Britain’s love affair with one of history’s greatest artists will be explored in the major Festival exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery this summer. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master is the first exhibition to tell the exceptionally rich story of how Rembrandt’s work in Britain has enraptured and inspired collectors, artists and writers over the past 400 years. This major new exhibition, which will only be shown in Edinburgh, will bring together key works by Rembrandt which remain in British collections, as well as treasures that have left the country. Some of the exhibits have never been on public display before, while others return to Britain for the first time in decades, some after even a century or more.
The genius of Rembrandt (1606-69) is so universally admired, and his imagery so ubiquitous, that he has become a global brand like few other artists in history; yet no nation has demonstrated such a passionate, and sometimes eccentric, enthusiasm for Rembrandt’s (or indeed any artist’s) works. As a result, there is a wealth of paintings, drawings and prints by Rembrandt in British collections, and the number of his works that have been here at some point in their history is staggering, surpassing any other country apart from the Netherlands, where they originated.
The arrival of an early Self-portrait (c.1629), which was presented to Charles I before 1633, makes an impressive starting point for the exhibition (it was the first painting by Rembrandt to leave Holland), but did little to anticipate the level of adulation his work would inspire in the following century and which had become a kind of mania among British collectors around 1750. Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery Of The Master will bring together 15 major works in oil (and two further oils attributed to Rembrandt, and two more from his workshop), as well as an extensive selection of 15 outstanding drawings and more than 20 prints, including some of his most celebrated etchings, such as Christ Presented to the People (1655), The Three Trees (1643) and Portrait of Jan Six (1647).
Great paintings such as Belshazzar’s Feast (c.1636-38) from the National Gallery London, and Girl at a Window (1645) from Dulwich Picture Gallery, will be shown alongside star works that are now overseas, such as The Mill (1645/8) from the National Gallery in Washington, which left Britain when it was sold to a US collector for the staggering sum of £100,000 in 1911.
The exhibition will also reveal the profound impact of Rembrandt’s art on the British imagination, by exploring the wide range of native artists whose work has been inspired by the Dutch master right up to the present day.
Among the early arrivals in Britain were Rembrandt’s only portraits of ‘British’ sitters, Reverend Johannes Elison and his wife Maria Bockenolle (both 1634), which will be on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Although they were painted in Amsterdam, the Boston portraits depict a Dutch couple who lived in Norwich, and the paintings were in Britain by 1680. Such expensive and ostentatious portraits are uncommon for clerics, and rare in Rembrandt’s work; they presumably reflect the status of the couple’s son, a successful merchant, who probably commissioned them. They are one of only three pairs of full-length portraits painted by Rembrandt, and have not been seen in the UK since 1929.
A few years after the visit from the Norwich minister and his wife, Rembrandt was again busy exploring English subjects. A group of four drawings depicting English views has been much debated and is exhibited here together for the first time. The drawings, in which the locations – St Albans Cathedral, Windsor Castle and London with Old St Paul’s – are clearly identifiable, are of similar size and executed in pen, brown ink and wash. On stylistic grounds all four drawings must have been created in Rembrandt’s studio in about 1640, but controversies have centred around the questions of whether they are (all) by the hand of Rembrandt, and if they were drawn from prints or ‘from life’, which would infer, tantalisingly, that Rembrandt might have visited England.
From about 1720, the steady flow of major paintings by Rembrandt, such as the beautiful and tender Landscape with the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1647) (which will be on loan to this exhibition from the National Gallery in Dublin), grew into an enormous surge. By the 1770s Rembrandt mania was in full swing, pushing demand and prices to extraordinary levels. Even so, British collectors still succeeded in bringing prized pictures into the country, including An Old Woman Reading (1655), on loan here from the Buccleuch collection, and A Woman in Bed (Sarah) (1647), which is now in the National Galleries of Scotland.
Rembrandt: Britain’s Discovery of the Master
Christian Tico Seifert with Peter Black, Stephanie S. Dickey, Patrick Elliott, Donato Esposito, M.J. Ripps and Jonathan Yarker
176pp; 140 illustrations; Paperback; £22; ISBN 9781911054191
More information on: www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/rembrandt-britains-discovery-master