Rembrandt and Amsterdam Portraiture

[leer en español]

In his portraits, figures fuse with dark backgrounds from which faces and hands emerge. He is a keen observer who ventures deep into the human psyche, each painting offering a window to the subject’s inner life, caught in their gaze. This is the view offered by the exhibition Rembrandt and Amsterdam Portraiture (1590-1670) at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. An exhibition which traces the artistic antecedents and subsequent creative and commercial environment which shaped the work of this master painter.

Rembrandt (1606 – 1669) arrived to Amsterdam from Leiden in 1631. For a 17th century painter, Amsterdam was the city that could mean success. There, the artist witnessed the emergence of a new bourgeois society in the context of the commercial, scientific and cultural flourishing of the Dutch Golden Age. Traders, governors, artisans, doctors, judges and lawyers, men and women alike; all of them wanted portraits to reinforce their social status and be remembered with pride. “One of this show’s great attractions is that in these works there are no kings or high-ranking clergy but regular, middle-class people,” says Norbert E. Middelkoop, the exhibition curator.

What did the sitters dream of?

Perhaps the end of the war with Spain lead people to dream of a freer life, untethered or less reserved, open to greater ambitions. The discovery and exploration of new continents heralded prodigious new horizons and unchartered territories ripe for interchange and trade via maritime routes which would gradually become established. New and exotic products arrived to a flourishing market from an ocean which, seen from the ports of Amsterdam, promised impossible conquests, commercial endeavours, flora, fauna, previously unseen materials and new adventures.

The poses, settings, clothing, jewellery, faces, gestures and gazes which feature in this exhibition reflect the character of an age whose protagonists are the wealthy and powerful, influential or well-positioned in the government of a new country which emerged splendorous. 

A story behind every portrait

From an early age, Rembrandt took great pains to develop his skills as a master observer of character, avoiding the bland depictions typical of the age. Gradually, he honed the ability to depict men and women in a wide range of emotional states, mythical settings, biblical scenes, historic commemorations and a diversity of dramatic situations. An extraordinary draughtsman, he shied away from the imposed theatricality favoured by some of his contemporaries, preferring to develop pencil drawings before going on to work directly and freely with paint.       

Rembrandt embraced mirrors as first-rate artistic tools and aides to painting; he produced 40 painted self-portraits and 30 drawings or engravings. Through mirrors, he contemplated his artwork and himself, learning from the attentive and introspective strength of a sustained gaze. In this way, he developed the ability to reveal the inner character of his sitters, starting out from their external features but managing to portray each individual in body and soul.

Rembrandt and his environment

According to his biographers and critics, Rembrandt wasn’t an isolated genius, and in this respect I agree with them completely. At that time, the portrait market was enriched by stiff competition, with magnificent artists such as Franz Hals, Cornelis Ketel and Thomas de Keyser. Predecessors like Werner Van du Valckert (1580-1627) inspired Rembrandt to paint his clients in original and dynamic, spontaneous poses, in direct interaction with the viewer.

This master painter operated in a market governed by the laws of supply and demand but, aware that he was no ordinary portraitist, Rembrandt never let relationships with his clients or fellow artists interfere in this work. His genius and unique personal style are evident when portraiture trends embraced a more colourist style: he gradually reduced his colour palette.

Rembrandt’s works reveal an artist who never ceased to search for new approaches to composition, lighting or ways to reflect human emotions. An artist capable of reinterpretation, of bringing everyday life, quite naturally, into his paintings.

Exhibition: Rembrandt and Amsterdam Portraiture 1590-1670

Curator: Norbert E. Middelkoop

Photography: Oscar Rivilla

Translation: Rebekah Jane Rhodes

Music: Dr Symptotizer

Art direction: Oscar Rivilla&Carolina Verd

Stylist: Carolina Omaña


Main Picture and picture 3: dress by Vedelia Donoso courtesy from Koa Press

Picture 2: blouse by Anna Sui

Picture 4 and 5: dress by Vedelia Donoso and blouse from Nabel Martins courtesy from Koa Press