Innovative yet influenced by tradition: Rembrandt, who died 350 years ago on October 4, has become one of the best known painters of the Dutch Golden Age. The artist had a wide social support system.
There's never a shortage of works by the golden boy of the Dutch Golden Age on display in museums across the Netherlands. Yet the painter who inspired millions with his masterpieces and his works will be drawn even more into focus in 2019 as museums around the country honor the artist and his legacy, 350 years after his death.
The artist's network in the pre-social media era
"The ultimate artist's artist," as art historian Simon Schama refers to the painter in The Art Newspaper, Rembrandt created an impressive body of work before his death in 1669 at the age of 63. Considered by many to be a master even in his own time — a time of extraordinary cultural, military and scientific advancements that historians now refer to as the Dutch Golden Age — Rembrandt was a master of both the portrait and the narrative scene.
Like all artists, Rembrandt was influenced by the aesthetics and cultural dialogues of the time. Although innovative in his own right, the draftsman, printmaker and painter worked within the Dutch art traditions that were taking shape during the period — traditions heavily influenced by vanity-rejecting Calvinism and, at times, inspired by the Dutch Caravaggisti painters of the era.
His repertoire shifted over the years, creating a body of work that includes dozens of self-portraits and many more portraits of influential players in Amsterdam, often employing the use of chiaroscuro. This technique, playing on lights and shadows, likewise lent an air of dramatic movement to the seascapes, landscapes and scenes drawn from biblical narratives that is so admirable that the sculptor Auguste Rodin said artists should be prostrating themselves before his masterpieces.
Appealing to a younger generation
While Rembrandt's genius is still felt 350 years after his death, museums like the Rembrandt House Museum are finding new ways to pass on an appreciation for his work, which can, at times, feel distant from our modern lives. Located in the heart of Amsterdam, the museum kicked off the Netherlands' theme year, "Rembrandt and the Golden Age 2019," by curating a series focusing on Rembrandt's friends and family, titled "Rembrandt's Social Network."
These friends and family members — from his son Titus, to his wife Saskia and later, his common-law wife Hendrickje Stoffels — were often the subject of portraits that served as studies or as means to further develop his technique. These portraits were gathered for the exhibition, which traced the artist's biography as it divided the people in his life into five Facebook-defined categories.
"Today Facebook asks you to categorize your online social network: 'family,' a 'good friend' or perhaps simply 'an acquaintance.' Anyone in the 17th century would also be able to answer this question with ease: even then they had different categories of friendships," the museum program reads, before it goes on to define the importance of various people in Rembrandt's own social network. From fellow artist and friend Jan Lievens to the wealthy apothecary Abraham Francen, the exhibition is curated based on the various roles the people in Rembrandt's life played in his work.
Whereas Lievens and Rembrandt shared a studio early in their careers and influenced each other simultaneously, pushing the boundaries of painting at the time, the role a wealthy apothecary like Francen played was to serve not only as model but also to act as financial support for the bankrupt late-career Rembrandt.
As any artist can attest, the cost of dedicating your life to your work is quite high; despite his reputation as a master while alive, Rembrandt relied heavily on this close network of friends and family to support him either with commissions or, as his son Titus and mistress Hendrickje Stoffels later did, by selling his work and protecting his inheritance.
Framed within the constructs of modern social media, the troubles the painter faced in the 17th century become more relatable for the viewing public — and this accessibility will, hopefully, bring the artist's artist to a younger, wider, audience.