REVIEW | Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection – Hermitage Amsterdam

For the longest time, I’ve always wanted to see the proper extent of the New York-based The Leiden Collection, the largest private collection of works by Rembrandt and Dutch Golden Age artists. Celebrating 20 years of collecting this year, it’s a collection I’ve admired greatly for its devotion to making private collections accessible to all. They also lent their Vermeer to the Rijksmuseum show.

By a stroke of luck, out comes Rembrandt and his Contemporaries at the Hermitage Amsterdam, a fabulous showcase featuring 35 works of exceptional quality and taste. This is a collection that prides itself on collecting works that speak for themselves and so, with a simple layout, each artist gets their own room/section, negating our competitive obsession to search for the ‘better’ artist.

The space given to each painting is generous, fostering a truly contemplative environment to appreciate each and every brushstroke. Lighting is dim and often enhances the luminous qualities of divine light and candlelit scenes (notably those of Godefridus Schalcken). The former entails a strong comparison between Ferdinand Bol’s Angel Appearing to Elijah and Carel Fabritius’ Hagar and the Angel, the only privately-owned painting by the artist (we know of 13 so far, rarer than Vermeer!).

Easily the most exciting object is Rembrandt’s smallest known painting and his only grisaille in private hands. Once owned by Andrew W. Mellon, who had a special travel case made for it, this tiny, signed, oil on paper, bust-length portrait of a bearded man bears all the characteristics of the master’s energetic draughtsmanship, thick brushstrokes, and effects of light. Although it appears like an oil sketch, it seems Rembrandt considered it worthy as a final product.

Minerva in Her Study is another important highlight, and I was glad to have requested to see Ferdinand Bol’s close drawn copy at the Rijksmuseum a couple days prior.

One of the surprises to come out of this show is Rembrandt’s last pupil, Arent (Aert) de Gelder, whom a lot of visitors had seemingly never heard of. His aesthetic followed Rembrandt very closely, but the oncoming softer styles of the 18th century lead to a curious mix of manners in how he depicts clothing, some bearing harshly scratched lines, others sensitively painted as if using pastels.

This is an exhibition that demands very little from the viewer, except for patience and an open mind. It reveals that the Dutch Golden Age wasn’t just the Rembrandt style and his followers. Instead, it was a mix of hugely successful individual approaches to portraying historicising subject matter, some bearing his trademark dark lighting (Gerbrand van den Eeckhout), others as colourful as a tapestry (Willem van Mieris), or both (Caspar Netscher)!

As a bonus, a corridor upstairs helpfully illustrates the network of painters connected to Rembrandt himself, and those outside of it (his contemporaries), including maps of Leiden and Amsterdam with their addresses! This is a wonderful inclusion that quickly shows how small these city-wide networks and assimilations really were.

Rembrandt and his Contemporaries: History Paintings from The Leiden Collection runs until 27 August 2023 at the Hermitage Amsterdam,


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