The summer of 2006, I traveled to Amsterdam for the 400th birthday celebration of Rembrandt. There were several exhibitions scheduled for the entire year of which I attended three including the main attractions at Rembrandt's house and studio, the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis at the Hague. I also made a side trip to the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp, Belgium, for the Rubens experience.
What was clear to me on this trip was the difference between the masters such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals, and Vermeer and the other popular artists of their times. For example, in viewing the famous "Night Watch," Rembrandt chose a particular moment, a call to arms to portray all the officers from the company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lt. Willem van Ruytenburch. Instead of repeating the standard group portrait which depicted a row of heads across a large canvas, Rembrandt inspired himself to compose a heightened drama of the officers' pursuit of their duty in postures that reflected their title, personality, and station. In that momentous canvas, Rembrandt plays with light and movement like a true virtuoso. These soldiers and officers of a guard company in 17th Century Amsterdam came brilliantly to life before us, in a timeless evocation of humanity in motion.
As artists, we have the ability to learn and to grow from the legacy of great masters. As art appreciators, we can develop knowledge and add depth to our artistic scope, which frees each of us to trust our own feelings towards art by enhancing our experience at the museums.
I can imagine that many people today would wonder what is the significance for our culture to know Rembrandt and how may we apply his knowledge to today's art world and the world in general? A similar question would be, is it still pertinent to study Shakespeare in today's classroom? First, I would describe a classroom as a place where teaching begins to engage curious minds and a love for humankind's complexities.
No matter what the historic period we are in, each of us is on a journey to discover who we are and what kind of world are we living in. What could be more holy ground than to be in front of a masterpiece perceived by ours eyes and hearts today?
In these exhibitions, I discovered a much more personal Rembrandt as a man working with his career as an artist. In the mist of his earthly requirements, he was a titan expanding his conscious wisdom by holding on to his integrity of personal execution, exploration, and emotional expression.
Three paintings that I particularly liked and recommend seeing are "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp," and "A Portrait of an Old Woman" at the Mauritshius Museum, and "The Night Watch" at the Rijks.
Rembrandt was in the middle of his career here and to this day, his technique remains the antithesis to surface painting, expressing depth of human life in the ways that are essential to each subject and story. If you weren't aware of the story in the painting, you can participate by looking at his painting techniques of light and his counterpoints of shadow, depth of form, and purity of rich color. This artist knew from his own life's experience what he needed to describe to the world through his choice of an inspiring subject.
I encourage anyone to see a Rembrandt painting in person, one that has not been over restored and is authentic, and better yet, from the middle of his career. Just as my senses were reignited and profoundly moved by his sheer brilliance in the modeling of heavy paint and exquisite draftsmanship, anyone may learn first hand what this Titan has given to the world of art and the richness of life itself.
Recommended articles: Metropolitan Members Art Bulletin, Summer 06, on Rembrandt's etchings and drawings. The first thing to realize is that drawings from that time weren't meant to be seen or sold to the public, they were personal renderings. This revelation makes the drawings even more amazing as they were just for Rembrandt's eyes and experience.