Rembrandt in Context

John Harrison

On Tuesday the 25th of April a group of lucky Russians and foreigners were invited to special private viewing of an exhibition at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts: ‘The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer, masterpieces of the Leiden Collection’. The main sponsor of the evening was Brookes School.

Young Girl in a Gold-Trimmed Cloak, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1632, oil on oval panel 59 x 44 cm

The exhibition, which is open until July the 22nd comprises of a selection of 82 masterpieces drawn from the Leiden Collection, which is one of the most significant collections of 17th century Dutch paintings in the world. The exhibition weighs heavily on the work of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), his students and contemporaries. The viewer may be surprised to discover that the Dutch school, at least in the 17th century was a lot wider in artistic taste than Hieronymus Bosch, Johannes Vermeer, and even Van Dyck.

When Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam in the early 1930s he began painting portraits for wealthy merchants, and the Leiden collection contains four exemplary portraits and tronies produced during those years including ‘Young Girl in a Gold-Trimmed Cloak’ and ‘Portrait of a Man in a Red Coat’.

We are used to seeing Rembrandt in isolation – in solo exhibitions all over the world, and it is truly interesting to see, in this exhibition, the quite classical background of contemporary art during Rembrandt’s lifetime. The Rembrandts on display are not the world’s most famous, but they reveal another, less familiar side of Rembrandt.

‘Minerva in Her Study’, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1635, oil on canvas, 138 x 116.5 cm

‘Minerva in Her Study’ painted in 1635 reveals that Rembrandt was a highly skilled draftsman and colourist before he became the oil painting psychoanalyst of human kind. His technique, at 29 was quite in line with that of his Dutch hyper realists – amazing attention to detail, although the painting is perhaps a little too honest and unflattering. The painting shows the same complete mastery of the portrayal of texture, light and detail attention to detail as can be seen in Rembrandt’s colleague Jan Lievan’s ‘Boy in a Cape and Turban’ painted in 1631, and yet is somewhat freer in brush strokes an, expression and subject matter.

Rembrandt’s importance as a teacher and his influence of Dutch art is displayed in this exhibition. Aside from the three splendid works by Arent de Gelder, this selection includes masterpieces by Ferdinand BolGovaert Flinck, Gerbrand van den EeckhoutSamuel van Hoogstraten and Nicolaes Maes, all of whom worked under Rembrandt for differing periods of time. The exhibition also contains Carel Fabritius’ ‘Hagar and the Angel’, the only work of the thirteen known paintings by this renowned student that remains in private hands.


Jan Lievens (1607-1674). Boy in a Cape and Turban (Portrait of Prince Rupert of the Palatinate). ca. 1631. Oil on panel. 66.7 x 51.8 cm

The exhibition hosts a number of other prominent Dutch painters of the time, and in this the exhibition shows the fallacies of studying art from art history books alone. Art history books, (and national galleries) tend to hop from one great master at a time and fail to provide adequate context. If you want to see with your own two eyes the kind of artistic environment Rembrandt was working in, visit this exhibition. It helped me grasp the full extent of Rembrandt’s bravery, audacity and sheer genius.