Iconic Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn was the star of a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. Lead curator Dr. Stephanie Dickey, Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, takes us behind the scenes to explore the extraordinary life of the artist and his time, the Queen’s connections, and the one piece she would have loved to take home.
Please tell us a bit about yourself. I often teach courses related to Rembrandt and the art of his time – Europe in the 1600s. I’ve been studying Rembrandt since my graduate school days at New York University, so this is a natural extension of my research interests.
When did you start thinking about this exhibition? Almost a decade ago I began brainstorming with my friend David de Witt (a PhD graduate of Queen’s, formerly Bader Curator at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, now at the Rembrandt House Museum) about an exhibition on art in Amsterdam. As plans developed, the story became more about Rembrandt himself. I pitched the idea to the National Gallery because they are – well – the National Gallery! They had never done a Rembrandt exhibition, so it caught their interest.
Rembrandt in Amsterdam examines what part of the artist’s life and work? Other exhibitions have explored Rembrandt’s early and late work, but this is the first that focuses on the transformative central decades of his career. When Rembrandt was about 25 (around 1632), he left his hometown of Leiden to move to Amsterdam – it’s a bit like leaving Kingston to try your luck in Toronto or New York. I was interested in how this bold move affected his life and career, as well as the impact he had on Amsterdam and its thriving art market. Amsterdam is where Rembrandt painted his most iconic works, such as The Nightwatch (1642). He lived there until his death in 1669.
What was on view? The exhibition brings paintings, prints, and drawings by Rembrandt into dialogue with stellar works by friends, followers, and rivals, exploring how this community of talented artists competed for the attention of Amsterdam consumers.
The showstopper in Ottawa was The Blinding of Samson – it has all the drama of a superhero movie: action and violence, heroism and betrayal.
Do you have a particular favourite? Landscape with Stone Bridge, from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is one of only eight known landscapes by Rembrandt. He uses expressive brushwork and dramatic light to convey the tense atmosphere of an impending storm. That’s the one I would take home if I could!
What has the project told you about the artist?
I have new respect for Rembrandt’s versatility and for his ambition. In an age when many artists specialized, he tried his hand at many subjects. He ran the largest workshop in Amsterdam, creating a “brand” that went far beyond his own work and continues to inspire painters and printmakers today. In contemporary terms, he was an influencer.
What did the National Gallery add to the show? When Sasha Suda became director of the National Gallery, she charged the curatorial team to align the exhibition with the gallery’s new mission of promoting greater inclusivity. We expanded the narrative to acknowledge the sources of wealth that fuelled the art market in which Rembrandt worked. Amsterdam was the hub of a global trade network that stretched from the Americas to Indonesia; some enterprises resulted in the exploitation and enslavement of African and Indigenous people.
Three experts writing from Black and Indigenous perspectives were invited to contribute new texts. We also added several contemporary works from the National Gallery’s collection in which Black and Indigenous artists reflect on colonialism. Perhaps best known is Kent Monkman. His painting The Triumph of Mischief (2007) hangs opposite Rembrandt’s Landscape with Stone Bridge. His composition reminds the viewer that landscapes can seem picturesque, but land ownership remains contested.
I think this shift was important and necessary, but I hope people understand that Dutch global trade is only one part of a larger story. The art of Rembrandt and his contemporaries still has a lot to offer in its own right. How best to contextualize their achievements is an ongoing discussion for educators and curators alike.
What are the other Queen’s connections to this show? Three paintings in the Ottawa installation were lent by the Agnes: Rembrandt’s 1658 Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo; and history paintings by two talented associates, Govert Flinck and Nicolaes Maes. They are all part of The Bader Collection, which includes over 200 European paintings donated to Queen’s by alumnus Dr. Alfred Bader and his wife, Isabel Bader.
There are quite a few people at the National Gallery with Queen’s connections. Ellen Treciokas, who designed our beautiful installation, is a graduate of the art conservation program. Mathieu Sly, the gallery’s new social media officer, has an MA in art history from Queen’s. The exhibition catalogue includes an essay by Jonathan Bikker, whose graduate study at Queen’s and Utrecht University led to a curatorial position at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It is great to see our alums making an impact near and far.