Rembrandt digital collection – a review

By the time I finished that ruddy wall-chart/100 hour post this ‘morning’ it was 2.30 pm, then lunch and recovering took an hour, and my plans of visiting the Rijksmuseum today had been pleasurably poured down the drain, what with them closing at 5 pm and all.

There was one exhibit open, however, until 7, and much closer, too: Re:mbrandt All his paintings. This exhibition houses prints of Rembrandt’s paintings, and while your initial reaction may be ‘meh, I can go and see the real thing, hold on for a bit. These exhibition and its images are awesome because:

  • They’re digitially retouched with incredible care, ensuring a crystal-clear image despite dirt, lighting, cracks and yellowed varnish
  • They’re life sized, as painted! They range from exquisite studies not more than three inches square, through a huge array of life-sized portraits, to gigantic multi-figure scenes or landscapes reproduced at 6 by 9ft.
  • Where possible trimmed edges have been restored to recreate the original compositions, and x-ray images exhume works overlaid with the new
  • If an image is merely a section of a wider work, an impression of the whole is given through intensively researched sketches and other paintings.
  • The accompanying texts are very well written, informative, giving great context and detail of the artist’s work and that of other artists at the time.  They’re also pretty entertaining.
  • It displays all 300-odd paintings that have been preserved, wherever they may hang on the globe, or have been subsequently lost, stolen or destroyed by fire.

Rembrandt’s works have so much more impact when you can see them in context. The exhibit lays out his entire body of work chronologically, so you can see clearly as his figures evolve from pudgy, washed out and watery-eyed competence at age 19, through an almost clinical brilliance, to startling insight and depth, while at every turn his studies, sketches and self-portraits closely examine the behaviour of light, and reproduce them with better and better results.  There is also loads of crank churned out by his students, or… let’s just say you can be a master and still drop the ball from time to time.  His drawings from life are so finely observed and represent such insight that some of his work that’re more drawn from his mind’s eye feel like a betrayal of his talent, or at least a let-down.

That doesn’t detracts from the ones where he gets it right, though.  So many of the paintings had me smiling almost in greeting to them when I walked through the gallery, always eager to find out more about the subject.  Some were just utterly exquisite.  One of my favourites – The Mill – already has an incredible impact at small scale (I still remember the first time I saw it, but then again it was only 6 months ago…), but it takes the breath away when the canvas stands taller than you do.

I timed it a little wrong and had to rush through most of Rembrandt’s Late Period work, scurrying to see it all in the last 10 minutes before closing, but it was fascinating to see that when he’d achieved incredible heights of realism, depth and storytelling.  His style became more… relaxed? fluid?, while somehow managing to be more realistic, detailed and lively than the preceding work, however immaculately detailed. His later work is fascinating as he lays out values, colour and texture of swathes of his subject in bold strokes, but it blends seamlessly with careful detail that becomes more prevalent towards the centre of the face, until you stare at the delicately wrinkled bag under an old lady’s eye and half-expect it to move in a blink…

I’m now obsessed with shadow and light and watercolour and oils. I’m wondering if I can explore using watercolour to create images that, where Rembrandt’s work glows and glimmers from a wreath of shadow, instead have details that coalesce in shadows out of blinding light. (Think brilliant blue flowers on a table backlit by a summer window). I’m very excited to experiment – I’ll have to set up some still life sets when I get home.

All in all: a very good exhibition, which I’d highly recommend catch if you visit Amsterdam (10EUR), or if it tours to somewhere near you.

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