Rem­brandt in Beijing

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by Yi Mei and Wen Zhi­hong Pho­to­graphs cour­tesy of the Lei­den Col­lec­tion

Over four hun­dred years ago, when Dutch painter Rem­brandt van Rijn cut his The Con­spir­acy of Claudius Civilis into pieces in the hope of sell­ing them to pri­vate buy­ers, it might have been hard for him to imag­ine that his works would now be draw­ing flocks of spec­ta­tors to a mu­seum in China—the ori­gin of porce­lain works once held per­son­ally by Rem­brandt.

The Na­tional Mu­seum of China is cur­rently show­ing Rem­brandt and His Times: Mas­ter­pieces from the Lei­den Col­lec­tion, which fea­tures eleven of Rem­brandt’s paint­ings, the largest sin­gle col­lec­tion of his works held in pri­vate hands. The ex­hi­bi­tion is jointly spon­sored by the Lei­den Col­lec­tion and the mu­seum, with sup­port from the Em­bassy of the King­dom of the Nether­lands in China. Mas­ter­pieces in the Lei­den Col­lec­tion were mostly pro­duced in the Dutch Golden Age by great painters such as Rem­brandt van Rijn, Jo­hannes Ver­meer and Jan Lievens, as well as renowned Rem­brandt School artists like Carel Fabri­tius. The ex­hi­bi­tion cel­e­brates the fi­jn­schilders (fine man­ner painters) in­clud­ing Rem­brandt’s first pupil Ger­rit Dou, as well as his ac­com­plished stu­dents Frans van Mieris and Gode­fridus Schal­cken, among other great mas­ters.

“This ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores the Nether­lands’ ex­tra­or­di­nary pro­duc­tion of art in the 17th Cen­tury with works of its most im­por­tant artists,” ex­plains Dr. Lara Tea­ger- Cras­selt, cu­ra­tor of the ex­hi­bi­tion. “At its heart is the great­est in­no­va­tor of the pe­riod: Rem­brandt van Rijn.”

Tea­ger- Cras­selt de­fines the first phase of Rem­brandt’s ca­reer as the era in which he lived in his na­tive Lei­den. “The 1620s was the be­gin­ning of his artis­tic ca­reer, a pe­riod in which we see him ex­per­i­ment­ing, devel­op­ing and hav­ing di­a­logues with other artists,” she says. “Early in the 1630s, Rem­brandt moved to Am­s­ter­dam, the most im­por­tant city in the Dutch Repub­lic, and he be­came a portrait painter be­fore turn­ing to his­tor­i­cal sub­jects. We don’t even know the iden­tity of most of his sub­jects. But his work car­ries a re­mark­able sense of who these peo­ple are. Rem­brandt was able to pre­serve the life and soul of these sub­jects. In the late 1630s and early 1640s, Rem­brandt reached the height of his suc­cess. The 1650s and 1660s are con­sid­ered the later pe­riod of Rem­brandt’s ca­reer. In 1656, he filed for bank­ruptcy. The end of his life was far from com­fort­able, but some in­sist that he pro­duced his great­est work in times of strug­gle.”

Dr. Tea­ger-Cras­selt re­minds pa­trons not to for­get that the sin­gu­lar re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Nether­lands and China in the 17th Cen­tury cre­ates the back­drop for the ex­hi­bi­tion. “China oc­cu­pied a prom­i­nent place in the lives and imag­i­na­tion of 17thCen­tury Dutch artists, schol­ars and or­di­nary ci­ti­zens alike,” she adds.

Ac­cord­ing to the cu­ra­tor, the Dutch ex­pressed more in­ter­est in Chi­nese cul­ture, phi­los­o­phy and his­tory than peo­ple from any other Euro­pean coun­try in this pe­riod, as ev­i­denced by a se­ries of re­mark­able ‘firsts:’ Jo­hannes Blaeu (1596-1673) pub­lished the first de­tailed map of China in 1655, Dutch poet and play­wright Joost van den Von­del (1587-1679) wrote the first Euro­pean play set en­tirely in China in 1667, and in 1675 the first Euro­pean trans­la­tion of the work by the Chi­nese philoso­pher, Con­fu­cius, ap­peared in the Nether­lands. “These ‘firsts’ were fa­cil­i­tated by the vast global trad­ing net­work es­tab­lished in the early 17th Cen­tury and the Nether­lands’ cen­tral role in it. Dur­ing the pe­riod, Chi­nese art and cul­ture, most no­tably Chi­nese porce­lain, pen­e­trated many Dutch homes. By 1638, over three mil­lion pieces of Chi­nese porce­lain had ar­rived in the Nether­lands.”

The ex­hi­bi­tion is com­prised of more than 70 pieces in to­tal, in­clud­ing por­traits, his­tor­i­cal paint­ings and genre scenes, which bring the his­toric na­ture of Hol­land’s Golden Age of cre­ativ­ity to life. The 11 works by Rem­brandt him­self—the largest con­cen­tra­tion of his paint­ings not be­long­ing to a na­tional mu­seum—range from iconic mas­ter­pieces such as Min­erva in Her Study and the much-sto­ried Young Girl with a Gold-trimmed Cloak to the sen­sa­tional, re­cently-dis­cov­ered Un­con­scious Pa­tient ( Al­le­gory of Smell), the ear­li­est-known signed work of the mas­ter.

The ex­hi­bi­tion also fea­tures an ex­tra­or­di­nary work by Ver­meer ti­tled Young Wo­man Seated at a Vir­ginal, which was painted on the same bolt of can­vas as The Lace­maker (held by the Lou­vre) and is the only work from the mas­ter’s ma­ture pe­riod to be held out­side of a mu­seum. Other high­lights in­clude four of the finest paint­ings by Rem­brandt’s stu­dio-mate in Lei­den and friendly rival, Jan Lievens, Hagar and the An­gel, one of only thir­teen pri­vately-held paint­ings by Rem­brandt pro­tégé and the cre­ator of The Goldfinch, Carel Fabri­tius, nine sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings by Rem­brandt’s first and most in­flu­en­tial pupil, Ger­rit Dou, six sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings by Jan Steen and ad­di­tional mas­ter­pieces in­clud­ing a daz­zling portrait on cop­per by Frans Hals.

Re­cently, Dr. Thomas S. Ka­plan, founder of the Lei­den Col­lec­tion (USA), granted an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view to China Pic­to­rial.

What at­tracted you to Rem­brandt’s works as a child? What did you see in his work?

Dr. Ka­plan: I fell in love with Rem­brandt the first time I saw his paint­ings at age six, and ap­pre­ci­a­tion for his art has re­mained with me through­out my life. Ob­vi­ously, I did not look at Rem­brandt through the com­plex­ity that I do now. On an aes­thetic, visual level, it was per­haps the rich light, il­lu­mi­na­tion and con­trast be­tween light and dark. But I do not think that it was all light and dark. I was al­ready devel­op­ing a gen­uine pas­sion for his­tory at that age, and it con­tin­ued through­out my ed­u­ca­tion. I be­lieve that it is pos­si­ble that the hu­man­ity of his work spoke to me even at that age. It is not an un­rea­son­able the­ory con­sid­er­ing the power of his work to con­nect peo­ple spir­i­tu­ally. Even a child could make that kind of con­nec­tion. So, I think it was the beauty and rich­ness of it and the fact that I felt the heart of the artist. It was the hand, the eye and the heart.

It has been re­ported that you and your wife love nar­ra­tive his­tor­i­cal art. In 1642, Rem­brandt’s The Night Watch re­ceived crit­i­cism from the buy­ers be­cause of its strong nar­ra­tive. It also marked a ma­jor turn­ing point in Rem­brandt’s life. What do you think of the nar­ra­tion in this paint­ing and what it meant to Rem­brandt?

Dr. Ka­plan: Rem­brandt faced crit­i­cism for sev­eral rea­sons. He was crit­i­cized be­cause he saw things dif­fer­ently, and it be­came an on­go­ing theme. He was crit­i­cized for The Night Watch and by peo­ple who com­mis­sioned por­traits be­cause he painted his sub­jects the way they re­ally were, in­stead of in an ide­al­ized way that the clients wanted. A very fa­mous and dra­matic ex­am­ple of that is what hap­pened with his late work ti­tled The Con­spir­acy of Claudius Civilus, which was com­mis­sioned by Am­s­ter­dam for its new city hall. At five-by-five me­ters, the paint­ing was enor­mous and at least two hun­dred years ahead of its time in terms of ge­nius, but it was re­jected and re­turned to Rem­brandt, who cut it into pieces to sell to pri­vate buy­ers. This was one of the great­est art crimes of that pe­riod. He was so far ahead of artis­tic trends of the time that no one could see it. Rem­brandt is one of those fa­mous names that ev­ery­body knows now pre­cisely be­cause of the things he did that up­set his con­tem­po­raries. He never in­tended to up­set peo­ple; he just saw things dif­fer­ently.

Some crit­ics opine that the con­trast be­tween light and dark­ness in his work is mag­i­cal and cre­ates a sense of drama. Do you think that is the most out­stand­ing char­ac­ter­is­tic of Rem­brandt’s work?

Dr. Ka­plan: I do be­lieve the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of him as a mas­ter of light and shadow to be very true. He was an in­no­va­tor; he was al­ways ex­per­i­ment­ing with light and I think he un­der­stood that in the end: Light is the sin­gle most im­por­tant fac­tor in be­ing able to cre­ate a sense of drama and life. He saw it, he felt it, and he ex­pressed it. I think that em­pha­siz­ing it is a very rea­son­able ob­ser­va­tion.

Could you tell us about the first time you pur­chased a Rem­brandt? How did you feel about the work?

Dr. Ka­plan: The first Rem­brandt ob­ject that we ac­quired was ac­tu­ally not a paint­ing—it was a draw­ing of a lion. This lion draw­ing was par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful to me be­cause I am al­most as pas­sion­ate about wildlife con­ser­va­tion as I am about Rem­brandt, and I love big cats. So this was very mean­ing­ful to me. Even though we only have a few draw­ings and two from Rem­brandt, that piece has al­ways been very spe­cial to me.

In your opin­ion, how did Rem­brandt’s life ex­pe­ri­ence in­flu­ence his work?

Dr. Ka­plan: If you study his bi­og­ra­phy, you will see the ups and downs in his life of­ten re­flected in his work. But my pas­sion for the artist is not about his per­sonal strug­gle. It is about his ac­com­plish­ments. Every­one has a life story. Every­one has ups and downs in their lives and Rem­brandt is not a tragic char­ac­ter be­cause of his bad for­tune—such strug­gles are usual in life and in hu­man­ity. His ac­com­plish­ment was in be­ing able to see things that oth­ers did not see. He saw beauty in dis­turb­ing things, he saw beauty in beau­ti­ful things, and he changed the his­tory of art. I be­lieve that this ac­com­plish­ment would have hap­pened in­de­pen­dent of his life ex­pe­ri­ence. I think it’s who he was.

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