Rembrandt: fabulous at 400

By Tahira Yaqoob, TravelMail

Last updated at 09:28 19 April 2006


Amsterdam's tall canalside houses are virtually unchanged since Rembrandt lived in the city

You can say one thing about the Dutch - they never miss an opportunity for a party.

But in a city notorious for its low-brow pleasures, the entertainment in Amsterdam has taken on an altogether more refined air in 2006.

This year marks the 400th birthday of the Dutch master Rembrandt - and the nation is shouting it from the rooftops.

From exceptional displays of his works, and tours of his home, to every souvenir imaginable bearing his face - from posters to chocolates and painted eggs - the Netherlands has gone Rembrandt mad.

There is even - ahem - a musical about his life planned. (Sorry - did we say refined?) Well, if it's good enough for Jerry Springer...

The celebrations are set to make the chaotic, cultural melting pot that is Amsterdam - where the artist lived for nearly 40 years - even more of a draw for its four million visitors a year.

Much of the Dutch capital dates back to the 17th century when it was the trade centre of the world and the wealthiest place in Europe.

As the money poured in, the population more than tripled and up went the tall, narrow canal houses jostling for space like books on a shelf.

Wandering along the tree-lined canals criss-crossing the heart of the city - virtually unchanged since the Golden Age that spawned the Dutch master - it is remarkably easy to step back in time and picture Rembrandt scouring the narrow, cobbled alleyways and gazing from one of its quaint bridges for inspiration.

But then Amsterdam is a hotch-potch of infinite possibilities, which is part of its charm. Anything goes. It has a famously liberal attitude to sex and drugs but a world-class collection of fine paintings and beautiful churches.

Its notorious red-light district can feel seedy until you spot families taking a leisurely stroll. You can enjoy a genteel afternoon tea with cream scones in the gloriously palatial setting of The Grand Hotel - then step outside to be confronted by sex shops on its doorstep.

And who better to sum up that curious dichotomy than the Dutch master himself. His artwork had a luminous, ethereal quality but his personal life - peppered with spurned lovers, illegitimate offspring and bankruptcy - was at best turbulent.

So what was it about this mop-haired, scruffy artist that made him such a genius? Rembrandt is said to be unrivalled among his peers at painting the subtleties of light and shade with a storyteller's knack of conveying emotion.

In an age where most artists were painting elegant, flawless figures with noble classical features, he broke the mould.

His models were, to put it kindly, no oil paintings, and often depicted enacting the most basic human functions - hence a rather ugly infant Ganymede is pictured wetting himself in terror as he is abducted by an eagle.

The Rembrandt trail actually begins in the chocolate-box town of Leiden a half-hour train ride from Amsterdam.

With cobbled streets, ancient buildings reflected in its many canals and numerous boutique and craft shops, its tranquillity is a welcome relief from the hectic bustle of the capital.

Here Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 in the shadow of his father's mill. Astonishingly his childhood home survived until 1929 when it was demolished by the authorities, apparently in a fit of petulance at being overshadowed by Amsterdam's celebrations for his 300th birthday.

Sadly the bland housing block and uninspiring square which have replaced it do little to evoke the birthplace of a genius but much of the rest of the town remains as it was during his childhood.

His Latin school still stands (complete with a cheesy tableau of Rembrandt sitting at his desk.) The excellent Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal easily compensates for the 300th birthday fiasco with outstanding themed collections of his etchings and landscapes running throughout the year.

Rembrandt was drawn by the bright lights of the big city when he was 25 and today it is returning the favour by honouring him.

At Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum, a breathtaking exhibition brings Rembrandt together with another master of dramatically contrasting light and dark, Caravaggio.

The two are not obvious companions. Caravaggio, who died when Rembrandt was four, was altogether more theatrical and stark in his use of the claire-obscure technique.

But similarly-themed paintings are cleverly contrasted so the parallels become clear. Belshazzar's Feast and The Supper at Emmaus hang side by side, both showing a meal interrupted by divine intervention and both stunningly illuminated but with Rembrandt gaining the edge with his subtle brushstrokes.

Of course, no trip to his Rembrandt's homeland would be complete without stopping to admire his piece de resistance, The Night Watch, hanging in pride of place at the Rijksmuseum in the company of other biggies like The Jewish Bride and De Staalmeesters.

It is so vast you have to stand at the opposite end of the room to appreciate its uniformed figures, looking as if they could leap off the canvas at any moment.

The walls of nearby Rembrandthuis - where the artist lived for nearly 20 years - positively groan under the weight of dozens of his etchings and paintings.

The grandiose three-storey house bankrupted him but has been meticulously recreated from its box bed down to the pots and pans hanging from the kitchen wall.

It's a little twee and somewhat spoilt by the crowds of tourists herding through but aptly conveys his love of luxuries, painstakingly researched from inventories lodged in the municipal archives.

One of the best ways to appreciate the artist's place in the city is to take the Rembrandt Walking Route. Find details at any Amsterdam tourist office or from their website (

Visit De Waag ('Weighing House') on a historic market square where the artist had his studio and see the rather ghoulish Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp, and tiptoe into the Gothic Oude Kerk where Rembrandt's wife Saskia is interred. Rembrandtplein, the square named after him, bears his pensive statue with palette poised.

Rembrandt may have died a pauper, buried in an unmarked grave in Westerkerk, but his legend lives spectacularly on.

Travel facts Return flights with KLM from London to Amsterdam start from £72. Book online at or call 08705 074074.

Rooms at the Amsterdam Marriott Hotel start from 173 euros ( while a stay at The Grand starts from 440 euros a night. (

For more information on Rembrandt's birthday celebrations see and

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