Rembrandt House, An Unhappy Mistress and a Bankrupt Genius
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?