Rembrandt House, An Unhappy Mistress and a Bankrupt Genius

I know today should be Red Pencil Thursday, but I’m still in Amsterdam. I already have a volunteer lined up for next week, so be sure to check back then for our online critique group.

After I visited Anne Frank’s house yesterday, I hiked past the Palace on the Dam (which is closed this week, darn it!) and the New Church (built in the 1600’s but is called the New Church to distinguish it from the Old Church built in the 1300’s–alas it is also closed for renovations. Part of the problem with off-season travel. Heavy sigh!). I trekked along a broad canal to another part of the city where Rembrandt’s house is located (which fortunately was open!)

Walking in Amsterdam is a feast for the senses. Everywhere you look there are charming old row houses rising from the canal banks. Some of the embellishments are really ornate. There are restaurants from every part of the world, so amazing smells issue from every little bistro and coffee shop.

Of course, people of all ages bike here as well. Take a look at that row of parked bicycles outside the State House. The Dutch must be the most aerobically fit people on the planet.

I finally arrived at Rembrandt’s house and learned that he purchased this large, well-situated home in 1639 for 13,000 guilders (at a time when the average laborer made only 300 guilders a year!) He was allowed to pay in installments and at the time, everything was going swimmingly for him. He had a large studio of students, lots of commissions and sold the work of other artists in his opulent parlor.

This is a picture of the box bed in his kitchen where the maid slept. The bed seems very short by our standards for a couple reasons. People in the 17th century were much smaller than we on average. Plus, they slept half-sitting up, lest a sudden rush of blood to their brain lead to apoplexy. Evidently being horizontal was frowned upon.

The kitchen was also the scene of a knock-down, drag-out fight between the artist and his long-standing mistress. Rembrandt was breaking things off and the lady disagreed violently with the size of the pension he offered. Given the amount of crockery, copper pans and number of sharp implements hanging from hooks, I suspect Rembrandt wished he’d chosen a different room for that conversation.

Because I couldn’t figure out how to turn the flash off on my camera, I wasn’t able to take any more pictures inside. But let me just share that almost every room had a box bed in it in order to accomodate overnight guests as well as small stoves for heat. One of the most fascinating rooms was what Rembrandt called his “cabinet.” This chamber held all sorts of oddments and natural history objects–busts of classical figures, animal horns, snake skins, feathers, a dried puffer fish, a huge brain coral, a walrus skull with tusks intact, pottery and glassware–tons of things he might use in a still life or to fire his imagination with a different texture or color. It was a little like peeking into the mind of a genius and seeing what sort of raw data he fed his subconscious.

In the artist’s studio (which faced north to optimize the regular quality of light) I also got to see a demonstration of 17th century paint making. Of course, at this point in his career, Rembrandt had plenty of students to do it for him, but he had to master the technique at one time. Each color was a mix of natural material, turpentine and linseed oil. Ocres an umbers were made with different colors of clay. Lapis lazuli was ground fine to make blue (a very expensive color indeed) and malachite was the source of green. In order to make white, lead was burned, leading to very toxic, sometimes deadly fumes. It was dangerous to be an artist (or at least an artist’s apprentice) at this time.

Rembrandt’s good years drew to a close and in 1656, he was unable to pay his installment on the house. He went bankrupt. Every item in each room was catalogued and claimed by his creditors in order to partially settle his debts. The artist was forced to move to a much smaller home where he lived and worked the rest of his life.

But the detailed list from his creditors, along with some of the artist’s own sketches of his home’s interior, is how the museum curators were able to reconstruct the house as it was in the artist’s salad days. So thank goodness for bean counters. They provided us with a wonderfully accurate peek into the past.

Have you ever visited a restored historical home or re-enactment?

16 thoughts on “Rembrandt House, An Unhappy Mistress and a Bankrupt Genius

  1. Carol L. says:

    I love History and visiting restored homes. There is a house in Morris Town NJ called Wick House from the 1700#39;s. It belonged to the Wick family and is the only log cabin that survived. It#39;s just incredible to see the restoration and it feels as if you#39;re right there back in time.br /Carol L.br /Lucky4750@aol.com

  2. librarypat says:

    What a wonderful trip. I have missed visiting your Emily blog and have come just in time to see you move.br /br /We visit historical sites and events when we travel and as often as we can here at home. Have been to Revolutionary War and Civil War battle reenactments. Just a week ago, we went to an 1860#39;s Seminole Indian vs settlers and US army battle reenactment in Florida. Have been to the reconstructed Fort Ticonderoga in NY many times. Once we were lucky enough to be there for a night battle and 8 cannon volley. We attended a mountain man rendezvous in Wyoming. We live not far from Asheville, NC and have visited Biltmore Estate. The house is the largest home in the US, I believe. It is incredible. br /br /I signed up for your newsletter, and quot;likedquot; you on facebook as Patricia Barraclough.br /librarypat AT comcast DOT net

  3. She says:

    I love history and have been at re-enactments and in historically preserved homes. One of my favorites was Mt. Vernon. George and Martha Washington had a fabulous view across the Potomac. I was so fascinated by the bright jewel tones paint on their walls. Thomas Jefferson#39;s Monticello is also wonderful. My nephews (then 8, 9, and 10) didn#39;t want to go but ended up so impressed that Jefferson built the beds into the walls (more rooms, higher taxes) that for almost 2 years they slept in their sliding door closets. What can I say!!!! Wheatland, James Buchanan#39;s home in PA, was beautiful. I also enjoyed Montpilier, Madison#39;s home. It was also an active archielogical site. Ashlawn-Highland, Monroe#39;s home, was also neat. Peacocks roam free around the estate. Fantastic homes!

  4. Chelsea B. says:

    I haven#39;t, but it sounds like it would be very cool :-)

  5. Jane says:

    I have never visited a historical home. I can imagine all the interesting stories that the home can tell.

  6. Refhater says:

    I#39;ve never visited a restored historical home, but I have visited Red Square in Moscow, Russia. It was amazing to be able to walk around where so much Russian history actually happened. br /br /Thanks for the tour of Amsterdam. I hope to go there some day.br /br /-Joelle

  7. Nynke says:

    Right. Cycling home when it was starting to rain was not a very good idea, nor was deciding not to put on my poncho for the last mile. The raindrops actually hurt when they hit my face, I had to take off my glasses to see and my coat, pants and shoes got drenched. Oops…br /br /I#39;m glad the weather is usually better than this, even in autumn in Holland!

  8. Nynke says:

    Box beds – so that#39;s what they#39;re called in English! I#39;ve seen some in restored houses and maybe even one or two in old farms houses around where I grew up (but nobody used them anymore!). They remained popular until the early 20th century in the rural North of the Netherlands – I#39;ve been told that my father#39;s house, built around 1905, originally came with box beds. In poor families, children would usually share them; must have been cramped but warm :).br /br /All right, time to cycle my reasonably aerobically fit Dutch body home from work, through the dark, windy, rainy evening… At times like these, I think the only real reason the Dutch cycle so much is because it#39;s cheap ;).

  9. Charlie says:

    I#39;ve been researching a historical house here in Seattle. Years ago I spent time at the place with the owners. Since then, it has changed hands, but some weird things happened during my stays. It seems the new owners have similar experiences. It#39;s fascinating. I love historical building they are filled with stories of famous and ordinary people.br /br /I#39;d love to read your new book!br /br /Charliebr /Bitsy Bling Books br /http://www.bitsyblingbooks.com

  10. Married to the Enemy says:

    My husband and I built our retirement home in Kosovo, he inherited the land from his father, but my heart is in the buildings erected during the Austro-Hungarian empire.br /br /I can#39;t ever go without spending at least a week in Dubrovnik and touring all the churches and cathedrals. I#39;m not a very religious person, but the buildings are magnificent.br /br /Thank you for today#39;s blog. I enjoyed your visual tour of Rembrandt#39;s house. I haven#39;t seen any of those box beds before, how interesting. I#39;ll be on the look out for those when we head over for Christmas.

  11. Theresa Romain says:

    Thanks for the virtual tour of Rembrandt#39;s hous, Mia. I love his use of a curio cabinet for inspiration! How fortunate that all the records survived and allowed his house to be restored.br /br /I went to Monticello a long time ago. I have a clear memory of seeing Jefferson#39;s bed, because it#39;s so unusual. He carved out a spot for it inside a very thick interior wall, so that it wouldn#39;t take up any floor space. It looks tiny; it#39;s only an inch longer than Jefferson was tall. Maybe he slept half-sitting up like Rembrandt#39;s maid.

  12. MiaMarlowe says:

    Mona–That reminds me of the Reynolda House in Winston-Salem NC (the house tobacco built!) Up in the attic some of the Reynold#39;s family wardrobe is on display. Very high tone!

  13. MiaMarlowe says:

    Linda–I#39;m soaking all the history up like a cat in the sun. Books are great resources, but nothing trumps actually seeing a restored home.

  14. Mona says:

    That is fascinating! I#39;ve toured the homes and Bishop#39;s Palace in Galveston that survived the hurricane of 1900. They are gorgeous and detailed right down to the button top boots for the ladies and the clothes laid out ready to dress her. The ball rooms are interesting indeed.

  15. Linda Henderson says:

    I#39;ve never visited a historical home, it sounds fascinating. How lovely to see all the historic places. I think the churches would be beautiful. I#39;d probably be looking for a museum too. I#39;ve never been to a big museum but I#39;ve been to several small ones and I really enjoy seeing all the things from the past.

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