It’s been 350 years since Rembrandt van Rijn’s death and institutions like the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University are marking the occasion with exhibitions detailing the prolific Dutch artist’s work.
The Agnes’ exhibition, Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges, focuses on the artist’s early years and the works of his peers and students in his home city Leiden, Netherlands. Jacquelyn N. Coutré, formerly the Bader curator and researcher of European Art at the Agnes, curated the exhibition, which holds four authenticated paintings by Rembrandt, the largest number of works by the artist in a public Canadian collection. “Rembrandt and his circle are the jewel of the historical European collection at the Agnes, so we thought this [year] was a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that fact.”
The large Rembrandt collection at the Queen’s gallery is thanks to the late Alfred Bader, a Queen’s alumni who was a chemist, entrepreneur and collector of European art. Dr. Bader and his family have had a “transformative impact” on the Agnes, Dr. Coutré says. He gave his first painting to the gallery in 1967, and over several decades gifted more than 500 objects. “Alfred was always attracted to Rembrandt and his circle,” she adds. “There is this really humanizing aspect to the artist’s interpretation. He captured emotion so powerfully through gesture and pose, facial expression.”
In putting together Leiden circa 1630: Rembrandt Emerges, Dr. Coutré wanted to highlight the Bader collection, but also highlight pieces from other Canadian galleries. A number of works were loaned from institutions such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Dr. Coutré has since left Queen’s and now oversees the collection of northern European paintings and sculptures at the Art Institute of Chicago. She says location was on her mind – a “burning question” – as she planned the Rembrandt exhibition. Leiden was a unique city in the 17th century; with one of the oldest universities in Europe, it held an international reputation for scholarship, but was also a major textile producer. “Having this at the back of my mind when I began to look at some of Rembrandt’s early works, I noticed … there’s really a different approach to clothing and its weight and an attention to the shimmer of embroidery,” she says. “He also really does pay loving attention to books when appropriate as well. So I began to wonder if that was part of him simply absorbing what was around him in his native city of Leiden.”
The exhibition is small at 33 works in total. Dr. Coutré says she wants anyone who visits to walk away with a sense of the vibrancy of Rembrandt’s hometown. There are two multimedia components that can help with that: an interactive map of 17th-century Leiden featuring information about the artists who lived there, and a short film on the city as it is today. “I hope this exhibition demonstrates what a fascinating and stimulating environment it must have been for a painter like Rembrandt to work in,” she says.
Dr. Coutré also hopes visitors spend time with the prints, paintings and the single Rembrandt drawing to see that he was still learning during those years in Leiden. “We often think about him being a fully formed master, but some of the prints in particular demonstrate that he was still working to master the technique … and the range of prints on display demonstrate that he did slowly master the process. And I think that’s important, to think about a master learning and growing and how that happens.”
Leiden circa 16:30: Rembrandt Emerges opened in August and runs until December 1. It will then go on a national tour, visiting the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton (March 7–June 14, 2020), the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina (August 22, 2020–January 3, 2021) and the Art Gallery of Hamilton (February 13–May 30, 2021).