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'All the Rembrandts' is a stunning exhibition for 350th anniversary

It is the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt in 2019, and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has pulled out all the stops for their opening exhibition of the year

All the Rembrandts on display at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I love a major anniversary as it often means that museums and galleries will pull out all the stops to put on a 'block-buster' exhibition. And that is exactly what has happened this year. Rembrandt van Rijn died on the 4 October 1669, so it is the 350th anniversary year of his passing. And the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which boasts of owning the largest and most representative collection of his drawings, paintings and etchings in the world, has brought them all out on show for their headlining exhibition All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum, which opened this Friday.

With 22 paintings, 60 drawings and more than 300 examples of his prints, this really is an exciting exhibition. With so much to display, the hardest decision was how to curate it: which works would best go together to tell a particular story, with often a story within that story. But it has been done well. It starts with Rembrandt's self-portraits, or 'selfies' as they are now calling them. The first is a painting, one of his first, of himself aged about 21 or 22 (below). While it will be the first of many self-portraits during his lifetime, it stands out because it is so different: most of his face is covered in shadow, with the light falling on one cheek. And this trick with the light is one of his most clever attributes that he repeats again and again in his paintings throughout his career, and you can see it here, right from the start.

One of Rembrandt's earliest self-portraits, c.1628

Then we move on to see some of the many etchings of him trying out different expressions, learning his craft, and then turning the attention from himself, to his family, to the people around him: beggars in the streets, friends and early commissions. I found these etchings to be astounding. Unlike engravings, etchings allow greater freedom to draw flowing lines of various thickness, because instead of carving a design onto a metal plate, the design is drawn into a soft layer of wax covering the metal plate. When the design is finished, acid is used to bite into the plate where the protective wax coating has been removed with an etching needle. Rembrandt has used his etching as drawings, and they are really mind-boggling when you realise they have been made in this manner and aren't drawings.

Above: A selection of Rembrandt's etchings with three self-portraits 1628, 1630 & 1639, and middle top row, drawing of Jan Cornelisz Sylvius,1646 and bottom left, drawing of Johannes Lutma, 1656. Middle bottom shows hat and top of Rembrandts head plus a tree.

So the first half of the exhibition is about Rembrandt as the observer and the second is about his ability as a story-teller, with many subjects for his paintings taken from bible stories. Rembrandt is portrayed as the 'rebel' painter. The one who did things his way - his own style of painting (for example, those large brush-strokes and heavy amounts of paint in his later paintings), his own techniques, but also the way he approached his subject matter. For example, he would often chose a different moment to portray in the story from the bible, rather than the most obvious one, (see his Susanna and the Elders) and of course he became famous for his group portraits. Rather than having everyone lined up, he would group them, and they would be looking out at the viewer as though you'd just interrupted them - as in The Wardens of the Amsterdam Clothmakers' guild, known as De Staalmeesters, 1662 (below).

As with many extraordinarily talented people, Rembrandt died penniless - but he had known the heady heights of success, but also great sadness with the death of his wife and children. Many of his paintings are well known, and this exhibition includes many of these, including The Jewish Bride, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem or Old Woman Reading and of course the Night Watch exhibited in the main museum. But I particularly love his portraits - his faces are like photographs - particularly the older ones. Look out for Portrait of Haesje Jacobsdr van Cleyburgh or Portrait of an 83-Year-Old Woman - they are superb. And don't miss the shoes belonging to Marten Soolmans (1613-1641) , whose buckles are enough to make any woman jealous.

Opposite Rembrandt's first self-portrait in the first room is his last (above). For a man that has known some very troubled times, I believe it shows someone who is actually quite defiant. He knew he was a brilliant artist, and just because he'd fallen on hard times, that didn't diminish his talent. And how lucky are we that there has been a fantastic excuse to bring all these wonderful prints, etchings and drawings out of conservation so that we can see them. Give yourself as much time as possible to take in everything in this stunning show - and take your glasses with you. There is much fine detail to behold.


All the Rembrandts at the Rijksmuseum

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Showing until: 15 June 2019

For more information on all the activities on at the Rijksmuseum this year (e.g. seeing the Night Watch being restored in June) or to book tickets for the exhibition, CLICK HERE


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