CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rembrandt’s insiders and outsiders: domesticity and itineracy at the boundaries

Exhibition: 8 November - 16 December 2006


Nanette Salomon, curator of the Art Gallery at the College of Staten Island/CUNY and professor art history at the College of Staten Island/CUNY

Museum information

Prints from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Staten Island Museum and a private New York collection.

The omnipresent media has produced a modern and very current preoccupation with the carefully controlled and patrolled notion of insiders and outsiders. This comes in the form of a “homeland security,” the status of illegal aliens, immigration regulation, and border patrol and the strange term made natural of “guest workers.” Moreover, natural disasters have left huge numbers of underclass citizens without homes, stimulating another arm to this discourse as they are “sent out” in a modern day diaspora or provided with “mobile homes,” a strange hybrid of home and away. The size and gravity of this discourse have “given us eyes to see” its currency and visual form in the early modern period of the Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century. Rembrandt’s etchings in particular gave form to managing the dialectic of insiders and outsiders as a sign of what the writer Benedict Anderson calls an “imagined community.”

Sixteenth-century Netherlandish genre prints introduced the theme of itinerants as one of the earliest subjects of this newly popularized art media. These wanderers could be traveling students, drifting beggars, roving gamblers, charlatans or a host of other poor but colorful vagabond types. As an identifiable, definable social faction this group’s existence surely had some basis in the real conditions of the day. But, as is in accordance with the nature of all representation, what we see are mythologized images. In this case they are adventurers who are masterfully portrayed as a class of figures with tremendous vicarious and exotic appeal. The prints share this fascination with popular European picaresque literature of the day as can be seen in, for example, the work of Cervantes. Northern European artists such as Lucas van Leyden and Albrecht Dűrer identified this theme in art as one associated particularly with the medium of prints and it remained popular as such well into the seventeenth century.

It has often been noted that around the middle of the seventeenth century, Dutch art produced bourgeois domesticity as a new and modern subject. In its very earliest stages it, too, was developed within the print media but it soon became the staple of Dutch genre paintings and prints. What has not been sufficiently appreciated in the scholarship about this period is precisely the connection between the two concepts of domesticity and itinerancy; that is that they are basically two sides of the same coin so to speak. Once we realize this, it is easy to see how Rembrandt not only understood this connection but developed it as an organizing artistic and ideological structure in many of his etchings. Indeed, Rembrandt’s print oeuvre reveals a consistent intrigue with the meeting of domestic and itinerant populations.

In a variety of subject types he pictures the often dramatic, always socially meaningful engagement of insiders and outsiders. In his prints Rembrandt typically portrays both the home, seen from the outside next to an open landscape – with figures from the both worlds meeting at the threshold. His compositions often have a dense architectural side and an open side with lots of light indicating not just the space of the outsiders but its vast or limitless nature. Rembrandt drew many of his ideas from contemporary life, but also from the Bible which abounds with subjects of this nature. These include among others “Abraham Entertaining the Angels” , “Abraham Casting Out Hagar and Ishmael” , “The Good Samaritan” , “The Return of the Prodigal Son” from the Bible, and “Three Oriental Figures” , “The Strolling Musicians” , “The Rat Catcher”, and “Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door” from contemporary life. This list of subjects identifies those Rembrandt prints where the engagement of insiders and outsiders is explicitly part of the narrative. Many others work the theme in more subtle configurations.

Our exhibition displays a full variety of ways in which Rembrandt developed this concept. Among the different narratives are the wonderful Madonna and Child placed in a contemporary Dutch interior with St. Joseph peering in through a window from the outside. Rembrandt’s very dramatic portrayal of Dr. Faustus allows for the entry of the outsider as glowing magic disk of light. Finally, light itself, used to such great dramatic and Baroque effect under Rembrandt’s etcher’s needle, could figure the outside world in several of his portraits and self-portraits. The sitter is characteristically positioned indoors by a large window that brilliantly illuminates the scene but also stands for the vast outdoors.

Early seventeenth-century Dutch prints that preceded Rembrandt, which depict either the domestic or itinerant subject and provide the context for his innovations are also included in the exhibition. Finally, the exhibition shows works by Rembrandt’s contemporary Adriaen van Ostade, an important artist, who was influenced by him and whose prints also interpreted this subject. The prints that were made before and those made after Rembrandt together work to situate his particular contribution and vision to the artistic expression of this socially significant topic.