“Painting is the grandchild of nature. It is related to God.”
— As quoted in Rembrandt Drawings (1975) by Paul Némo
The Netherlands has provided the world with a large number of great artists but one stands out above all the rest: Rembrandt (1606-69). Generally considered one of the preeminent artists to date, Rembrandt is also the most important figure in Dutch art history. Not only was he an exceptional painter, he was also a draughtsman, collector and teacher. He excelled after his move to Amsterdam, the city rich in opportunity for artists at the time. In order to celebrate this famous Dutchman, the house he once owned has been restored to its 17th-century appearance and opened as a museum. The Rembrandt House Museum (Museum Het Rembrandthuis to the locals) gives visitors a complete Rembrandt experience with furniture, art and objects from that time.
Rembrandt moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat (now Jodenbreestraat) in 1639 but his artistic vocation had already begun long before. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on 15th July 1606 in Leiden, a city in the Dutch Republic (now the Netherlands). He came from a large, well-off family, being the ninth child born to Harmen Gerritszoon van Rijn and Neeltgen Willemsdochter van Zuijtbrouck. Although his parents had no creative background, it is thought that Rembrandt’s mother’s deep Roman Catholic faith influenced many of his religious works.
Remaining in Leiden throughout his schooling, Rembrandt eventually became an apprentice to the local painter Jacob van Swanenburgh (1571-1638). Van Swanenburg was known for his religious paintings, which may also have influenced the young Rembrandt. He remained here for three years before travelling to Amsterdam where he became apprenticed to the history painter Pieter Lastman (1583-1633). However, Rembrandt did not stay here for long; six months later, he had returned to his hometown to set up as an independent artist.
Whilst Rembrandt was working in Leiden, he took on his first pupil, Gerrit Dou (1613-75) and began to receive important commissions from the court of The Hague. Life for Rembrandt was going well, however, in 1630 his father died and, without his support, Rembrandt’s financial worries began. Fortunately, he was able to borrow one thousand guilders from the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh (1587-1661) and moved to Amsterdam to reside as his lodger.
Through Uylenburgh, Rembrandt met his future wife, Saskia Uylenburgh (1612-42), who he married in 1634. For the remainder of the decade, Rembrandt continued to teach and paint successfully, culminating in the commission to paint The Night Watch, now found in the Rijksmuseum, in 1639. In the same year, after taking out a considerably large mortgage, Rembrandt and Saskia moved into the merchant house in St. Anthoniesbreestraat.
Although Rembrandt continued to receive commissions and was well-known in the art community, his family life was suffering due to circumstances outside of his control. Of Rembrandt and Saskia’s four children, only the youngest, Titus, born in 1641, survived infancy. The following year, Saskia also died. Over the next decade, Rembrandt had relationships with two women, Geertje Dircx (1610-56), Titus’ nanny, and Hendrickje Stoffels (1626-63), his housekeeper. The latter gave birth to an illegitimate daughter, Cornelia, in 1654.
Throughout his career as an artist, Rembrandt also collected a huge quantity of objects and artefacts, which can be seen in a couple of rooms in the museum. He also owned a large art collection, which would not have helped his growing debts. Finally, in 1658, Rembrandt’s property was sold at auction after he was declared bankrupt.
Nonetheless, Rembrandt continued to paint and deal in art, for which he enlisted the help of both Hendrickje and Titus. Sadly, they both died before him, Hendrickje in 1663, and his son in 1668. Rembrandt followed them the following year, shortly after welcoming his only grandchild, Titia.
The life of Rembrandt van Rijn is narrated via an audio guide as visitors make their way around the rooms of the Rembrandt House Museum. The museum also owns the building next door, which contains a small art gallery on the upper floors and the entrance to the museum on the lower. The tour begins in the basement with the keucken (kitchen), which, as with all the other rooms, has been refurbished to look as it would have during Rembrandt’s residence. The furniture and 17th-century objects have been sourced or reconstructed based on a list written by the Insolvency Office.
The kitchen was where everyone in the household cooked and ate. Unlike upper-class families, there were no separate dining areas for the family and staff. Not only that, the maid would have slept in the box bed in the corner. These types of beds were common in the Netherlands, they could be shut-up during the day, making additional bedrooms unnecessary. They were also particularly small because the Dutch would never lie completely flat to sleep. Lying down was associated with death, therefore, people slept in a half-upright position.
The tour continues up a twisted staircase to the ground floor and into the voorhuys (entrance hall). This is the room people would have seen on first entering the house. It is spacious and well lit and has a good view through the windows onto the street. Today, the entrance hall contains many paintings by “Pre-Rembrandts” and his contemporaries, including his teacher, Pieter Lastman. A tiny room at the back of the hall contained Rembrandt’s study where he kept all his important papers. Whilst it is too small for visitors to go in, it is possible to peer through the door to see how it may once have looked.
To the left of the entrance hall is the sijdelcaemer (anteroom) where Rembrandt held his art dealing business. Similarly to the previous room, the walls are full of paintings by Rembrandt’s contemporaries and pupils. Another box bed can be found here where a family member may have slept. The most interesting aspect, however, is the mantlepiece above the fireplace. Whilst the floor and pillars are made of marble, the mantlepiece is not, but without an audioguide, no one would know. It is actually marbled wood, a very fashionable feature during the 17th-century. This was a lot cheaper than real marble, but not many would be able to tell the difference.
On the same floor but at the back of the house was Rembrandt’s living room or sael (salon). The artist would also have slept here in the box bed by the door. The high ceiling allows room for numerous paintings to be hung, mostly by Rembrandt’s most successful pupils.
Up another flight of stairs is Rembrandt’s groote schilder caemer (large studio) where he painted many of his masterpieces. This north facing room receives a lot of daylight, which would have been perfect for an artist working throughout the day. Being a large room, it would have been possible to set up scenes with models and props from which to paint. If need be, the light could be adjusted by closing the shutters of some of the windows.
During the day, the museum demonstrates the 17th-century method of paint-making in this studio. Visitors are amazed that artists had to create their own paints, whereas, today, we only need to squeeze it out of a tube. Various pigments were ground together with linseed oil to create the correct consistency of paint. Artists were limited to what colours they could make because the range of pigment was rather small. Lead, for example, was used to create white, and insects’ blood and plants could create different shades of red and yellow. A demonstration of another art technique Rembrandt frequently used: the printing press, can be observed on the floor below.
In the attic is a cleyne schilder caemer (small studio) which would have been used by Rembrandt’s pupils. It is separated into five cubicles so that each artist could work undisturbed. Often, his pupils would produce copies of his own work, for example, Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, of which a version by Ferdinand Bol (1616-1680) can be seen on the ground floor.
Opposite the large studio is a room titled kunstcaemer (cabinet) in which Rembrandt stored his exceptional collection of art and rare objects. It is easy to see how easily Rembrandt went bankrupt from the purchase of these extraordinary items. He collected everything from plaster casts of classical statues to beautiful butterflies and shells. Since he often painted stories from the Bible, classical mythology or history, Rembrandt would regularly use these objects as references to draw from – there was a method to his collecting madness.
It is a shame that there are not many paintings by Rembrandt in the museum. Being one of the world’s greatest artists, galleries are quick to purchase his work when they become available. Fortunately, the museum owns 250 of Rembrandts 290 etchings. Although they cannot all be displayed at once due to their fragility, a selection can always be found in the recently added print room. These highlight Rembrandt’s exceptional artistic quality and draughtsmanship.
I have seen various of his printed works which have reached this country; they are very finely executed, sensitively and skilfully etched. And I regard him unequivocally as a great virtuoso.”
Don Antonio Ruffo (1660)
Rembrandt’s etchings are equally as impressive as his paintings. He began learning the printing technique in 1625 when he was working as an independent artist in Leiden. Rembrandt’s etchings were produced by making spontaneous, sketch-like lines onto metal plates that would be covered in ink and placed in a printing press to transfer the image on to paper. (As mentioned, a demonstration of this is available during the tour.) The deepness of the lines would determine how dark the image would appear, therefore, Rembrandt was able to produce several tones to create dramatic lighting within his compositions.
An etching plate could be used to print several impressions, which made them very popular with collectors. Whereas only one version of a painting would exist, numerous copies of the same etching could be owned by different people. They were also a lot cheaper to purchase.
Unlike his paintings that mostly focused on popular stories from religious or historical contexts, Rembrandt’s etchings covered a much broader range of themes. Initially, Rembrandt practised etching by drawing his face making different expressions. He continued to use himself as a model throughout his career. He also studied the heads and faces of people on the street, resulting in a number of interesting characters.
Rembrandt would go for walks around Amsterdam with his sketchbook and come home to copy his sketches onto etching plates. As well as people, Rembrandt studied and drew landscapes. Nonetheless, there are also a few etchings of the typical classical and Biblical stories.
“Rembrandt’s extraordinary manner of etching which is characterised by the free and irregular use of line, without delineation of outlines, and which results in a deep, powerful chiaroscuro of painterly quality.”
Filippo Baldinucci, 1686
Since it was opened to the public as a gallery on 10th June 1911 in the presence of Queen Wilhelmina (1880-1962), the Rembrandt House Museum has undergone many changes. Initially, the house was used as an art gallery to display Rembrandt’s etchings. It was not until 1998, when the building next door became available, that the opportunity to restore Rembrandt’s house to its original appearance became available. Historians and curators have done a phenomenal job to present a realistic as possible 17th-century home in which the greatest Dutch painter lived and worked. Everything has been completed with painstaking accuracy to provide a true insight into the artist’s life.
The Rembrandt House Museum is continually being updated as funds become available in order to provide the best possible experience. The latest updates took place earlier this year, including the print room and Rembrandt’s study.
With helpful staff and audio guides available in several languages, the Rembrandt House Museum is a wonderful place to visit. It is educational in a variety of ways, from the background of the artist to the methods painters used in the 17th-century. It is also a great way of discovering what the inside of the tall Dutch houses once looked like, imagining how a family would cope in the narrow building.
The Rembrandt House Museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm and costs €13 for adults and €4 for children. The audio guide is included in the entrance fee. Guidebooks are also available for purchase in a number of languages. Photography is allowed throughout the museum unless a sign requests otherwise (no flash), however, be prepared to leave large bags in the lockers provided.
“Of course you will say that I ought to be practical and ought to try and paint the way they want me to paint. Well, I will tell you a secret. I have tried and I have tried very hard, but I can’t do it. I just can’t do it! And that is why I am just a little crazy.”