The Late Rembrandt exhibition in London and Amsterdam prompted me to reflect on the first Rembrandt exhibition held in Amsterdam in 1898. Any comparison between a pioneering exhibition held 127 years ago and a so-called “blockbuster” staged today would be pointless and unfair, but it is interesting to see where it all started, what the motivations of the organisers were and how the exhibition was received by the public. In addition, the 1898 exhibition was the point of departure for attribution debates which still continue today.
The new Queen and the new King of Painters
In 1898, when she would have reached the tender age of 18, Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of The Netherlands would take place in the capital, Amsterdam. The solemn event was to be accompanied by festivities, pageants and historic and folkloric exhibitions in the young Queen’s honour. These had been years in the planning but it was not until January 1897 that the idea for an Old Masters exhibition was launched. On the initiative of the influential Abraham Bredius, a member of Amsterdam artist society Arti and Amicitiae, and his former assistant art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, this idea was rejected in favour of an exhibition dedicated to the newly rediscovered King of Dutch Painters: Rembrandt. The 1898 exhibition would be the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single Old Master. With royal approval duly received in September 1897, exactly one year before the exhibition would open, the special exhibition committee, which included artist members of Arti et Amicitiae and honorary member art historian Wilhelm von Bode, could set to work in earnest.
Securing loans: success and disappointment
It was evident that the very few remaining Rembrandts in Dutch collections would not suffice and that foreign loans would have to be secured. Once Queen Victoria agreed to lend two Rembrandt paintings, the German Emperor and other (mostly aristocratic) collectors and institutions soon followed suit. In six months Hofstede de Groot secured the loans of 124 paintings and over 350 drawings from all over Europe, an astonishing feat.
From the start the Rijksmuseum had made its four Rembrandts, the Night Watch, the Syndics, the Jewish Bride and the fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman, available for the exhibition. For the public favourite, however, the Portrait of “Elisabeth Bas”, today no longer considered an autograph work, the museum’s insurance demands were so excessive that the painting could not be included. The reason for this may have been a furious letter sent to Rijksmuseum’s director Van Riemsdijk by the family that had bequeathed the painting to the Dutch State in 1880, stating unequivocally that such a loan would violate the conditions of the bequest.
Other disappointments followed: Stockholm’s Museum declined to send Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and some drawings on the – understandable – grounds that it considered the transportation risks too high; the Scottish National Gallery simply replied that it never lent art works. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the Six family’s refusal to lend Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six, a decision that met with criticism in the local press.
Venue: the Stedelijk Museum
The Stedelijk Museum, which had opened its doors to the public in 1895, had been selected as venue from the first and graciously agreed to make a number of its galleries available free of charge. That the Rijksmuseum, which had opened only ten years earlier, was not considered may have been due to public disappointment with its poor lighting conditions. Although the Stedelijk Museum had been built along the same lines (ground floor rooms with light flooding in from windows and first floor galleries lit by skylights), the size of windows, skylights and rooms were better aligned so that the Stedelijk Museum’s lighting plan was deemed more successful.
Paintings and drawings formed the nucleus of the first Rembrandt exhibition but it also included 400 reproductions of absent paintings which had been made available by the French publisher of Bode’s 1897 book on the artist so that Rembrandt’s painted and drawn oeuvre was represented in its entirety (according to the standards of the time). Rembrandt’s etchings would be exhibited simultaneously in the Rijksmuseum, but few people would bother to go there. Drawings were grouped according to lenders: Museum Fodor, Teylers Museum, the Dresden and Weimar collections and private collectors among whom A. von Beckerath (Berlin), John Postle Heseltine (London) and Léon Bonnat (Paris). There appears to have been no catalogue of the drawings, nor are there photographs of the display of the reproductions.
Today monograph exhibitions are organised chronologically or thematically. The Rembrandt exhibition of 1898 was organised aesthetically which involved rigid, strictly symmetrical groupings of paintings.
In the center of each wall would be a large and preferably important painting, flanked by three, four and in a few cases even five corresponding formats, preferably in comparable frames and with the necessary thematic diversion among pairs. Three artists and Arti et Amicitiae members, among whom the painter George Breitner, were responsible for this concept which today would be unthinkable.
At the time, the “aesthetic hang” met with great approval. Art critic Paul Schumann, writing in the Dresdener Anzeiger (late October 1898), was delighted that the paintings
… are hung with great artistic sensibility. Everything that could distract from Rembrandt’s masterpieces has been avoided; these alone shine, happily not in chronological order but solely according to aesthetic merit so that one’s appreciation for the genius who created the works only increases.
The Night Watch light controversy
An amusing controversy accompanied the exhibition. In 1898 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was to be shown in one of the Stedelijk Museum‘s smaller ground floor rooms: the outcome of heated debates that had started as soon as the Rijksmuseum had opened its doors in 1885. In the Trippenhuis, the Rijksmuseum’s precursor, the painting had been lit from windows on its left, the same light direction Rembrandt had applied to his painting.
From 1885 the painting was housed in the specially designed Rembrandt Gallery in the new Rijksmuseum. No longer could the painting be admired in its familiar domestic environment but instead was fixed in a monumental, immovable frame between two columns in a pompously decorated gallery hung with theatrical draperies where – even worse – it was lit by skylights. Contemporary artists in particular protested vehemently and veteran artist Josef Israëls fulminated in an 1889 newspaper that the “once so resonant and lively painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum and is trampled to death.” Not surprisingly, the “pro side light lobby” anxiously awaited the opportunity to prove its point. On 30 August 1898 the enormous painting, newly framed and securely crated, was transported from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Stedelijk Museum. Once it had arrived at the Stedelijk Museum, the painting – not without difficulty – was hoisted through the window of Room 6.
No images of the Night Watch in its temporary housing have survived other than a hasty sketch by Jozef Israëls, but its display with the desired lighting conditions was a resounding success with most art lovers. The Rotterdamsche Courant raved:
This room on the ground floor receives a warm sunlight coming from two windows on the side which can be darkened by curtains if desired. In addition glass curtains ensure that sunlight does not fall directly on the painted surface. The painting, in a simple rosewood frame, stands on the floor. Visitors coming from the dark front hall and entering the room find themselves immediately in the most favourable lighting conditions.
The success of an exhibition, then as now, is measured in visitor numbers. The 1898 exhibition counted on the most “civilised” part of the population which becomes clear from the exhibition poster (in French!) and the prohibitive entrance fee of 2.50 guilders. During the official run of the exhibition 43,000 people from the “better classes” visited. A three-day extension was proposed and granted so that the less affluent would be able to visit the exhibition for the much lower admission fee of 25 cents. With 8,000 additional visitors the total visitor number rose to 51,000, an average daily total of 800 “affluent” people during the first two months and 2,500 during the additional three days.
Various publications in four languages accompanied the exhibition, all with texts by Hofstede de Groot. A sober catalogue listed all paintings chronologically, but people could also subscribe to a series of forty photo-engravings which came in handsome, patterned portfolios designed by Lion Cachet. The portfolios were available in various colours, materials and price ranges; the most luxurious cost 600 guilders in 1899. With these luxury products the publishers also aimed at the American market where Rembrandt was just being discovered. In the next decades many Rembrandt paintings that had belonged to European collections were sold overseas.
A tour of the exhibition with Jan Veth
Jan Veth (1864-1925), accomplished portraitist and art critic, published profusely on contemporary art and old masters, especially Rembrandt whose etchings he collected. Veth’s observations on the exhibition appeared in an article published on 3 October 1898. They are typical of the Dutch artistic movement of the time: emotional and hyper-individual. But Veth also had a keen eye for quality and was not easily hoodwinked when it came to attributions.
In the first room of the exhibition hung Christ and the adulterous woman from the Weber collection in Hamburg. Veth was not impressed:
It is inconceivable to me that someone should think this a Rembrandt. The signature is palpably false but how fake, too, is the coarse, lumpy old guy with monstrous hands, how fake the female head with holes torn in it, how fake the grumpy chimpanzee that has to assume the role of Christ, how fake Van Dyke [sic] and not at all Rembrandtesque the action, the entire clumsy composition. Certainly, at first sight there is something attractive in parts of the coloration, but that is all.
Veth’s comment was later confirmed by Bredius who did not include the painting in his authoritative 1935 Rembrandt catalogue.
Opposite Christ and the Adulterous Woman hung Rembrandt with Saskia at her dressing table, a then famous painting lent by Queen Victoria. “A disappointment”, Veth concluded,
… one would have expected more from this painting. Does it hang poorly in Buckingham Palace so that no one questions it? Here in strong light something tawny seems to come over it. Notwithstanding the richness of the jewelry and gown it is not at all effective. The piece from Dresden is so much better. [By the latter Veth meant Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Tavern, c. 1637]
Veth was not alone in his disappointment and it can be said that Queen Victoria’s painting lost its reputation in Amsterdam. Today it is thought to be a pastiche of the Young Woman Trying on Earrings from the Hermitage St Petersburg and a lost likeness of the painter from the 1630s.
Among the other paintings Veth thought very little of was the Portrait of an Old Man with dishevelled hair: “Generally called the bellowing ox. Out of respect for the master I refuse to believe in its authenticity.”
Saul and David in the second exhibition room, on loan from the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel, on the other hand impressed Veth:
This masterful painting becomes more perfect the more I see it. The cunning David playing his harp with downcast eyes – and soul-sick Saul and his daring, but in its simplicity moving, gesture of wiping away a tear with the curtain – and the regal nature of that Saul … With minimal treatment the tonality could be restored and then one would enjoy the painting even more.
Nevertheless, some Rembrandt connoisseurs, among them Bode, doubted the painting’s authenticity. Abraham Bredius, however, shared Veth’s enthusiasm. When Hofstede de Groot promised to make 25,000 guilders available from the exhibition’s revenues, the Rembrandt Society was prepared to buy the painting on condition that one-fourth of the total sum of approximately 100,000 guilders should come from private donations and one-fourth from the State. The Ministry refused. Bredius, undeterred, and above all very wealthy, announced to the world (that is to say: to The Hague where he lived) that he would sell his horse and carriage to acquire the painting. It was not an empty threat: on 7 November 1898, three days after the exhibition finally closed, he sent the following telegram: Saul bought so not back Paris but direct to Mauritshuis The Hague deux cent mille! = Bredius.
In the same room hung the painting then known as Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, today attributed to Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost, which epitomised the popular view of the artist at the time: Rembrandt’s paintings mirrored his life. At the 1898 exhibition all were present: his father and mother, his brother Adriaen, his sister Lysbeth (lent by Hofstede de Groot himself!), Saskia and Titus, Hendrickje (Geertgen had not yet emerged from the archives) – and the kitchen maid. Veth saw “something tame” in the latter, “notwithstanding the clarity of light and wildness of subject”.
In one of the smaller rooms on the first floor the Man in Armour from Glasgow dominated one of the walls (“Delacroix’s dream painted by Vollon,” was Veth’s comment) with on its left the Portrait of a Boy (in 1898 owned by Earl Spencer, Althorp Park; today Norton Simon Museum) which Veth considered “a beautiful thing”.
The sensation of the exhibition, certainly for art lovers, hung in the center of the long wall in this room: the painting then known by the impossible title Portrait of a Polish Rider in the costume of the regiment of Lysowsky in a landscape (today simply The Polish Rider), discovered in Poland by Bredius only the year before. Veth:
One look at the painting and only a few seconds of studying its technique convinced me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces hung in that god-forsaken place for a hundred years. Something of the surprise in the Landscape with Tobias, the things where he [Rembrandt] seems to step out of his skin as it were. The entire composition is permeated with sonority.
Here Veth’s critical eye momentarily let him down: the Tobias and the Angel in a Mountainous Landscape is hardly a Rembrandt and was not included in Bredius’ 1935 catalogue.
Concerning the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cloak, recently re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project for (seemingly) no other reason than that they regard it as a study for the man in the Jewish Bride, Veth was brief. “Seen”, he noted.
The painting that had been highly praised by Rembrandt’s contemporary Constantijn Huygens, Judas returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, disappointed many, including Jan Veth: “In the conventional figures surrounding the high priest there are poorly executed areas that remind one of an old copy or of overpaintings.” He was right: the version shown in the exhibition, then owned by Baron Arthur de Schinckler, was an early copy. Only in 1939 would the version acquired by Lord Iveagh in 1874 be acknowledged as Rembrandt’s original.
What did Veth think of the Night Watch now that it finally hung in a room where it was lit from the left? His only comment was an enigmatic: “Well …”
The return of the Night Watch
On 7 November 1898 the Night Watch, having been photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum on two consecutive days, returned to the Rijksmuseum. Its return was as eagerly anticipated as its temporary home in the Stedelijk Museum had been: the detractors of the painting’s location in the Rijksmuseum were keen to compare. First on the scene was Abraham Bredius and in his reaction, published the next day, he did not mince words: “The location of Rembrandt’s masterpiece is vandalism of the highest order.” The press, amused by the controversy, contributed a tongue-in-cheek compromise: “Light from above AND from the side.”
Eventually the “side light lobby” won a Pyrrhic victory: Rembrandt Year 1906 saw the opening of the “Rembrandt extension” at the Rijksmuseum, a newly built exhibition space behind the Night Watch Gallery where visitors could admire the painting under the same lighting conditions it had had in the Trippenhuis and in its temporary home at the Stedelijk Museum. Twenty years later, however, a new generation thought differently and the painting was restored to its original location in the Night Watch Gallery.
London and beyond
Contrary to the Late Rembrandt exhibition today, the 1898 exhibition took the reverse route. After its successful run in Amsterdam the Rembrandt exhibition traveled to London’s Royal Academy as the institution’s 30th Winter Exhibition (2 January-11 March 1899). 102 paintings were exhibited in four rooms, a fifth room was devoted to drawings. Only six paintings came from Europe’s mainland so that for the first time virtually the entire collection of Rembrandt’s paintings in the United Kingdom and Ireland were united under one roof. Such an exhibition had not been possible in The Netherlands: while the Dutch were Rembrandt’s rightful heirs, his inheritance had largely been sold abroad.
The attribution aftermath was fierce. At the time of the Amsterdam exhibition, criticism had been mostly verbal which had upset Hofstede de Groot, its organiser. Vexed, he stated categorically that “all exhibited paintings are authentic”, but this only fuelled the debate even more. Perhaps tragically, for Hofstede de Groot the Rembrandt of the 1898 exhibition remained the one and only Rembrandt until his death in 1930. Bredius was more flexible: of the 124 paintings shown, 29 did not make his 1935 catalogue.
As for the exhibition’s objective, to honour the new Queen of the Netherlands through its King of Painters, this had been achieved in more ways than one. In The Netherlands the popularity of the monarchy had been waning, as had Rembrandt’s reputation. The exuberant inauguration festivities in Amsterdam revived the monarchy’s popularity while the first Rembrandt exhibition established the artist’s reputation once and for all. As Hofstede de Groot concluded in his catalogue introduction:
The Dutch could have paid no nobler homage to their young Queen and her coronation, than by bringing together a collection of the masterpieces of the greatest painter to whom Holland has given birth.
- The images of the exhibition are from a folio containing fourteen silver collodion photographs of the preparation and installation of the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum
- Jan Veth’s extensive tour of the exhibition appeared in De Kroniek, no. 201, 4 (1898), pp. 335-151 under the title “Uit een geannoteerden catalogus van de Rembrandt-tentoonstelling” (From an annotated catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition)