Images of the Golden Age

Rembrandt: Technique defining the new face of Flemish art

On The Town | Aleksandar Dujmovik | June 2009

Self-Portrait Leaning on a Sill, a print by Rembrandt from 1639 (Photo: Courtesty of the Albertina)

The pounding heat on Albertinaplatz behind the opera that afternoon was oppressive; anything to escape, I thought, seeing the elevator up to the Albertina Museum. Why not? Inside, the cool air in the entrance hall washed over like a spray of sea air. My mind cleared.

The current exhibit was The Age of Rembrandt, the master paintings of Rembrandt van Rijn and his contemporaries in the 17th century Netherlands, many of the most talented artists in the history of Dutch art. Sounded like just the thing.

The collection introduces 70 Dutch artists including Aert van der Neer, Adriaen van Ostade and finishing with Rembrandt. The Netherlands in the 17th century was a time and place of wealth. The mercantile system was flourishing. The merchants themselves were gaining power and influence, and joining the aristocrats as important patrons of Flemish art. This in turn encouraged the artist to become ‘professional’ in the sense that they were hired and paid, in effect, as independent contractors the portrait painters of high society. While Italian artists heavily influenced their works, the Dutch painters mastered the techniques of the treatment of light to a new level, using it to magnify the main idea or theme in the painting.

The Albertina was the perfect setting to exhibit these works. A twisting arrangement of partitions formed the backdrop for the exhibition in dark blues and greens, the rich and somber mood from which the highlighted images themselves so often emerge.

Artists intended to represent impressions of lifestyles and general living habits in that era. The collection visualizes and portrays real life incidents.

Browsing through the collection, there was a different theme to every room, from self-portraits of noble families – which would have paid the artists extremely well – to still lives and landscapes in sharp-edged detail and precision. The paintings revealed the fashions and the way of life in the "Golden Age" of Dutch culture. Some, in black ink on watercolor used the technique to define the borders of the objects, making them stand off the page. But it was oil on canvas that was the preferred medium: First was the vividness of the colors, the life brought by the added glamour and sheen. But that was just the beginning: it was slow drying, allowing artists to work for days on their paintings, to add and make changes, making it the ideal material for long-term projects. As time went by, they realized that the linseed oil they were using was also a key element for preservation.

The last two rooms were dedicated to Rembrandt alone, one room of etchings, including several renowned self-portraits and still lives, the other with some of his most famous oils.

"Rembrandt was always able to deliver his best in any genre – Still Life as well as landscapes, paintings as well as drawings – in the era when artists became academic painters," Albertina director Klaus Albrecht Schröder told to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

Characteristic of Rembrandt was a technique of focusing on a central figure or object highlighted with brighter colors, a face or a hand revealed out of the thick darkness in a halo of golden light. Towards the borders, the darker colors emphasize the focal point.

Rembrandt’s famous group portrait of The Night Watch is a perfect example of this concept and has a central place in this exhibition. Like many others, it reveals an implied story – here of the two officers of the militia walking from a gloomy courtyard in the blinding sunlight.

For the self-portraits, he often preferred the freedom of the etching and was actually involved in the whole process of printmaking, making as many as ten stage prints for adjustments. He began with a drawing on the printing block, and then made a base print, using a group of lines and many bitings with the acid to reach different thicknesses of line. An ideal example would be the Self-Portrait Leaning on a Sill, of 1639, where the thickness of the lines provides texture, allowing contours, folds and shadows that give shape to the form, and texture to the fabric, face or hair. The exhibit runs through June 21.


The Age Of Rembrandt

Daily 10:00 to 18:00

Wed. 10:00 to 21:00, Tours 18:30

Guided Tours, Sat, Sun. Holidays,15:00

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