Rembrandt’s collection of curiosities

Queen's Alumni Review
2 June 2016

By Wanda Praamsma

David de Witt takes the Review on a tour of the great painter’s former house and studio

The rooms of Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam reveal the details of one man’s supremely artistic life.

  • There is the studio – with north-facing windows – offering good but not overwhelming light.
  • On the mixing table: stones, including azurite and lapis lazuli, which the painter used to prepare his paints.
  • And to store the paints: actual pigs’ bladders, knotted with thread.

Across from the studio, Rembrandt’s kunst-und wunderkammer – a room to house the wonders of nature and man, showcasing the artist’s vast collection of curiosities. Everything from shells, coral and animal carcasses to busts of emperors, various weapons, and a large lion’s skin.

“He loved to collect things. He paid a record price for a single shell,” says David de Witt, Chief Curator at Rembrandt House Museum, and former Bader Curator of European Art at Queen’s Agnes Etherington Art Centre. “It’s interesting; he was not seen as highly learned, but actually, he was very knowledgeable and curious about the world – this collection of artifacts shows that.”

Visitors see…snippets of personality, the idiosyncrasies that made him the innovator he was.

On the lower floors of the house – where Rembrandt lived and worked for almost 20 years until 1658, the year he painted Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo – visitors wander through the large kitchen, complete with a box bed tucked into the corner.

“There were no bedrooms in homes at this time,” says Dr. de Witt. “People slept in these closet beds, which were fairly short, as no one slept lying down, thinking they might die if they did. They slept propped against a few pillows.”

There is also an etching room, which would have been a very busy place (and still is, now serving as a printmaking demonstration room), and several showrooms where Rembrandt welcomed prospective buyers and dealers.

On the top floor, there are several student cubicles – as this house was also a teaching space, where the painter cultivated and promoted new talent.

Dr. de Witt explains that Rembrandt was not a poor man – and the house was very majestic, located on what is now Jodenbreestraat (formerly Sint Antoniesbreestraat) in the heart of the city’s half-moon canal system. But Rembrandt was always, perhaps, ahead of himself – in finances, too – and was forced out in 1658 due to bankruptcy.

“People come here to experience and imagine what life was like for Rembrandt. They take it very seriously,” says Dr. de Witt, who took the position at Rembrandt House in 2014, after 13 years at Queen’s. Dr. de Witt has extensive knowledge of Dutch and Flemish art, and a particular interest in the work of Jan van Noordt. (See his book Jan van Noordt: Painter of History and Portraits in Amsterdam, McGill-Queen’s University Press)

“As a curator, one is always looking to grow and develop. The opportunity here to work intensely in Rembrandt education and research was a tantalizing prospect for me,” he says. “Queen’s has such a strong connection to the art of the Dutch Golden Age, through The Bader Collection, and it is exciting for me to continue the rapport between the university and Rembrandt’s artwork through this position.”

As with many museums of the homes of artists and writers, Rembrandt House brings in period pieces – furniture, household items and artwork – on loan from other museums, to fill in the details of the time. Those details give visitors something art-only museums can’t: a sense of what daily life was like for the artist, and snippets of personality, the idiosyncrasies that made him the master and innovator he was.

The museum displays one original Rembrandt painting, borrowing from other private and public collections. The last public place Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo hung, before its gifting to Queen’s, was in the Rembrandt House Museum. Now, its place is filled with a portrait of the artist’s wife, Saskia.

“It’s a truly spectacular work,” says Dr. de Witt, of Man with Arms Akimbo. “It is big and bold, with a great mystery surrounding it, the question of the man’s identity. The achievement of expression on the man’s face is singular. It is a powerful painting.”

The gift by the Baders, he says, is very significant for Queen’s, enhancing the student experience and art education, and making a clear statement on the relevance of The Bader Collection. “It seals the grandness for the vision of the collection at the Agnes and reflects the Baders’ deep commitment to Queen’s.”



Image Credits

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