Self-portrait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, 1630

When you walk down one corridor in the current Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition of Young Rembrandt you see half a dozen tiny-to-small, though not quite postage stamp-size etchings, which are self-portraits of the twenty-something artist. My favourite of these is a posturing 1630 “Self-portrait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.” You can just imagine how many hours it took of him looking in a mirror and making this strange face to fix the image. It’s a face, and expression, that makes you think what an interesting character Rembrandt must have been – an ideal dining companion; but maybe also a first-rate actor with rare control of his facial muscles.

These 1630-31 self-portraits are the work of a master. Yet, points out the exhibition’s co-curator and Director-Emeritus of the Ashmolean, Professor Christopher Brown, in Rembrandt’s earliest known work “The Spectacles Seller” (1624-25), “we find a crude, garishly coloured painting by an artist struggling with his medium; but a mere six years later he had completed an acknowledged masterpiece, “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” (1630).

This exciting exhibition began with a conversation between (first disclosure) my good friend, Prof. Brown, who is famed as an expert on Rembrandt and Dutch painting, and Dr Christian Vogelaar, Curator of Old Master Paintings and Sculpture, Museum De Lakenal, of Leiden, Rembrandt’s home town, to the effect that there had never before been a major show in the UK of Rembrandt’s meteoric first decade at work, from 1624-34. The show was first seen in Leiden from November 2019 to February 2020, to mark the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death.

Prof. Brown’s contention is that the study of Rembrandt’s first ten years’ work as an artist is central to understanding the rest of his career, as it was in this first decade that he explored what was to become his own style, dealing with technical problems and correcting the mistakes, from which he developed his skills. This Ashmolean exhibition, Brown says, shows how rapid his progress was, and “exactly how he became the pre-eminent painter of Amsterdam and the universally adored artist he remains 350 years after his death.”

Leiden was then the second city of the Dutch Republic, 30 miles SW of Amsterdam. Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69) was the son of a well-off miller, who sent the boy to the Latin School, which enabled him to enrol at the University of Leiden. He did not, however, have academic aspirations, and by 1622 had begun an apprenticeship with the city’s only history painter; and by the age of 18, had already begun work on his “Five Senses” series, though the result was the “bright palette, clumsy drawing and a poor rendition of space” of “The Spectacles Seller.” Though Rembrandt may not have been a prodigy, his contemporary Jan Lievens (1607-74) had been apprenticed aged eight, and was noticed by the age of 12. There are 13 paintings in this show by him and other contemporaries of Rembrandt that are particularly helpful to the appreciation of the greater artist’s career.

The Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight),c.1624, Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden

In 1624 Rembrandt was apprenticed for six months to in innovative Amsterdam painter, Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), and in 1625 Rembrandt opened his own studio in Leiden, which gave him the chance, too, to work closely with his childhood friend, Lievens, economically painting each other and saving on the wages for models. His parents sat to him as well. By the late 20s the pair were “engaged in a charged creative competition,” which resulted in commissions for both, though it was at this point in 1631 that Rembrandt went to Amsterdam and Lievens to London in 1632. Rembrandt’s motive force was business with the dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who touted for commissions, especially portraits.

It was in 1632 that Rembrandt met the dealer’s cousin, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and they were betrothed the next year and married on 22 June 1634. Though Rembrandt had been working from van Uylenburgh’s house, he maintained the lucrative Leiden studio with his assistants and pupils such as Gerrit Dou (1613-75), who is represented by several works in this show. Leiden is Oxford’s twin city (which I didn’t know) and the exhibition draws on the Ashmolean’s huge collection of Rembrandt’s prints and drawings (which I did know). The third co-curator is Ms An Van Camp, Curator of Northern European Art at the Ashmolean, who is responsible for much of the work on paper shown.

Dr Xa Sturgis, now the Director of the Ashmolean (second disclosure: in his other identity as the magician, The Great Xa, he entertained at our childrens’ birthday parties more years ago than they would forgive me for mentioning), points out that this is “the largest ever exhibition, and the first in this country, to focus on Rembrandt’s early years….It is not a straightforward trajectory but it is a thrillingly revealing one that allows us to see the making of one of the world’s great artists.”

This beautifully installed exhibition continues at the Ashmolean until 7 June, and let me remind you that the stunning permanent collection is worth several visits, and that the rooftop restaurant there is one of the most agreeable places to eat in Oxford.