Rembrandt was a masterful storyteller. But instead of words, he told his stories in pictures. He carefully ‘directed’ his characters, using tricks from the world of theatre. In spring 2024, Museum Rembrandthuis will host the exhibition Directed by Rembrandt. It showcases the close connection between Rembrandt’s art and Amsterdam’s theatre scene. It is the first exhibition to portray Rembrandt as a director.
The Rembrandt House Museum will be borrowing several masterpieces for the exhibition, including the painting Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife (1655) from Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, returning for three months to the place it was originally painted.
The exhibition Directed by Rembrandt will be open from 2 March to 26 May 2024 in the Rembrandt House Museum. The press preview will take place on Tuesday 27 February 2024.
Rembrandt: telling stories in pictures
The exhibition Directed by Rembrandt takes visitors into the ‘producer’s office’ and explores the ways in which Rembrandt ‘directed’ his compositions. Rembrandt was keenly aware that selecting the right dramatic moment from a story was key to a painting’s success. Painters often chose a turning point in a story – a concept known in theatre terms as ‘peripeteia’. This is the decisive moment when the main or other character gains a profound insight, often prompted by a sudden event. Many artists imbued their paintings with drama by depicting a character’s emotional outburst after this turning point. Rembrandt, however, preferred to depict the preceding moment– just before the climax. This approach draws the viewer into the moment, creating a sense of empathy and emotional engagement. A fantastic example of this is his painting of Susanna, on loan from The Mauritshuis (The Hague). Rembrandt depicts a nude Susanna, stepping into the pool for a bath, when she suddenly realizes she is being spied on by two men with unwholesome intentions.
Rembrandt looking in the mirror
As a director of his stories, Rembrandt applied a variety of techniques that were also used in theatre. One of them, which he explored from a very early age, was to look at facial expressions: he would act in front of the mirror and reproduce his reflection in etchings. He also learned about the universal hand gestures used by orators and actors to emphasize their words, and visited theatres and other venues to study costumes. Rembrandt had a predilection for dramatic lighting, and his pupils adopted this penchant for drama: they would occasionally model for each other in complicated poses. Visitors will learn about these and other aspects of Rembrandt’s role as a director through etchings, drawings, and paintings. Three of his masterpieces (Susanna, Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife, and The Hundred Guilder Print) offer a more in-depth look at how Rembrandt employed theatre techniques and to what effect.
Rembrandt, the theatre-goer
The exhibition also touches on Rembrandt’s visits to the theatre. In Rembrandt’s time, Amsterdam’s theatre scene was undergoing drastic change. Until the early seventeenth century, theatre was a privilege of the elite and was performed in exclusive clubs known as chambers of rhetoric. The theatre experience of the less wealthy urban population was limited to sporadic street performances, such as during the autumn fair where charlatans and international touring theatre companies would perform. But this changed dramatically with the opening of the first theatre in the Netherlands, in Amsterdam, in January 1638. From then on, audiences could see performances as often as twice a week. There were three circles: expensive box seats, standard gallery seats, and cheap standing room.
Rembrandt visited the theatre, drew actors, and became acquainted with playwrights and theatre directors. Moreover, he lived close to the area where the bulk of the theatre repertoire was generated. The island of Vlooienburg, now the Waterlooplein, was home to Sephardic Jews who brought Spanish theatre to Amsterdam and translated it into Dutch. These pieces enjoyed resounding success.
Exhibition at The Amsterdam City Archives
At the same time as the exhibition Directed by Rembrandt, the Amsterdam City Archives will be organizing an exhibition in its Treasure Room. This exhibition highlights the wider context of the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam, its playwrights and actors, and its role in the city.