Rembrandt’s Mania: How He Pioneered the Artist as Collector in Amsterdam

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Detail from the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam

The world knows Rembrandt as a great master, but Rembrandt van Rijn was also a great collector. Senior Curator and Conservator at the Rembrandt House Museum David de Witt explains that Rembrandt’s collection “speaks of the highest ambition in terms of [his] status as a gentleman, but also in terms of his curiosity, [and] his receptiveness to the world in the largest sense.” His collection was such an integral part of his life that it offers a wider view on Rembrandt the artist.

At his peak as the most famous painter and print-maker of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt bought a multi-story house in Amsterdam—today the Rembrandt House Museum. Many pivotal moments of the artist’s life unfolded between these walls. He painted “The Night Watch” and saw the birth of his son Titus in this house. He also suffered the death of his beloved wife there. And despite the triumph and tragedy of Rembrandt’s life, one element remained constant: the continuous expansion of what de Witt calls his “extensive and ambitious” collection.

As with any proper kunst und wunderkamer — art and wonder cabinet — his collection included the so called art of man, the art of nature, and the wunder: curiosities, rarities and exotica. Modern scholars only know the collection through archival records, but thankfully, Rembrandt kept thorough and organised notes. Faced with bankruptcy in 1656, Rembrandt drew up an inventory of his possessions—accessible online in the Archives of the Chamber of Insolvent Estates. The items, listed room-by-room, included albums of drawings and prints from other renowned artists, corals and shells, stuffed and preserved animals, casts of body parts, busts — including one of Homer, and weapons. The legacy of many of these possessions have been further preserved in Rembrandt’s masterpieces.

According to de Witt, “there is some connection to the artists he collects that relates to his practice and explains it to some degree.”Jan Porcellis, Hercules Segers, and Adriaen Brouwer were among his early influences. Rembrandt discovered Porcellis’s muted tones early in his practice during the tonal phase in Dutch art. With just a limited palate of pigments, Rembrandt created “subtle and wonderful variations of tones [that] show up in his work and not in any one else’s,” enthuses de Witt. “With Rembrandt, you’re moving into the colours of every day life, the muted tones, bringing things forward with subtle shifts in colour.”

Sometimes items in Rembrandt’s collection played a more direct role in his work. Adapted figures and scenes from his collection of prints appeared repeatedly in his paintings, while his spears, shields, and some firearms can be found in a number of his works, including “The Night Watch.” His weapons collection even inspired the invention of fantasy weapons in some pieces. Rembrandt kept other essential objects—textiles, coins, busts, and casts of body parts—in his pupil’s atelier, where he taught his students.

While there is much to be said about how Rembrandt drew inspiration from his collection, it is also important to recognise his sensibilities as a collector. The collection was the manifestation of Rembrandt’s insatiable curiosity. Many of his pieces allowed him “to enjoy and contemplate the wonders of the world as someone who is a great artist and a great intellectual and is aware of the import of that tradition,” says de Witt. His collection of works on paper was particularly profound. In addition to owning the first collection of prints on Japanese paper he also had approximately 8,000 drawings and prints organised in 60–70 loose leather binders or albums. Along with drawings by Italian artists, and an extensive collection of prints by Albrecht Durer, Rembrandt had engravings and woodcuts from all of the artists after Titian.

“He organised them according to school, which was innovative, rather than subject matter, which is more conventional,” de Witt explains. “So [Rembrandt] had an art historian sense already.” In terms of his collection of wunder, Rembrandt was involved in the trade as both a collector and a dealer. The trade in exotica ran parallel to but separately from that of the Dutch East India Company, so traders and dealers formed an industry of their own. The same ships that made Amsterdam the centre of global trade also brought corals, shells, stuffed animals, whale bones, and animal skins from the Far East, Persia, and Japan. “These items would have fed stores in different locations in the city, and they would have supplied collectors and dealers,” says de Witt.

Detail from the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam

Rembrandt never stopped collecting, even after his bankruptcy. It was due, in part, to his dealing activities that Rembrandt was able to carry on with collecting. “This financial genius just kept on going. He couldn’t stop,” explains de Witt. He even set up a business structure where he was, in effect, the employee of his son and common-law-wife Hendrickje Stoffels and received a healthy pension of 1700 guilders.

For Rembrandt, there was no line between his life as an artist and as a collector. In fact, during the years he occupied the house, it is likely he opened it to visitors. “There was almost a kind of performance of visiting the artist’s studio,” de Witt says. The guest would show interest in Rembrandt’s knowledge and art, “so that studio visit would also potentially involve a visit to the kunstkamer, as Rembrandt called it.” Today, Rembrandt’s collection has been carefully brought back together, in a representational form, according to the original inventory, and visitors can tour his house as his contemporaries once did.

Immerse yourself in an homage to the Great Master with Rembrandt inspired cocktails, a private tour of his favourite haunts, and the chance to paint your own canvas when you book the Insider Experience at InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam.

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