The Ashmolean charts the incredible arc of creativity that saw young Rembrandt rise from mediocre also-ran to master portrait painter
There is a liveliness to the portraits of Rembrandt that simply eclipses most painters of the period.
And yes, perhaps Anthony van Dyck and his contemporary Diego Velázquez could make a higher claim as the pre-eminent portrait artists of the mid seventeenth century, particularly at court, but there is a vibrant informality to Rembrandt’s portraits that many argue mark him out as being different from most artists of the Dutch Golden Age.
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The Ashmolean’s celebration, which is the first major exhibition in the UK to examine his early years, is awash with wonderful portraits – including the headline-grabbing and newly-discovered self portrait of the artist as cheeky young scamp, peering down above the crowd in Let the Little Children Come to Me (1627–8).
The painting was a sensational find when it was secured at auction for 1.5m Euros by Dutch art dealer Jan Six, whose hunch that it was indeed a Rembrandt proved to be true.
Yet it’s one of several early works, which to put it bluntly, are a little bit rough around the edges, and which show the meteoric creative trajectory that took place between the frankly amateurish The Spectacles Seller (1624-25) and the acknowledged masterpiece, Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem (1630).
“The first decade of Rembrandt’s career is central to any understanding of his work as a whole,” says co-curator Professor Christopher Brown CBE who is Director-Emeritus of the Ashmolean and world-renowned expert on Dutch painting and Rembrandt.
“In his early paintings, prints and drawings we find a young artist exploring his own style, grappling with technical difficulties and making mistakes. But his progress is remarkable and the works in this exhibition demonstrate an amazing development from year to year.
As the exhibition points out, Rembrandt was no prodigy.
“We can see exactly how he became the pre-eminent painter of Amsterdam and the universally adored artist he remains 350 years after his death.”
Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (1606–69) was born in Leiden, the second largest city in the Dutch Republic, 30 miles south-west of Amsterdam. The ninth child of a successful miller, his parents had academic aspirations for their youngest son and he was enrolled at the Latin School so that he could go on to study at the University of Leiden.
But young Rembrandt had little scholarly inclination and by 1622 he had begun an apprenticeship with the city’s only history painter, Jacob van Swanenburg (1571–1638) and by the time he was working on his first known paintings, the ‘Five Senses’ series, Rembrandt was already 18.
His contemporary Jan Lievens (1607–74) began his apprenticeship at eight and was catching the eye of connoisseurs by the age of 12. It might be reasonable to expect a more sophisticated style from Rembrandt’s first painting of 1624 – he would have received some basic artistic training at university too – but The Spectacles Seller is encumbered by an overly bright palette, clumsy drawing and a poor rendition of the space. As the exhibition points out, Rembrandt was no prodigy.
In 1624–5 he was apprenticed for six months to Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), an innovative painter working in Amsterdam. Afterwards Rembrandt began tackling larger projects and gaining technical skill. In 1625 he established his own studio in Leiden, a less crowded market for a young artist, where he had the opportunity to work with his childhood friend, Lievens.
The pair drew and painted each other, used the same models and tackled the same subjects and the exhibition compares their versions of Samson and Delilah (c. 1628) showing their different interpretations and approach.
This is probably when the real Rembrandt begins to emerge and it’s quite a visual journey with the exhibition effectively looking over Rembrandt’s shoulder to closely examine his efforts to improve.
Rembrandt expresses a powerful sense of his own gifts
Particularly revealing are his experiments with prints. His first etching, The Circumcision (1625), is a complex work, ambitious for a young artist, which shows a lack of perspective and a crowded composition. One of his earliest surviving etchings is overlaid with flaws and scratches, the result of his inexperience in preparing the printing plates.
But beyond the striving for technical improvement the exhibition reveals his breadth of portrait subjects. There are portraits of beggars, nobles, peasants, the young and the old, and several versions of one of his favourite subjects; Rembrandt himself and this show treats us to the artist in many guises.
In his History Painting (1626) a young Rembrandt peeks out from behind the main characters, recognisable from his curly hair and rounded nose. Despite his mistakes – the frieze-like scene and unconvincing perspective – by placing himself in history paintings Rembrandt expresses a powerful sense of his own gifts.
It was also at this time that Rembrandt made his first independent self-portraits including the experimental Rembrandt Laughing (1628) which returns to the UK for the first time since it was sold from a private collection in Oxfordshire in 2007 and acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles in 2013.
Many of his printed self-portraits were informal exercises in capturing facial expressions, made directly on small copperplates while observing himself in a mirror pulling faces. This experimentation is key to his originality: his characteristic style made his prints look like drawings with their restless lines and atmospheric shading.
The story of young Rembrandt’s rise through the Dutch artworld takes us through creative competitions, courtly patronage, a fascination with the human face and an interest in psychology. In 1631 he arrived in Amsterdam, where with the help of the art dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, he became a major competitor in the market for portraits.
Evidence of his increased self-confidence can be seen in A Man in Oriental Dress (‘The Noble Slav’) (1632), a large-scale work and a breath-taking exercise in painting with rich, complex textures and a penetrating portrait of resolute, still vigorous old age.
By 1634 Rembrandt was busy with important portrait commissions in which he honed his ability for representing human character and emotion.
The exhibition culminates with his astonishing Portrait of an 83-Year Old Woman (possibly Aechje Claesdr.) (1634). There is no doubt that he found the sitter an intensely interesting subject on whom he exercised the same probing, sympathetic eye that we find in his depictions of old men.
It is one of the finest examples of his early works in Amsterdam and one of the first where he signs his name simply, ‘Rembrandt’.
A fascinating visual journey and a valuable opportunity to follow Rembrandt step-by-step and watch as he develops from a flawed teenage painter to the supremely accomplished and successful artist that he became over the first ten years of his career.
Young Rembrandt is at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford until June 7 2020.
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is the country’s oldest public museum and home to one of the most important collections of art and archaeology to be found anywhere. The collections span the civilisations of east and west, charting the aspirations of humankind from the Neolithic era to the present day. Among its…