The name ‘Rembrandt’ is one entrenched in tradition, status, and artistic study. A true Old Master at the heart of the Dutch Golden Age, and undoubtedly one of the greatest artists of all time, his works may seem inaccessible to those of us unversed in art history or practice. Yet as the recent Young Rembrandt exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum shows us, the profound opposite is true.
Forced to close their doors a mere three weeks after the unveiling, the museum and curators have taken it upon themselves to transfer the exhibition from physical to virtual. Via their website and a recent BBC documentary with expert Simon Schama, visitors from around the world can gain insight into the earliest works in Rembrandt’s career as a qualified painter. Spanning a ten-year journey, the same amount of time taken to prepare the exhibition, the curation presents a surprisingly heartfelt and inspiring story; from the reality of 1624’s young Rembrandt van Rijn, a struggling, unknown artist, we are led through his trials and failures on the way to becoming the Rembrandt of 1634, a growing commercial and cultural success on his way to mastery. Showcasing these early struggles and shortcomings throughout, the exhibition cuts to the core of Rembrandt’s work: as Schama puts it, ‘his instinct for common humanity’.
On a practical level, interacting with the online exhibition feels a little distant at first. Viewing artistic works in real life offers a chance to feel the atmosphere they create and see the textures and colours come to life beyond how they appear in prints or photographs. Though this may feel lacking at first, this downside of the virtual tour fades away with ease as we set off on Rembrandt’s journey: the careful layout of the selected paintings, sketches, etchings, and more, alongside the accessibly phrased accompanying explanations, takes us through the variety of material with refreshing clarity. Simple yet engaging passages tell us that, though to the amateur eye, such early paintings as the bold and colourful The Spectacles Seller (1624) seem perfectly pleasant to look at, on closer inspection the anatomy, perspective, and general technique are perhaps a little clumsy. The practical focus on explaining Rembrandt’s etching process, sketching style and compositional experimentation make this exhibition feel accessible to all and helps bring the pieces to life as we come to better understand them. From the very beginning, we can sense the humble, dedicated young man behind the artwork, even without being physically present to see it.
Moving through this chronological timeline, we are shown how Rembrandt’s artistic influences had a profound effect on his rapidly improving style. A lovely comparison of the first and second plates of the etching, Descent from the Cross and his Christ before Pilate (1633) highlights to visitors Rembrandt’s persistency, but also how his style evolved thanks to those around him – his collaborator at the time, Jan Van Vliet, helped perfect the plates. This breadth of context not only aids understanding of Rembrandt’s development but is also a reminder of how important human connection and exchange was for his artistic improvement – a particularly welcome thread of the exhibition in our current time of separation. The wider storytelling gives us all the chance to connect and take real inspiration from such an overwhelmingly human journey to success.
Looking from even the earliest paintings on display, that emotional sensitivity lays the foundation: the anatomy may not be exact, the perspective a little off, but depth of feeling and drama is clear in every piece of work. Schama’s documentary tour offers additional insight into some of the artworks as curated in the museum, from the complex moral tension in Tobit Accusing Anna of Stealing the Kid (1626) to the raw emotion and fierce empathy depicted in his acclaimed Judas Repentant Returning the Pieces of Silver (1629). Dramatic emotions are conjured by dark lighting, mirrored in the exhibition’s physical layout, and develop through his Biblical commissions, portraiture, and striking etchings into the trademark Rembrandt style. His work is boundless in its display of sympathy for his subjects: the wistfulness of old age, the physicality of the female form, the mortality of Christ, the coarseness of the common beggar, all this is etched raw into Rembrandt’s works without falsity or idealisation. His fame and renown become at once understandable by the end of this exhibition, with its show of dedication, growth, but most importantly human empathy.
In this period of external crisis, taking time to explore this moving display was a pleasure, no matter the format. By putting in the effort to curate this exhibition online, the Ashmolean allows people from all over, expert or amateur, to experience one of the greatest artists coming to life. In doing so, they embody that ever-present spirit of Rembrandt’s works: common humanity.