by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Young Rembrandt

By Roderick Conway Morris
OXFORD 3 April 2020
Jan Six Fine Art, Amsterdam
Let the Little Children Come to Me
by Rembrandt, 1627-8



Rembrandt was born in 1609, in Leiden, 30 miles south-west of Amsterdam, the ninth child of a prosperous miller. One older brother, Gerrit, followed his father's trade and another, Adriean, became a cobbler. But Rembrandt's parents had more ambitious plans for their youngest son, sending him to the local Latin School through which he was registered at the age of 14 to the city's university.

But by this time Rembrandt had determined to become an artist. His parents indulged him and apprenticed him to Leiden's only 'history' painter, specialising, that is, in biblical and mythological scenes, Jacob van Swanenburg, who worked in Italy and seen the works of Caravaggio, with their bold chiaroscuro, which would in due course become a vital element in Rembrandt's own works. But unlike his childhood friend Jan Lievens, who was already winning admiration for his precocious artistic talents at the age of 12, Rembrandt was no prodigy and had to struggle to master even some of the basic techniques of his chosen trade.

The fascinating story of how the artist transformed himself from an enthusiastic novice into an accomplished master in the decade between 1624-1634, is told through nearly 150 paintings prints and drawings in 'Young Rembrandt' at the Ashmolean, curated by Christopher Brown, An Van Camp and Christiaan Vogelaar.

At the beginning of this period, Rembrandt broadened his horizons by spending six months in the studio in Amsterdam of a more original painter, Pieter Lastman, with whom he kept in touch with for many years after. On returning to Leiden he began to collaborate closely with Jan Lievens, possibly even sharing a studio with him. The friendly rivalry between the two proved highly productive for both and their styles sometimes mirrored each other's so closely that even today there are still doubts about which of them executed certain works.

Like most young painters Rembrandt used as models those closest to hand. He lovingly drew and painted his parents, then elderly by the standards of the times, and he very early on revealed an unusual, more general preference for painting the old over the young, clearly finding the former both more challenging and inspiring, and their lined and wrinkled physiognomies more eloquent expressions of life and experience than the smooth features of the young. He also formed a life-long passion for representing himself. In an amusing set of small etchings here he can be seen simply pulling funny faces, like someone fooling around in a photo booth.

The big break for both Rembrandt and Lievens came in the late 1620s when the poet, composer and connoisseur Constantijn Huygens visited Leiden, discovering what he called this 'young and noble duo of painters'. Huygens was secretary to the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, Frederick Henry, who along with his wife was actively building an art collection in the Hague. It was also through Huygens that Sir Robert Kerr, Charles I's special envoy, bought two Rembrandt portraits, which he presented to the king. They are now brought together once again here, on loan from Liverpool and the collection of HM the Queen.

One of the stars of this exhibition is a newly rediscovered work, here entitled 'Let the Little Children Come to Me', based on the biblical text in which Christ upbraids those trying to prevent people from bringing their children to receive a blessing from Him. Restoration of the work has revealed a perky self-portrait of Rembrandt, peering over the heads of the crowd.

In 1631 Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, quickly building up a large studio where there were eventually dozens of pupils and assistants, some of whom went on to become prominent artists in their own right. How brilliant Rembrandt was as a teacher may judged by works by named pupils here and two superb pieces by unknown artists from his studio: 'A Man Seated Reading at a Table in a Lofty Room' and 'Travellers Resting'.

Young Rembrandt; Ashmolean, Oxford; 1 March - 1 November 2020 (with period of closure due to Covid); Young Rembrandt by Christopher Brown, An Van Camp and Christiaan Vogelaar, Ashmolean (£25)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023