His success was not only the result of unique and great talents. His wife Saskia was from a well-to-do family. Moreover, her uncle Hendrick van Uylenburgh was an Amsterdam art dealer with an international network of clients.
So the house with enough space to receive clients, to exhibit paintings, with a large studio for the master and a smaller one for students and rooms for his family – must have seemed an affordable and excellent investment. Yet Rembrandt lost his uncle, his wife, three of his children, clients, as well as all his possessions including the house.
The house changed hands several times, but somehow survived. In 1907 it became the small Rembrandt House Museum. This museum consists of two parts. The house where Rembrandt and his family lived and worked. Next to it, is the modern annex, which is the entrance to the museum and also has space for temporary exhibitions.
One enters the 17th century house through the cellar of the modern annex. Interesting are the archeological finds from a former well. These contain pottery and other items which the family threw away.
The house gives an impression of a 17th century home. Several rooms contain bedsteads, impressive fireplaces and a very large kitchen. On the ground floor, one finds rooms in which clients could wait or would be received. Paintings clients might buy would hang the walls. One room contained Rembrandt’s press which he used to print his etchings.
Other floors contain a room full of curiosities including items like a stuffed alligator and an armadillo, as well as shells and spears. There is the master’s large studio where the exact spot of his easel is shown. The master’s students worked one floor up.
When I visited the museum, there were not only guided tours and workshops available. With other visitors I watched a demonstration of how oil paints were created in Rembrandt’s time. Most of the hard work would have been done by his students, or by the apothecaries where pigments could be bought.
It was fascinating not only to see the natural materials, the pigments and how the latter where mixed with oil. The use of other natural material to prepare canvas was explained. We also learnt that each painter had his own “recipes” and tricks.
One word of warning: this is a real 17th century period home with floors accessed using one extremely small, winding staircase. No idea how the family and servants managed to walk up and down effortlessly. The steps spooked me and at least one visitor decided to cut the museum visit short, because of the difficult staircase.
The museum’s modern annex has an ordinary staircase and elevator. But if one is not nimble and sure-footed, it is best to ask staff about accessibility of all floors – before buying tickets.
Temporary exhibition: Rembrandt’s Naked Truth
From the students’ studio at the top of Rembrandt’s home, one walks into the modern annex and top exhibition floor. Here one finds the current temporary exhibition: “Rembrandt’s Naked Truth”.
About four large rooms, spread over two floors, give an impression of the importance of Rembrandt as one of the first Dutch artists organising life classes for his students. Most artists used classical sculptures or casts to learn to draw the human body. Many relied on books like the one created by Dürer to discover proportions.
Rembrandt owned a copy of Dürer’s book. He also owned casts of classical statues. When and why he suddenly decided to start life classes remains unclear. Where he got his male models is clearer: young students occasionally modelled. Based on several drawings of the same model and stance, the exhibition even shows where Rembrandt or one of his pupils stood while drawing a model.
Drawing respectable women naked, was of course totally out of the question. Prostitutes were used and one painting shows the face of an Amsterdam brothel madame. What the exhibition also shows: Rembrandt did not embellish things, like later artists were to do. Rembrandt’s men and women are humans with imperfect, sagging bodies. He really drew the naked human truth.
Not all of Rembrandt’s students remained in Amsterdam. A few settled in other Dutch 17th century towns. They in turn organised the occasional life classes for their students. What probably started in secret in the studios of a few Dutch painters like Rembrandt, became part of the male artist’s ordinary training.
Women were of course barred from attending such classes – till the late 19th century.
“Rembrandt’s Naked Truth”, can be visited at Museum Het Rembrandtshuis till the 16th May 2016. On the 28th of May, “Rembrandt the Etcher” will open.