Rem­brandt: ge­nius or nar­cis­sist?

The Dutch painter died 350 years ago. But, says Alas­tair Sooke, his work sowed the seeds for the spread of so­cial me­dia to­day

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts -

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 19th­cen­tury 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 di­shev­elled­look­ing self-por­traits.

On an easel, three vig­or­ous blackchalk 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.”

‘Rem­brandt was the first artist to let us look in­side his bed­room’

Selfie-ob­sessed: Rem­brandt sketched more than 80 self-por­traits, none of which was as flat­ter­ing as the 19th-cen­tury statue, below. Far right, The Jewish Bride, c 1667

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