Amsterdam from Rembrandt to Van Gogh

I guess I’m just a Philistine sometimes.  Especially when it comes to Rembrandt.

After drinking my fill of the tiny Vermeer masterpieces in the Rijksmuseum, we moseyed down the hall a few steps to inspect the grandiose masterpieces of the man who has been awarded the accolades, who is seen not simply as one of the great of Dutch painters, but one of the masters of the Western world.  A man who’s very name is shorthand for “great artist.”  I was determined that on this trip to the renovated museum, flooded with summer’s light, I would come to understand what all the fuss was about.

It didn’t happen.


We sat ourselves down first in front of Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild, a painting I grew up with via television ads for Dutch Masters cigars, not to mention window displays in all the drug and stationery stores on main street.  Luckily, those days are far enough gone that I retain only the vaguest memories that might have interfered with a fresh look.

After half an hour of intense scrutiny and desultory conversation, after consulting the printed guide the Museum supplies, I felt better informed.  I could see the strength of the composition, the way the repeating horizontals–in the row of the men’s faces themselves, in the table, in the door paneling behind them, combine to create a freize-like effect that is itself ennobling.

I appreciate the mise-en-scène, the unmistakable sensation of being an interloper, of having suddenly interrupted these important fellows in their deliberations.  I had searched each man’s face, and marveled at the individuality of character and of response to the intrusion that Rembrandt has modeled in each.  It is remarkable that I felt I might know their personalities, know who to supplicate, who to avoid, were I coming hat in hand to ask for their judgement.

But somehow, none of this added up to a judgement that Rembrandt is one of the pinnacles of Western Art.  Perhaps The Night Watch will offer some insight.


Grandeur fairly bursts from this painting.  The arrangement of bodies, of faces, of lances, rifles, and flags all direct the eye to the focal point of the figure of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq.  His black suit and crimson sash are put in counterpoint by the golden glow of his lieutenant’s uniform and the dress worn by the girl behind them.  As with the Syndics, there is plentiful opportunity for psychological speculation in the faces of the company.  There’s business aplenty to wonder about and give drama to the occasion.  And the drummer on the extreme right looks out at the viewer, once more inviting the spectator to be a part of the scene, at least imaginatively.

The grand room in with The Night Watch hangs is replete with other examples of commissioned group portraits that celebrate similar martial companies.  Even the quickest comparison reveals the inferiority of the compositions by Pieter Isaacsz and Joachim von Sandrart.  They are static and lifeless; they actually added a note of cacophony to my experience of The Night Watch: instead of just seeing the militia assembling, I could almost hear them.  This is a tableau, an assemblage of people who have personalities and purpose, and if the exact interpretation of the tableau isn’t immediately apparent, the dynamism of the composition at least ivies speculation.

(In an attempt to tease out some speculation I recently watched Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, the documentary version of his feature film Nightwatching.  The two films apparently share a great deal of footage.  The conceit is that The Night Watch is an accusation of a conspiracy to murder the former captain of this militia; the evidence is unconvincing when it isn’t ludicrous.  Still, I learned a but about the historical moment, and was tipped off to the fact that there is indeed a shot being fired: the small, faceless figure with the helmet adorned with oak leaves is the shooter, and the fiery discharge of his musket can be seen behind the lieutenant’s yellow hat.  And there is a second small girl, nearly completely hidden but for her greenish dress, behind the golden girl.  There: you’ve now gotten most of what I got out of this movie.)

In the end, though I think I gained a new appreciation for Rembrandt’s art, I came away from the Rijksmuseum still unconvinced that he is among the greatest artists in the Western canon.  Call me a Philistine.

Our visit to the Van Gogh Museum was a trifle disappointing as well.  The core of its collection are those paintings that remained, unsold, in the hands of the family by 1925.  Few of the iconic masterpieces that one immediately associates with Van Gogh are thus housed in the Van Gogh Museum apart from The Potato Eaters, The Yellow House, Sunflowers, Almond Blossoms, and a number of self-portraits.

Van-Gogh-bedroomAnother surprise, educational but disconcerting, was the way in which the red pigment in some of the paints used in a number of other well-known paintings have undergone a chemical breakdown since the works were created, resulting in a complete change in the overall color scheme of the work.  This is obviously the kind of alteration that cannot be effectively addressed by a conservator; it is not a cleaning or a repair job or a touch-up but a fundamental and irreversible change.  Perhaps the most famous of these transformed works is the first of the three versions Van Gogh painted of  The Bedroom in Arles.

A clever digital display mounted near the canvas allows you to see what the original might have looked like, and the change is profound, shifting the blues to violets and the yellows to oranges.  You can move a slider across the image to see as much or as  little (half and half works well) of the current state juxtaposed with the original.  It was a disquieting experience.  My predilection for a formalist analysis and critique of art works was entirely thrown off by the experience.  It was a bit like trying to asses the purely aesthetic qualities of a poem I could only read in translation.  Even the digital reconstruction seemed to offer only a fragmentary echo of what the work sounded like in the original language, what the connotative overtones would be.

Although most of the works in Van Gogh Museum are second-tier, there are many interesting, pleasant paintings to be found.  It took me a while to learn how to appreciate them, however.  My memories of the grand exhibition “Van Gogh in Arles” at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1984 are mostly of astonishing brushwork and paint handling, and only secondarily of color.  In Amsterdam, those aspects seemed sketchy and less than impressive, and it wasn’t until I backed away from the work, took my nose a couple of yards distant from the canvases, that the paintings seemed to snap into focus and color and composition asserted themselves.  Having made that adjustment, I enjoyed the work much more.

My visits with Rembrandt and Van Gogh turned out to be educational, if not quite as inspiring as the time I spent with Vermeer.  We devoted a third day on the Museumplein to the Stedelijk Museum.  Given that my heart truly belongs to modern and contemporary art, it was no surprise that the visit to the Stedelijk was the most enjoyable and rewarding of all, but that’s a story for another day.

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