Monday, July 4, 2016

Museum Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House)

At 13 euros (10 euros for students), the Rembrandt House inspires welcomes visitors by giving them insight into the artist's life and art creation. Offering complementary audio tours in 10 languages, the museum is accessible to everyone, from those who know a lot about Rembrandt's life and work, to those with little knowledge of who he was and what he did. The house is clean and maintains a 17th century atmosphere despite having been adapted for 21st century living. For example, dim light bulbs atop plastic candles in the staircases and corridors to replicate some of the lighting one would expect to see during Rembrandt's time. The kitchen, too, has  replica pots, spatulas, and glassware that make it look like Rembrandt himself could have used it. One almost feels like a voyeur on his home, and the museum's accuracy is reminiscent of American history museums like Plymouth Plantation and Sturbridge village, sans reenactors.
17th century lamp, modernized to use artificial light instead of candlelight. These lights enhanced the 1600s feeling of the house.

The tone and layout of the museum also contributes to the authentic atmosphere.  Even on a crowded Sunday afternoon, guests were generally quiet while navigating the home, too busy listening intently to their audio tours to converse with each other.
After buying a ticket, guests are directed to the basement, where there are lockers for guests to store their bags. Next, guests can choose to watch a brief English-language documentary about Rembrandt's life that does an especially good job of contextualizing the pressures Rembrandt was under because of debt. Then all guests can pick up an audio tour radio and enter Rembrandt’s home. Guests are through the house, up the stairs and to the top floor. The audio tour is well crafted to manage traffic, guiding guests up the narrow staircases when they are going up, and down a different staircase when they are descending. This helps avoid cross-traffic on the stairs.
The audio tour is structured so that, occasionally during the tour, the narrator "encounters' people in the house and talks to them. When the narrator meets a woman in the house, she scolds, "I hope you are looking at that bed with your eyes and not your hands," reminding visitors not to touch items in the museum without necessitating signs throughout the house. In a way, this allows viewers to suspend their disbelief that Rembrandt does not still live here. By eliminating most traces of museum functionality save the necessary (audio tour checkpoints, descriptions of the various rooms, and stanchions), the majority of the signage has been replaced by the audio tour's clever use of "characters" that remind visitors to be on their best behavior.
After the tour guides visitors up the first staircase in the house, full-sized prints of works that Rembrandt painted himself or owned during his lifetime (before selling all his possessions) adorn the walls in many rooms. There are over 100 prints of paintings in the house, mostly situated in the  plain wooden frames that were common in Rembrandt's time. Going up another staircase,  visitors enter the master's art cabinet, which contains turtle shells, plumage, ram horns, sculptures, armour, and other valuable items Rembrandt would have owned. All of this furthers the sensibility of Rembrandt’s house rather than a museum.
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Top left: Paintings on display in house. The mostly wooden frames feel appropriate to the time. Top right: Fireplace and self portrait in the room where Rembrandt would meet with guests. Bottom left: sea turtle shells, large seashells, and plumage on display in Rembrandt’s cabinet room. Bottom right: ceramics, glass, furniture, and water pump on display in the kitchen.

The true gem of the Rembrandt house, however, is that guests can observe the processes that Rembrandt and his students used to produce work. The house offers a tutorial on the etching process as well as on paint-making. From the etching, guests learn that Rembrandt often used Japanese paper for his prints and that he would occasionally implement engraving and drypoint techniques into his copper etches. Though Rembrandt was far from proficient in either technique, he used these to provide nuanced effects to his etchings. After a museum guide demonstrated the whole etching process to guests, he offered to let a guest lift the paper print from the underlying etch plate after the pressing process. The guide also kindly answered follow-up questions.
When viewing a paint-making tutorial, visitors see the material sources of the pigments that Rembrandt used (smult, minerals, metals, etc.) to make his paints. Visitors were invited to blend the linseed oil and pigments on a mixing stone. The woman teaching the tutorial was a painter herself. She brought her insights on the painting process into the discussion and recommended locations where visitors could learn more about paint-making. Guests learned that Rembrandt would paint "middling" base colors onto his canvas: rather than a white base, gray colors were the base so that less paint would be required to lighten or darken the canvas. And unlike painters before him, Rembrandt often painted two base layers that were different colors from each other—most artists use the same color in both layers. In The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, for example, the top of the two base layers is actually the same color as the corpse in the painting, meaning not just that parts of the body are base paint, but also that that color pervades the rest of the painting. It's a nuanced detail, but it's observable to an astute spectator that knows to look for it. Through these lessons and insights into Rembrandt's creative process, visitors are better able to understand his incredible talent.
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Top left: View of the etching room, where an expert presented a 30-minute tutorial on etch-making. Top right: Etch created during the tutorial. I was able to remove this print from the paper beneath during the tutorial and feel the dampness of the paper. Bottom left: yellow paint being prepared on a large stone. The shining rock on top is ground with the linseed oil and pigments to blend the paint. Bottom right: samples of pigments used in Rembrandt’s time for painting and some of the associated materials from which the pigments are concentrated.

Next, guests are led to the "Rembrandt Lab" on the top floor. There, guests can see the extensive spectroscopic and microscopic inspections that scientists and art historians conducted on many of Rembrandt's paintings in the 1990s It makes logical sense for the "Rembrandt Lab" to come after the tutorials, because the research confirms what visitors learned about base layers in paint-making tutorials. Beyond that, the "Rembrandt Lab" has explored using the same pigments from Rembrandt's time in ceramics, and testing the order of paint layers Rembrandt painted in works including The Jewish Bride, The Anatomy Lesson, and The Night Watch.
The "Rembrandt Lab" also includes instances where artists attempted to replicate paint textures from the paintings in ceramic. Some of these attempts, the audio tour notes, failed: pigments change color when heated in ceramics, and variables include temperature of heating, time of heating, and the ordering of layers. Observing some of the ceramic failures in the Rembrandt Lab helps visitors to appreciate the complexity of producing paintings in Rembrandt's time with the limited pigments available to him (often less than 20). Rather than mixing paints or pigments before applying to the canvas, painters had to add them layer-by-layer to their works, predicting what blend would make the right color on the canvas months later.

Painting of The Jewish Wife alongside some of the experimental pigment ceramics used to replicate colors from the work in the “Rembrandt Lab.” Notice that the white ceramic left of the painting fails to capture the gold of the husband’s cloth accurately, a testament to the difficulty of producing that color for Rembrandt himself.

One complaint about the museum is that in the “Rembrandt Lab,” the audio tour rambled a bit and often felt repetitive. The “Rembrandt Lab” portion of the audio tour took up a full 50% of the entire audio tour. Were the museum to appropriately truncate this portion of the tour to make it more concise, it would certainly enhance the whole experience.
Yet overall, the tour is well done and very informative. The structure and style of the Rembrandt House brings visitors into the life of the artist with an historical documentary, household-item replicas of the 17th century, full-sized prints, and engaging tutorials on etching and print-making. I easily spent three and a half hours there, and my enjoyment and education was well worth the cost.

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