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The Age of Rembrandt

Curator Walter Liedtke discusses the Museum's unparalleled collection of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, and provides insight into nineteenth-century Americans' fascination with these works from the age of Rembrandt.


Walter Liedtke: I'm Walter Liedtke, curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, and I am also the curator of the Museum's exhibition The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is on view through January 6 and sponsored by Accenture.

The exhibition celebrates the birthday of Rembrandt. He was born in 1606, so he had his four hundredth birthday last year. And he died in 1669. And most of the 228 Dutch paintings that are in the exhibition date from his lifetime. Maybe thirty, forty date from after his death. The other major artists of the Age of Rembrandt would be Frans Hals, who worked in Haarlem next to Amsterdam, and, of course, Johannes Vermeer, the famous painter from Delft. There are also great landscape painters, above all, Jacob van Ruisdael, his follower Meyndert Hobbema, Aelbert Cuyp, and a good number of others, genre painters—that is, painters of scenes of everyday life. In addition to Vermeer, there's Ter Borch, Nicolaes Maes, Pieter de Hooch, and many other names that were very familiar to collectors of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. And this collection was very much built by those collectors in New York who donated works to the museum. And the installation of the exhibition sketches the acquisitions from 1870 to the present.

Americans loved pictures which represented nature, landscapes, the folkways of societies in the past, the family, individuals of strong character. And they tended to avoid the history and the mythology and the religions of other cultures. America in the nineteenth century saw itself as a Protestant democracy of strong working-class or middle-class individuals who made their own way in life. And they compared themselves in that regard to the seventeenth-century Dutch republic. And there was a broad truth to that. And, of course, it was a bit of a caricature. It was overstated for both cultures. But that did inspire people to collect Dutch works—the analogy between Dutch society and the growing American republic. This was, after all, a European culture that had broken away from the king of Spain, was the strongest economy throughout northern Europe. About seventy-five percent of people in the Netherlands lived in houses in urban centers, in cities. As opposed to nineteenth-century Europe, two hundred years later—ninety percent of the French population in the nineteenth century was agrarian, lived on farms. So this was an urban culture that collected pictures and had disposable income. They couldn't spend it on land. They invested in ships, tulips, country houses, and great numbers of paintings. The average house in Amsterdam in 1650 had ten paintings. I'm not sure you could say that about New York today.

The Museum has twenty pictures that I would say are genuine Rembrandt paintings. There was a time when we thought, or the Museum cataloguers would say, we had forty-two Rembrandts. And that's typical of the evolution of Rembrandt connoisseurship throughout the twentieth century. The catalogues of Rembrandt back in 1905 said there were seven hundred paintings by him in the world, and most scholars today would say there were three hundred today. So that's about forty percent of what we used to think. And the Museum is actually somewhat ahead of that percentage. And this involves not so much mistakes of the past as learning much more about Rembrandt's pupils—he had as many as forty through his lifetime, and immediate followers—and the enormous popularity of the Rembrandt style in seventeenth-century Amsterdam.

He deliberately made his reputation in his native Leiden, the university town that's a bit south of Amsterdam. And he was painting there as early as about 1624, and it was sometime around the winter of 1631–32 that he moved to the big city of Amsterdam. He may actually have rushed back and forth between the two. And what Amsterdam really wanted was modern portraits—a large percentage of Rembrandt's work through the 1630s were fashionable portraits in an international style that hadn't been seen in that somewhat provincial location, if you compare places like Antwerp, where Rubens worked, and Van Dyck of course came from Antwerp and was an internationally famous court portraitist working in Genoa, London, and other places at that time. Rembrandt never worked outside of Leiden or Amsterdam, except perhaps very short trips within the Netherlands. But he really was famous throughout the country, more so than almost any other artist. The only competition would be an artist most people don't know today, Gerrit van Honthorst from Utrecht, who was a court painter in a rather Italianate style.

But Rembrandt captured the imagination of wealthy Amsterdamers—upper middle-class and minor noble collectors—firstly with his portraits, secondly with history pictures, meaning mythology and biblical paintings. The status of a history painter in the Netherlands or any European country in the seventeenth century greatly exceeded the reputation of portraitists, so they all yearned to be major history painters. That involves a lot of thinking about subject matter and so on. And that really worked for Rembrandt, in good part because he was such an individual, a free thinker, a person who had trouble with authority, in a sense, and was always thinking traditional stories afresh, and doing things in a way which was on the edge of provocative. And also because he was such a serious student of mythology and, above all, the Bible. And Protestant preaching. And of course this is a moment where the Catholic Church has been officially overthrown in the Netherlands and Protestant preachers are advocating that the only proper form of worship is to read the Bible and think about the story for yourself. And Rembrandt really did that. He took this general attitude towards religion to heart, and he would read traditional biblical stories about the Holy Family or whatever it might be, and look at, say, people who were parallels to Saint Joseph, or Mary, or even Christ, in his environment, and think what model would suffice to characterize them. And really retell these traditional stories, in both physically and emotionally naturalistic terms. And that made a great impression on contemporaries.

In addition to Protestant preachers of the day, the Dutch did have a rather sophisticated court. And here's where the nineteenth-century American idea that they were all folksy, middle-class people just like us goes slightly astray, because the nobility was still taken quite seriously in the Netherlands at this time.

The court was in The Hague, which, incidentally, is just three miles from Vermeer's Delft, and one reason that he's such a sophisticated artist is that he had patronage from court circles. And then there was one artistic advisor to the Princes of Orange in The Hague, in particular, named Constantijn Huygens—or "Hiygens," I guess we would say in America—and he's actually the father of Christiaan Huygens, who is famous for discovering the rings of Saturn and other astronomical works. And Constantijn Huygens had been to Italy, he had been a representative of the Dutch consulate in London already in his twenties, and he read a lot of classical literature and French prose, for example. So this had an influence on Rembrandt in approaching stories from ancient authors like Ovid or Roman history. He did a lot of that in his early years, and he also went to Latin school in Leiden. And he only went there briefly and decided he didn't want to be an academic, he wanted to be a painter. But it's very important that he was reading not only the Bible but traditional secular literature from an early age and was strongly influenced by the culture of learning at that great university city of Leiden.

Rembrandt largely confined himself to biblical, mythological pictures—known as history paintings all together—and portraits. He did do some beautiful landscapes. There may be about three dozen known today, so maybe he did fifty in his lifetime. And we have to remember that in addition to painting—we now know some three hundred paintings, so maybe he did four hundred in his lifetime—he was a prolific draftsman and etcher, turning out hundreds of etchings, and he was very experimental about it.

When you look at the Met's exhibition as a whole, you see a great range of subject matter in paintings by ninety-nine artists, plus a few unknowns, in the new catalogue of Dutch paintings. And this really reflects the art market of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands, because this was really the first major private art market. These works were done mostly for private homes. So it's really a question of supply and demand, such as you really can't find in any other European culture until the nineteenth century. We think of, for example, Manet, Courbet, the Impressionists, in nineteenth-century France—is a more analogous situation than you could find anywhere else in Europe in the seventeenth century, other than Holland, which, incidentally, is the major province of the Netherlands and kind of a nickname for the country as a whole. So we see landscapes, portraits, still lifes, marine pictures, views of church interiors, and other kinds of architecture, townscapes, seascapes, flower paintings-a great variety of subject matter. And artists would innovate in subject matter and carve a niche for themselves. There was evidently a great demand for landscape and no one—no historian has really explained it adequately. I think a psychologist might say, "Well, this is the most urban culture in Europe ever seen, so they craved the outdoors," and this is true for the New Yorkers who collected these Dutch pictures.

And then within the broad range of landscape paintings, you get all of these specialists: people who do night scenes, snow scenes, river views, foreign topography, trips to Italy where you see Italian landscape bought by people who never went there but are rather cosmopolitan. And the painter is looking for a niche in the market. When it works, he keeps repeating it, when it doesn't work, he tries something else. It's actually the poorest, least successful artists in the Netherlands, generally, who reveal the greatest range of subject matter. And it's not because they have more imagination; they're trying to succeed more.

The great exploration of nature that we see around the globe in the seventeenth century with—I mean, after all, the Dutch were in, say, 1620-something—in China, South America, New York, the Arctic Circle, throughout Europe and the Mediterranean. These people really got around and they were bringing back plants and occasionally people from other climates, and writing books about them. So this was a great age of exploring the globe as a whole, and especially nature, and all of that is reflected in the paintings they collected.

I think Rembrandt and Vermeer are the two artists that appeal to modern people the most. And in the case of Rembrandt it's probably his profundity. These are quiet individuals in his pictures who are really sitting and reflecting on something. And there is a sort of analogy in the case of Vermeer, where people don't seem to be thinking so hard, but they're in tranquil domestic situations—usually a young woman alone in a rather spare domestic environment, her own home, which is well appointed, looks peaceful. And of course the way he paints is—his style, with its geometry, its restrained color, and its beautiful light, which makes everything look suspended in time—creates an impression of, well, not drama at all, but its opposite: a kind of peaceful tranquility. It's a mood, rather than active thought. And both of those are about inner life. And modern life is so much about the frantic moving—you know, get a job, rush to work, the constant input of all kinds of media, the radio screaming at you, and so many alternatives and stimuli in the environment. And I think, you know, just like going to the beach with an easy book and relaxing and doing nothing for a day is something that modern people might do once in three hundred days. And when they look at a Rembrandt or a Vermeer or, in some cases, a quiet Dutch landscape or seascape, they get that out of it. And it's familiar enough to identify with and unfamiliar enough to represent an ideal from another age that they might like to go to, whether it's in a book or a picture.

I'm Walter Liedtke, curator of European Paintings at the Metropolitan Museum, and I've been talking about my exhibition The Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opened on September 18, 2007, and runs through January 6, 2008, and shows all of our 228 Dutch paintings from the seventeenth century, of which you normally only see about seventy. A collection of great breadth and depth, it's one of the few collections in this great museum where you can show everything we have and wish you could see it every day.

Exhibitions (80)

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David Roentgen: Apollo Clock
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David Roentgen: Nemours Clock
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Poiret: King of Fashion
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Gustave Courbet
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Vincent van Gogh: The Letters
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Sean Scully: Wall of Light
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