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Directed by Rembrandt

2 March - 26 May 2024

Directed by Rembrandt

Exhibition: 2 March - 26 May 2024

Rembrandt was a masterful storyteller. But instead of words, he told his stories in pictures. He carefully ‘directed’ his characters, using tricks from the world of theater. In spring 2024, Museum Rembrandthuis will host the exhibition Directed by Rembrandt. It showcases the close connection between Rembrandt’s art and Amsterdam’s theater scene. It is the first exhibition to portray Rembrandt as a director.

The Rembrandt House Museum will be borrowing several masterpieces for the exhibition, including the painting Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife (1655) from Berlin’s GemĂ€ldegalerie, returning for three months to the place it was originally painted.

Rembrandt: telling stories in pictures

The exhibition Directed by Rembrandt takes visitors into the ‘producer’s office’ and explores the ways in which Rembrandt ‘directed’ his compositions. Rembrandt was keenly aware that selecting the right dramatic moment from a story was key to a painting’s success. Painters often chose a turning point in a story – a concept known in theater terms as ‘peripeteia’. This is the decisive moment when the main or other character gains a profound insight, often prompted by a sudden event. Many artists imbued their paintings with drama by depicting a character’s emotional outburst after this turning point. Rembrandt, however, preferred to depict the preceding moment– just before the climax. This approach draws the viewer into the moment, creating a sense of empathy and emotional engagement. A fantastic example of this is his painting of Susanna, on loan from The Mauritshuis (The Hague). Rembrandt depicts a nude Susanna, stepping into the pool for a bath, when she suddenly realizes she is being spied on by two men with unwholesome intentions.

Rembrandt looking in the mirror

As a director of his stories, Rembrandt applied a variety of techniques that were also used in theater. One of them, which he explored from a very early age, was to look at facial expressions: he would act in front of the mirror and reproduce his reflection in etchings. He also learned about the universal hand gestures used by orators and actors to emphasize their words, and visited theaters and other venues to study costumes. Rembrandt had a predilection for dramatic lighting, and his pupils adopted this penchant for drama: they would occasionally model for each other in complicated poses. Visitors will learn about these and other aspects of Rembrandt’s role as a director through etchings, drawings, and paintings. Three of his masterpieces (Susanna, Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife, and The Hundred Guilder Print) offer a more in-depth look at how Rembrandt employed theater techniques and to what effect.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1609-1669), Selfportrait, Study of amazement, 1630
Museum Het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, the theatre-goer

The exhibition also touches on Rembrandt’s visits to the theater. In Rembrandt’s time, Amsterdam’s theater scene was undergoing drastic change. Until the early seventeenth century, theater was a privilege of the elite and was performed in exclusive clubs known as chambers of rhetoric. The theater experience of the less wealthy urban population was limited to sporadic street performances, such as during the autumn fair where charlatans and international touring theater companies would perform. But this changed dramatically with the opening of the first theater in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, in January 1638. From then on, audiences could see performances as often as twice a week. There were three circles: expensive box seats, standard gallery seats, and cheap standing room.

Rembrandt visited the theater, drew actors, and became acquainted with playwrights and theater directors. Moreover, he lived close to the area where the bulk of the theater repertoire was generated. The island of Vlooienburg, now the Waterlooplein, was home to Sephardic Jews who brought Spanish theater to Amsterdam and translated it into Dutch. These pieces enjoyed resounding success.

Exhibition at The Amsterdam City Archives

At the same time as the exhibition Directed by Rembrandt, the Amsterdam City Archives will be organizing an exhibition in its Treasure Room. This exhibition highlights the wider context of the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam, its playwrights and actors, and its role in the city.

Publication

The exhibition Directed by Rembrandt will be accompanied by a richly illustrated publication with articles by contributors including Leonore van Sloten, Senior Curator at Rembrandt House Museum, and Dr. Frans Blom, Scholar of Historical Dutch Literature and Language at the University of Amsterdam, who has extensively researched the history of the theater and the archives of the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam.

The exhibition is curated by Leonore van Sloten (Senior Curator at Rembrandt House Museum).