chalk sketches depict beggars in ragged clothes. They date from the late 1620s, when Rembrandt was still living in the university town of Leiden, where he was born the son of a prosperous miller.
Three decades later, having gained and lost a fortune, he had moved to a rented home in Amsterdam’s middling Jordaan district, where he was officially employed by his son and mistress, who ran the family’s art business. Yet, his majestic talent transcended these modest circumstances, as attested by a sublime pen-and-ink study of a recumbent lion, produced around 1660. In a few fluent, expressive strokes, Rembrandt captured the essence of this beast, which he clearly sketched from life. Prior to this drawing, Hinterding tells me, lions in his work “look like strange cats, at best”.
There are also vignettes of Rembrandt’s domestic life. A maid fiddles with a child’s hair. A woman lifts a boy’s clothes so he can pee. In the most moving drawing that Hinterding shows me, Rembrandt’s beloved wife, Saskia, looking wan and listless, raises herself up in a four-poster bed. Beside her, on the floor, we see a wicker nursing couch. Perhaps Rembrandt was recording Saskia pregnant with their second child, Cornelia. Alternatively, given that the nursing couch is empty, maybe he made the drawing in the aftermath of Cornelia’s death. She was buried just three weeks after her christening, in the summer of 1638.
Four years later, Saskia herself died, possibly of tuberculosis, before she was even 30 years old. It was a cataclysmic blow for Rembrandt, wrecking what otherwise would have been a triumphant year: in 1642, he completed his most ambitious portrait commission, now known as The Night Watch, representing the officers and men of Amsterdam’s civic guard.
According to Dibbits, suffering was the fire in which Rembrandt’s greatness was forged: “To have three of your four children die [only Titus survived to adulthood], as well as your wife – these are transformative, life-defining moments,” he says. “For Rembrandt, art was a recipe for sanity.”
But, he continues, the real secret of Rembrandt’s artistic strength was his contrariness. “He was a rebel,” Dibbits explains. “Always forcing the rules apart – that’s the only way to bring history forwards, which he did.”
Even the touching drawing of Saskia in bed is an example of Rembrandt the rule breaker. “It’s so personal,” says Dibbits. “Rembrandt is the first artist to let us look inside his bedroom.”
Dibbits isn’t the only one drawing parallels between Rembrandt’s art and our behaviour online. Elsewhere in the city, at the Rembrandt House Museum, a new exhibition focuses on his relationships with friends and family. It is called Rembrandt’s Social Network, as though he were an early adopter of Facebook.
According to Lidewij de Koekkoek, the museum’s director, this isn’t just marketing. Rather, she says, recasting Rembrandt in the mould of the digital age is a natural progression. In the decades after his death, for instance, when neoclassicism was in vogue, Rembrandt was considered too wayward and experimental. People abhorred his late works, in which he sculpted paint with a palette knife.
For the Romantics, however, Rembrandt’s headstrong rebelliousness was his greatest asset, a sign of genius.
During the 20th century, art historians adopted a more rigorous approach – perhaps, argues Koekkoek, because he was a difficult personality. Consider the cruel way he treated his lover Geertje Dircx, the widow of a ship’s bugler, and Titus’s wet-nurse, with whom, after Saskia’s death, he had an ill-starred affair. After a messy break-up, Geertje was confined for five years – against her will, and at Rembrandt’s insistence – in a reformatory in Gouda.
You might think that Rembrandt’s brutish behaviour would alienate the younger generation, much as many people now feel disgusted by Picasso’s predatory, misogynistic attitudes towards women – but, according to Koekkoek, the complexity of his character, including all his flaws, is what we find most compelling today. “Everyone is interested in personal lives,” she says. “Rembrandt had his ups and downs: success and love, insolvency and unhappiness. But that’s what makes him human, rather than some unreachable, lonely genius. He is a democratic artist: he’s more like you and me.”
All the Rembrandts opens at the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) on Friday. Rembrandt’s Social Network is at the Rembrandt House Museum (rembrandthuis.nl) until May 19. Looking for Rembrandt begins on BBC Four next month