Rembrandt’s Theatrical Eye at Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam

Rembrandt, 'Susanna,' 1636, oil on panel
Rembrandt, 'Susanna,' 1636, oil on panel

Directed by: Rembrandt 

Daily, 10:00 - 18:00

From: 2 Mar 2024

To: 26 May 2024

Rembrandt House Museum
Jodenbreestraat 4
1011 NK
1011 NK

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Directed by: Rembrandt, a new exhibit at the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam, views the Dutch master Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s storytelling and techniques through the lens of 17th century theatre. Spread across two galleries, this exhibit innovatively spotlights Rembrandt as director.

The first gallery introduces the Amsterdam theatre terrain of Rembrandt’s time, alongside a useful (if occasionally elementary) set of seven ‘directing techniques’ that appear across the artist’s work: choosing the right moment, facial expressions, hand gestures, costumes, posture, lighting, and composition. 

Rembrandt, 'The quack,' c.1636, pen and ink
Rembrandt, ‘The quack,’ c.1636, pen and ink

Small etchings and ink drawings capture a fascination with performance that extends far beyond formally staged theatre: A quacksalver in front of a board on stage with a parrot on his shoulder, c.1636, scribbled hastily but evocatively in pen, shows a charlatan posed atop a stage-like raised platform. Attentive details — the man’s ostentatious but worn costume; his hand-on-hip, braggadocious posture — convey Rembrandt’s focus on dramatic staging. Viewing the sketch alongside similar etchings like The fiddler, 1631, and A quacksalver, 1635, one pictures Rembrandt paused, enthralled, at many of Amsterdam’s tight street corners — and even, the gallery touchingly suggests, reenacting performances at home in front of his mirror.

Rembrandt, 'Actor Willem Ruyter in a peasant role with a study of his face and a character with a beer jug,' c.1638, pen and ink
Rembrandt, ‘Actor Willem Ruyter in a peasant role with a study of his face and a character with a beer jug,’ c.1638, pen and ink

The first gallery also showcases Rembrandt’s symbiotic relationship with the Amsterdam Schouwburg Theatre: Rembrandt drew an especially popular actor, Willem Ruyter, several times (Actor Willem Ruyter in a peasant role with a study of his face and a character with a beer jug, c.1638, and Study of the actor Willem Ruyter wearing a tall cap, c. 1627), sometimes in close-up, sometimes as different characters. And in a March 1648 Schouwburg Theatre production of Jan Soet’s Zabynaya, one character praised a woman’s golden embroidery by comparing her to Rembrandt — a reference to the gold brocade of The Night Watch, and another indication of the semipermeable boundary between theatre and painting. 

More broadly, the first gallery illuminates the rest of the museum, Rembrandt’s home. His debt-inducing collection of exotic butterflies, statues, and coral, for example, comes to feel like the backstage props closet of a theatre. 

The second gallery — wisely minimal, centering only a few of Rembrandt’s masterpieces – makes rigorous use of the first gallery’s theatre principles, transforming the paintings into powerful vessels of narrative. 

Rembrandt, 'Christ preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print)', c. 1648, etching, drypoint and burin
Rembrandt, ‘Christ preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print)’, c. 1648, etching, drypoint and burin

Red walls evoke the velvet curtains of a stage, and provide contrast with the first work, a reproduced black and white etching – Christ preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print), c. 1648. Drawn in mirror image on the etching plate, the print is shown in reverse, which has unintentionally uncanny effects: The composition moves from light to darkness, rather than from darkness to light. Like in The Night Watch, a varied group with distinct facial expressions forms a semicircle around the radiant central figure. I spotted a tiny shell and branch in the illuminated foreground, reminiscent of Rembrandt’s strange collections. 

But rather than presenting a single scene, Christ preaching compresses four episodes of Matthew 19: sick seeking healing, Pharisees debating, mothers offering their children, and a man striving for heaven. In quite a small space, the print becomes an entire play unto itself.

Rembrandt, 'Potiphar's Wife Accuses Joseph,' 1655, oil on canvas
Rembrandt, ‘Potiphar’s Wife Accuses Joseph,’ 1655, oil on canvas

This narrative dynamism continues across the two other major works. Potiphar’s Wife Accuses Joseph, 1655, returned for the first time in almost four centuries, relays the story of Potiphar’s wife, who falsely alleges rape. Potiphar’s wife, a figure of deception, is subversively shown in light, next to a brightly lit marriage bed — ostensibly the crime scene. But this light is not divine truth; it’s a spotlight on an actress. Her gesticulations — one hand outstretched, one drawn to her breast – are exaggerated, those of performed innocence. 

In a theatrical directorial choice, Rembrandt also includes Joseph, although he wasn’t present at this moment in the story. Joseph hides behind the bed with a hand to his ear, telegraphing to the audience that he is listening, and enabling the painting to include both the act of injustice and its victim. Three plays of this story, the exhibit reveals, were performed the year of painting, further demonstrating the bidirectional relationship between Rembrandt’s art and the stage. 

Rembrandt, 'Susanna,' 1636, oil on panel
Rembrandt, ‘Susanna,’ 1636, oil on panel

Lastly, the exhibit includes Susanna, 1636, an excruciatingly intimate scene that implicates the viewer as voyeur. Hunched over and desperately covering herself, Susanna is a picture of shame and terror; costume details like her slippers under bare feet and the imprint of her stockings on her calves underscore her innocence. Caught in full sunlight, she has nowhere to hide; conversely the men preying on her are barely visible in the dark background. Strikingly, Susanna’s head is turned toward the audience, perhaps hostile, perhaps begging for empathy. 

More, I believe, could have been achieved in a post #MeToo contrast between Potiphar’s Wife and Susanna: two paintings about sexual violence and lies, with immediate visual similarities yet diametric themes. But this was understandably not the focus of the exhibition — a self-contained, well-argued, and accessible case for applying the language of theatre to better understand Rembrandt’s inspiration and work. Simple and cogent, Directed by: Rembrandt imbues Amsterdam’s art and other history with Rembrandt’s vivid, affecting drama.

With many thanks to Talia Blatt for this review, and to the Rembrandt House Museum‘s press office for their assistance in supplying images.

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