Rembrandt's Amsterdam Today
by Marlene Fanta Shyer
(February 17, 2005) The rooflines are what you'll remember: rows of houses shoulder to shoulder, each with a distinct gable setting it apart from its neighbor. Those and the watery halos of the 165 canals the city is known for, with their little bridges studded with light after dark, are what will always speak of Amsterdam.
It was through these streets that Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn walked during his life in the seventeenth century, and the year 2006 will mark the 400th anniversary of his birth. It should be a good year for the culturally aware among us--and wouldn't that encompass most of us in Larchmont?--to visit his city and nearby Leiden, where he was born. Each month will be filled with festivals and events that celebrate the artist, his life and his art.
Rembrandt's work was celebrated for its chiaroscuro, his extraordinary contrasts of brightness and dark, and ironically, his life was also a mixture of light and shadow: Along with intermittent success and prosperity, he endured the death of four of his five children, bankruptcy and the loss of his two wives. A housekeeper, who bore one of his children, threatened to sue him (he had her committed to an asylum in retaliation.) He did manage to buy a substantial two-story house--a third story was added later--in which he lived for twenty years and which has been immaculately restored. His etchings are displayed on its walls and in 2006, some of the paintings created under this roof will be back for the first time in many years.
During the time of his bankruptcy, every item he owned was sold, so not one piece in the house on view actually belonged to him. From the bills of sale made at the time, the recreation of the interior was possible with furnishings that are authentically seventeenth century and duplicate the originals. There is a replica of his box bed, his kitchen utensils, the table at which he took his meals. To stand in his studio, with its spears, skins, tortoise shells and plaster busts, in which he painted his masterpieces, to look out of the same windows through which he saw the light that illuminated his canvases, is probably in itself worth the admission price.
At the Rijks Museum in the "Masterpieces" exhibit, his are the centerpiece of the collection. The most famous of these, "The Jewish Bride" and "The Night Watch" hang here, in an exhibition that also includes the work of Jan Steen, Frans Hals and Vermeer. To be within a foot of these timeless works of art is a blue-chip experience and next year there will be many more chances like it. In his lifetime the artists created some 300 paintings and many will be recalled from museums around the world, and shown here and in other shows around the city.
Leiden, less than forty minutes by train from the center of Amsterdam, will weigh in with its own three exhibitions. Rembrandt lived here for the first twenty-five years of his life and the emphasis in this city is on the young artist. The Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal is located in a 17th Century building and here are paintings believed to be of his family members; a walking tour is planned to include a look at the house in which he was born, his school, and Swanenburgh's studio, where the young Rembrandt spent many hours. As a part of the festival, a city square will be transformed into a bit of 17th Century Leiden.
In the unlikely event one has not seen enough of the artist's work in both cities, there's a gallery of his paintings at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which is the fourth largest in Europe. Here's where one can not only view museum-quality art but also throw dice at a casino, have a shampoo at a spa or watch the kids play in the airport's playground. With 55,000 employees and every conceivable service and product available under its roof, it is a weatherproof dream city in itself.
Rembrandt (known always by his first rather than his last name since that is how most often he signed his canvases) might be surprised not only to see his work hanging at an air terminal but at the Americanization of modern Amsterdam. These days, everyone speaks English here, eats KFC, bagels and burgers, shops at Old Navy. On the other hand, the city is still very European. There's smoking allowed in every restaurant, cold cuts are common breakfast fare, 400,000 bicyclists known here as "flying bombers" zip along without helmets, and same sex marriage is a civil right. There are outdoor cafes, like the popular terraces of DeJaren, where one can sit undisturbed with a glass of beer, maybe the local Grolsch if not a Heinekens, and watch the boats on the Kloveniersburgwal. And of course, as in the days of van Rijn, there are cobblestones, ancient churches and windmills. There is a flower market that features Technicolor flowers, especially tulips, however you'll have them--real, painted on glass, in bulbs, seeds, or carved from wood.
Of course, one must not forget the city's other famous native son, Vincent van Gogh, known more for sunflowers than tulips, represented by 206 paintings at his eponymous museum. Its famous native daughter, Anne Frank, is remembered here in a museum as well. A walk through the rooms in which she lived is surely harrowing, and will be engraved on your heart long after the trip is over.
In a city of 32,500 hotel beds, 70 glass-topped sightseeing canal boats, 260 city trams, and Rembrandt everywhere you look, with a flying time of six or seven hours from New York, an art-lover from Larchmont can hardly go wrong in Holland's favorite city.
Marlene Fanta Shyer writes for adults and children - and sometimes about Larchmont, where she lived for many years. Reach her through http://www.marleneshyer.com. More info on Holland at: www.holland.com or www.goholland.com