There’s something about the works of Rembrandt that move the soul. No other artist has captured quite so successfully what it is to be human; and no other artist is quite so contemporary to the modern eye. Which is why I was excited to see the blockbuster new show that has just opened at the Rijksmuseum to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death. Entitled All the Rembrandts, it gathers together for the first time all the Rembrandt works in in its collection: some 22 paintings, 60 drawings and around 300 etchings, many of which have never been before in public and – who knows? – may never be seen again. What better reason could there be to jump on Eurostar and hotfoot it over to the Netherlands?
The new Rembrandt exhibition
The Rembrandt exhibition puts forward an extraordinary collection, with a resonance that may come as a shock. For someone who died 350 years ago, Rembrandt cuts a surprisingly contemporary dash today. For a start, he invented the selfie. No painter has ever depicted himself in quite so many self-portraits, or with quite so much vigour and variety. He was also a student of humanity, in an era when artists often pursued far loftier aims. He was a storyteller extraordinaire: where previous artists had been happy to recycle the biblical stories of old, Rembrandt reinvented them, using his family as models and adding a human narrative; and his portraits are a masterclass in composition and psychology. Above all, his own life – regularly touched by tragedy – informs his work in a way that just wasn’t done at the time, from the tender pictures of his beloved wife to the gentle landscape sketches he created after she died.
All the Rembrandts exhibition at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum © Martin Dunford
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Divided by theme rather than chronology, it’s not a large exhibition, but you have to get up close to study some of Rembrandt’s unique etchings and drawings, which give an insight not only into the mind of the man but also into the Dutch Golden Age, when this brand-new country flourished to become the most affluent place on earth. Again, there are echoes – in the enormous wealth, the greed, the sense of a bubble about to burst – of our modern age. Rembrandt was just one of many painters to have documented the era, in snapshot-like group portraits like The Stallmeesters – his life-size portrayals of power-couple Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit – and in the tender and affecting Isaac and Rebecca, more famously known as The Jewish Bride.
The great thing about a visit to the Rijksmuseum, is that you can see lots of the other works from the period, including Rembrandt’s most famous group portrait, The Night Watch, which is the only one of his paintings not to feature in the exhibition – indeed later in the year you can watch it being restored in situ in the gallery this summer. So, you have an excuse to come back!
Rembrandt's sketches are on display as part of the exhibition © Martin Dunford
Following Rembrandt to The Hague
After touring the exhibition you'd be wise you jump on a train to The Hague, where the city’s Mauritshuis gallery is staging another exhibition, featuring all 18 of their works by Rembrandt or his studio. The size of the country and the efficiency and relative cheapness of Dutch trains make this an easy thing to do, and it’s well worth it – not just for the art but also for The Hague itself, which is a more appealing city than you might think: perfect for a day trip.
This show is a more intense experience than the one at the Rijksmuseum, with just 2 rooms filled to the brim with some of the greatest works of Rembrandt’s career, starting with the well-known Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and other early, finely painted works, and leading through to a series of canvases from the last decade of his life. Again, these works anticipate later painting styles by a couple of centuries at least, not only in the bold brushwork but also in the warmth and humanity of Rembrandt’s approach. These are pictures of people damaged by life: craggy, exhausted faces peering out of the gloom – none more so than the artist’s last, great self-portrait, painted just a few months before he died. It’s a picture that on its own is worth the price of admission.
The Mauritshuis is a wonderful museum, the only gallery in Holland to focus only on Dutch and Flemish art, and a jewel of a place for anyone interested in the Golden Age. It’s part of the Binnehof complex at the heart of The Hague, based around the medieval castle where the city began – a series of wanderable squares and quadrangles, turrets and gables that among other things house the Dutch parliament and form a backdrop to the placid city centre lake of the Hofvijver.
Part of Rembrandt's 'Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp' © Martin Dunford
Exploring The Hague
The Hague isn’t like other Dutch towns, in that it doesn’t have many canals. Its centre is instead a handsome collection of 18th century houses, at their most elegant on the tree-lined Lange Voorhout – once called the most beautiful street in Europe, and still a bit of a stunner. Here the brasserie at the Hotel des Indes is a lovely place to stop off for lunch, serving an affordable menu for you to enjoy under the chandeliers if you fancy following in the footsteps of Anna Pavlova, Mata Hari and all the other famous folk who have stayed here – indeed there’s a painting of Mata Hari by the Hague School artist Isaac Israels in the lobby.
Once you’ve feasted, there is plenty to explore in the rest of The Hague – from the Escher Museum, right opposite the hotel, to the gruesome sights of the medieval prison museum, the Gevangenpoort, the Palace Noordeinde (home to the Dutch royals), the Peace Palace (home of the international court of justice and other global institutions) and the funky contemporary art of the highly unusual Voorlinden museum, just outside the city centre. Beyond here The Hague meets the sea at the resort and fishing port of Scheveningen, where you can enjoy more art at the amazing Panorama Mesdag or eat a herring or two on the beach… tip back your head and dangle it in, Dutch-style.
The Hague is a city well worth a visit © Martin Dunford
Getting to the Netherlands
There are currently two Eurostar services a day to Amsterdam from London St Pancras and a third is planned for June. The journey takes around 3 hours 50 minutes and return fares start at just £35 one-way. Once there, if you want to do things in style, stay at Amsterdam’s very central Hotel Doelen, housed in the very building where Rembrandt painted The Night Watch and with a copy of the work decorating its biggest suite; doubles rooms here cost from around €200 a night. In The Hague, push the boat out at the delightfully old-fashioned Hotel des Indes, where a double room will set you back around €225 a night.
‘All the Rembrandts’ is at The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam from 15 February until 10 June, 2019. The public restoration of The Night Watch starts in July 2019. ‘Rembrandt and the Mauritshuis’ is at The Mauritshuis from 31 January until 15 September 2019.