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Rembrandt’s Four Senses – His first paintings

20 January - 16 June 2024

Rembrandt’s Four Senses – His first paintings

Exhibition: 20 January - 16 June 2024

Museum De Lakenhal is celebrating its 150th anniversary with the presentation of Rembrandt’s Four Senses – His First Paintings. Rembrandt created this series of paintings, comprising his earliest known work, when he was around 18 years old and living in Leiden. In addition to the Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight) from Museum De Lakenhal’s permanent collection, the presentation features three works from The Leiden Collection, New York: Stone Operation (Allegory of Touch), Three Musicians (Allegory of Hearing) and Unconscious Patient (Allegory of Smell). No trace has ever been found of the fifth painting in this series, the Allegory of Taste. The four works will be on display at the museum for 150 days.

A master in the making

The series of allegories depicting the senses clearly demonstrates that Rembrandt has always been an original and experimental artist. Particularly since the sixteenth century, the senses tended to be personified in art by elegant female figures, accompanied by fixed attributes. Rembrandt, however, favored a different approach by opting for everyday scenes with which anyone could identify. Although not all aspects of these early works are equally successful, they do evince the emergence of precisely those qualities that in time would turn Rembrandt into such an innovative and celebrated painter: among others, his singular use of chiaroscuro, his bold brushwork, and his unique eye for interaction between everyday people through an uncanny ability to capture their typical, characteristic expressions.

Rembrandt (1606-1669), The Spectacles Seller, ca. 1624. Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden. Purchased with support of the Rembrandt Association, Mondriaan Fund, Community of Interest in Museum De Lakenhal and the Municipality of Leiden in 2012.

Fertile artistic climate

Rembrandt’s Senses occupy a significant position in the artistic history of Leiden. Museum De Lakenhal, which will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2024, aims to shine a spotlight on the local developments and cultural connections that have characterized the city’s illustrious past. The four Senses will be on display at the very heart of the permanent collection, surrounded by other works produced by the young Rembrandt, alongside several paintings by his friend and rival Jan Lievens as well as his star pupil Gerrit Dou. Musical Company, completed in 1626, two years or so after the Senses, reveals the speed at which Rembrandt developed as an artist — both technically and formally. Travelers Resting, which was painted some five years later by an anonymous artist from Rembrandt’s circle in Leiden, is a striking example of the successful application of chiaroscuro in its dramatic contrasts between light and dark. The fertile nature of Leiden’s artistic climate in this particular period clearly transpires in the creative exchange among Rembrandt’s contemporaries. For example, the subtly executed headscarf worn by Jan Lievens’ Old Woman Reading must surely have served as a source of inspiration for Rembrandt, while the face of the young Jan Lievens can even be identified not only in Rembrandt’s Three Musicians, but also in his Musical Company.

A first for Leiden and Museum De Lakenhal

Already when Museum De Lakenhal first opened its doors in 1874, the city of Leiden felt the absence of works by its most famous ‘son’, Rembrandt van Rijn. A crucial moment in the museum’s history was therefore undoubtedly its purchase of The Spectacles Seller in 2012. This panel, one of Rembrandt’s Senses, is a prime illustration of the master’s work as an emerging artist during his Leiden period. In fact, his studio must have been located just a stone’s throw from where Museum De Lakenhal stands today. Two of Rembrandt’s SensesStone Operation and Three Musicians — joined The Leiden Collection of Franco-American collector Thomas Kaplan in 2007. The third, Unconscious Patient, was not discovered until it appeared at an auction in New Jersey in 2015. It was bought by Kaplan a year later. Since then, the four paintings have been displayed as a series at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 2016 and the Rembrandthuis in Amsterdam in 2016-2017. The upcoming reunion of Rembrandt’s Senses in the very city of their creation is therefore a first, both for Leiden and for Museum De Lakenhal.