REMBRANDT – a funny old master


Hiding behind the colour, the action, the noise and the Where’s Wally-like crowd of the painting most visitors to Amsterdam come to see is a detail I love.

Peering over the shoulders of those who’d paid to take their places in the group portrait is a freeloader. You can only see a dark floppy hat, the right eye, and the hint of a bulbous nose, but anyone who’s seen Rembrandt’s many self portraits would recognise the master himself, sneaking into his own masterpiece, The Nightwatch, in the Rijksmuseum.

Nachtwacht - Rembrandt

I love it. It says to me that the man had a sense of humour.

Since football legend Johan Cruyff retired to Barcelona, Rembrandt and Van Gogh have returned to their rightful places as Amsterdam’s most famous former citizens. While we may admire Vincent’s work and sympathise with his tortured life, we couldn’t imagine he would have been much fun to hang out with.

Rembrandt on the other hand was more of a party animal.

His parents enrolled him at Leiden University, but there is no evidence he ever attended any lectures. Fair enough – he was only fourteen at the time. Leiden celebrates him with rather awkward sculpture in a square in front of his birthplace.

The young man depicted looking at the easel doesn’t appear to be having a great time, and indeed the young Rembrandt soon left Leiden for the bright lights of Amsterdam.

He married Saskia, daughter of the former mayor of the Friesian town of Leeuwarden.

Mevrouw T and I visited the church in the village of St Annaparochie where the wedding took place on June 22nd 1634. (NOTE: That’s the date of the wedding, not of our visit.) The original church was rebuilt after a fire, but is still an attractive circular structure. The statue of Rembrandt and Saskia outside it is less impressive. I’ve deleted the photo I took.

The Amsterdam house in which they lived in the Jodenbreestraat has now been restored as the excellent Rembrandthuis museum. I enjoy going there even more than the Rijksmuseum. It is much smaller of course, but it also tells a story. When the family was forced to move out, Rembrandt’s effects were sold to pay his gambling debts. But using the catalogues from the sale, curators have been able to reconstruct the rooms in which he lived and refurnish them with reproductions of the original furnishings.


And I love the demonstrations of etching and paint mixing in the actual studio in which the master worked his magic.

Surrounding the recent celebrations for what would have been Rembrandt’s 400th birthday, the Rijksmuseum organised an early morning breakfast. They provided the food the master reputedly ate – raw herrings and white bread, with the modern addition of coffee.

The event was free, and as the national Dutch television news reported, if it’s free the Dutch will push and shove to get there first. At the head of the queue were Mevrouw T and your correspondent. A microphone was shoved in my face and I was asked to give Dutch TV viewers my opinion of the unusual culinary combination. My verdict? ‘So long as you don’t drop the herring in the coffee, it’s fine.’

I hope the master would have shared the joke.


Filed under Art, Holland

4 responses to “REMBRANDT – a funny old master

  1. Angela Highstead

    On my first visit to Der Nederlands, Dutch friends here in ‘Aussie’ gave me money to try Hollandse nieuwe haring at an outside van – head back and down it; was the instruction. Must admit frites met mayonaise in a paper cone was much more acceptable, especially as the weather was cool and crispy. Always love the column.


    • Angela, that raw herring may be an acquired taste, but I’ve somehow managed to acquire it. Enjoyed one for lunch yesterday. Those frites with mayonnaise are excellent too, though I try to limit my intake to keep my cholesterol at an acceptable level.

  2. Angela Highstead

    Yes. (Sigh), cholesterol. My experience was forty years ago.

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