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Rembrandt & Co. - Dulwich Picture Gallery

Feature by James Haddrell

TO celebrate the 400th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth Dulwich Picture Gallery is unveiling a new exhibition, but rather than providing a conventional retrospective of the artist’s work, the exhibition focuses on the Amsterdam dealership in which Rembrandt played such a key role.

Born 400 years ago in the Dutch city of Leiden, Rembrandt van Rijn was not always destined to be an artist. As a contemporary biographer wrote: “His parents sent him to school with the idea of teaching him Latin and then bringing him to the Leiden Academy. That way, when he grew up he could use his knowledge for the service of the city and the benefit of the community at large.” Neither of his parents’ wishes was to come true.

For reasons which have never been entirely understood, but which are often romantically put down to their son’s conviction in his artistic calling, the young Rembrandt was taken out of school shortly before graduating and apprenticed instead to the painter Jacob Isaacz van Swanenberg. (Rembrandt did enrol at the Academy the following year, but it seems this was simply a way of escaping call-up to the civic guard, in which his father and brother had both been injured, rather than any sign of renewed academic inclinations.)

Completing his training, Rembrandt worked as a painter in Leiden until 1631, but he found it increasingly difficult to make a living. With the city descending into a state of economic poverty, the art market was in rapid decline, and where the artists’ guilds in other cities were supporting their local artists by preventing the sales of non-member painters, no such protection existed in Leiden.

As early as 1628, Rembrandt may have come into contact with the Amsterdam-based art dealer, Hendrick Uylenburgh, who is known to have travelled to Leiden in that year and whose visit seems to roughly coincide with Rembrandt’s first documented sale; three years later, when Rembrandt did finally give up working in Leiden it was to the home of Uylenburgh that he and his apprentice relocated. This marked a turning point in the fortunes of both dealer and painter.

With a loan of 1,000 guilders from the young painter, Uylenburgh expanded his business premises beyond the traditional studio and showroom, to the extent that in under a decade the Italian artist Filippo Baldinucci is recorded as describing it as ‘Uylenburgh’s famous academy’.

For the four years that Rembrandt remained at the studio his output was central to the rise in Uylenburgh’s fortunes. In his first year there, he painted more commissions than in his entire previous career and the following year saw that figure rise again, making him the most widely commissioned portrait artist in the city.

The works on show at Dulwich Picture Gallery make it very clear why the Leiden-born artist was making such an impression in Amsterdam.

Man In Oriental Costume, painted in the first year of Rembrandt’s residency and hung in the exhibition alongside a set of Van Dyck’s Apostles, shows the voracity with which Rembrandt was absorbing and developing the techniques of fellow artists.

Three of the four small religious paintings by Van Dyck bear the heavy, painterly brushwork for which Rembrandt is now better known, and Rembrandt’s portrait shows an early experiment with bold, tightly focused side-lighting.

Similarly, the immaculate portrait of Agatha Bas, with the sitter’s hand and intricate gold fan breaking forward from the illusory picture frame, reveal Rembrandt’s debt to Titian, whose portrait poses he imitated on several occasions.

However, it’s not for his imitations that Rembrandt is held in such timeless esteem. It is rather his incredible ability to bring his subjects to life. Despite a heavy, painterly style which leaves the texture of the paint and the direction of his brush strokes plainly visible, the eyes of Rembrandt’s subjects still gaze out of his paintings as full of life as if they were there in the flesh.

There are other notable paintings in the exhibition. Two which particularly stand out are the contemplative St Paul by Lambert Jacobsz – one of Uylenburgh’s fellow dealers – and a portrait by Sir Peter Lely, the Dutch born court painter who miraculously maintained his position at the courts of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell and Charles II.

But for all the contextual information about the studio of the Uylenburghs and the various works by related artists, this exhibition belongs to Rembrandt.

As a result the final room, which is devoid of any Rembrandts, comes as something of an anti-climax – so don’t stop there. When you emerge at the end of Rembrandt & Co., make your way back through the gallery’s permanent collection and seek out Rembrandt’s Portrait Of A Young Man.

Thought to be a depiction of Rembrandt’s son Titus, the subject looms out of the darkness draped in deep red. Rendered with less paint than was common for Rembrandt, the figure has an ethereal, ghostly quality, but once again it is the life behind the eyes that really testifies to Rembrandt’s particular gift as a portrait painter.

Picture Caption: Rembrandt van Rijn, Man In Oriental Costume (The Noble Slav), 1632

Rembrandt & Co.
Until September 3, 2006.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich Village, London, SE21 7AD.
020 8693 5254; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Open Tue-Fri: 10am-5pm; Sat, Sun & Bank Holiday Mon: 11am-5pm
Admission: £7; various concessions from £3.