The curtains came down on Hilary Term once more, this time not with the grace of blossoming spring, but the iron clank of a portcullis going one way and a drawbridge the other. And yet it was rather encouraging that, as most of the Ertegun Scholars took a deep breath in anticipation of their thesis write-up, we had the privilege of attending an exhibition featuring Rembrandt the clumsy novice, instead of Rembrandt the master. Young Rembrandt, the Ashmolean Museum’s special exhibition, features the first ten years (1624—1634) of Rembrandt van Rijn’s illustrious career, and is billed as an “unprecedented opportunity…to observe his remarkable metamorphosis from insecure teenager to the greatest Dutch painter of all time.” Not that you would know he was an insecure teenager; a mischievous self-portrait welcomes you into the gallery, soon to be joined by a surprising amount of minuscule selfies. Here glowering, there laughing: a veritable study of human emotions, and an inexpensive way of gaining artistic experience in 17th century Leiden.
Rembrandt came from a middling family and had to make do with the models he could find once he opened a studio in 1624. Hurried sketches of beggars, done from behind them and completed on the spot, serve to foreshadow a later interest in depicting the stories hidden in old age’s wrinkles. More telling are a few early portraits of his own parents, by then quite elderly themselves. Practicing on himself and his family enabled Rembrandt to build up a series of stock copper plates that he would ever so slightly modify when producing etchings on different subjects.
We had the pleasure of being led through the master’s beginnings by an absorbing and enthusiastic guide, one of the exhibition’s co-curators [along with Christopher Brown and Christiaan Vogelaar], An Van Camp, who explained the process of etching (and what to do when you’ve made a mistake!) and introduced us to Rembrandt’s studio colleague and friend, Jan Lievens. A particular exhibition highlight was two paintings side by side, both depicting the Biblical scene of Delilah cutting off Samson’s hair. Lievens’ is magisterial and grand, tracing the conspirators’ features in close detail. Rembrandt’s is coy, smaller and slightly unsure of itself. Delilah’s accomplice is a few seconds away from the bed where Samson sleeps; it’s almost as if Rembrandt left before the climax. As An Van Camp explained, he liked depicting the ever-so-slightly before moment, allowing our imagination to make someone sneeze, and destiny to be upended.
It was this emotional richness that drew art collector Constantijn Huygens to Rembrandt’s work in 1629. A venerable connoisseur with commissions from the Hague and links to the Prince of Orange, Huygens catapulted Rembrandt from Leiden to Amsterdam, where he would continue to rise to stardom. The exhibition switched to portraits, depicting the sort of jobs Rembrandt would now get. No longer would his own face and tangled hair be imposed onto that of Delilah’s servant; the scene was redone a few years later. We collectively observed, however, the finesse with which Rembrandt continued to paint wrinkled faces, as opposed to glowing orbs of powder meant to be young ladies’ cheeks. As we rapidly approached 1634, our guide drew our attention to the only object not made by Rembrandt: it was a small token signifying his membership to a local painters’ guild in Amsterdam. A ticket to the world, upon whose receipt Rembrandt’s career somersaulted beyond the scope of this exhibition. If our theses achieve the same thing, we will have one more person to thank. And even for those of us who are not working on a thesis, the exhibition was an opportunity to appreciate the notion that genius is learned, not born. With the right mindset, greatness can start even with a brooding selfie.