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Not everyone knows that Rembrandt van Rijn, the world-famous artist from the Dutch Golden Age, was born in Leiden. It happened in a house in the Weddesteeg, on 15 July 1606, to be precise. In the first quarter of the seventeenth century, Leiden was a bustling city with 24,000 inhabitants. Jan Lievens, Jan van Goyen and Rembrandt worked there at the same time. Leiden was the cradle of 17th-century Dutch painting, which is popular around the world.

EARLY WORKS

Rembrandt was trained by painter Jacob Isaacz. van Swanenburg from Leiden, between 1620 and 1623. Next, in 1624, he started his own studio at the Kort Galgewater, when he served a one-year apprenticeship with the artist Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam.

Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg, Self Portrait (detail), 1568
Isaac Claesz. van Swanenburg, Self Portrait (detail), 1568 Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

DISCRETE SELF PORTRAIT

Since 1948, the museum has Rembrandt's 'Historiestuk' (Historical Piece) from 1626 on loan from the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands). The young Rembrandt did not just immortalize an epic scene, but also himself: a boy with curly hair and a white collaret, on the right of the central figure with the crown.

Rembrandt, History Piece with painter's self portrait (detail), 1626
Rembrandt, History Piece with painter's self portrait (detail), 1626 Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

cooperation

On 27 February 2014, Wim Pijbes, Director of the Rijksmuseum and Meta Knol, Director of Museum De Lakenhal, signed a long-term cooperation agreement. To research and restore Rembrandt's 'History Painting', it has been in the Rijksmuseum Restoration workshop since 2015. Documentation of scans and material samples will be at the disposal of Rembrandt Databas, the Cultural Heritage Agency and Museum De Lakenhal.

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A 'HISTORY PIECE', BUT WHAT HISTORY IS IT ABOUT?

The combination of classical ruins and 16th and 17th-century dress is puzzling. The work, that did not receive a title from the painter, was ascribed many different interpretations in publications over the years. To this day, it remains unclear what the exact subject of the painting is. Consequently, the neutral title 'Historiestuk' (Historical Piece) was chosen.

Below you will find an overview of the suggested subject matter:

  • Saul Arms David (1924)
  • Historical Piece (1925, 1982)
  • Administration of Justice of Consul L. Junius Brutus (1929, 1933)
  • Administration of Justice of Brutus (1933, 1935, 1936-37, 1938, 1959)
  • Conviction of the Son of Manlius Torquatus (1934, 1957)
  • Leniency of Emperor Titus (1941, 1946, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1968)
  • Greek Legend including Agamemnon and Palamedes (1953)
  • Saul Convicting Jonathan (1957-58)
  • Consul Cerialis and the German Legions (?) (1960, 1966, 1967-73, 1968, 1975)
  • Liudolf and Conrad the Red at the Feet of Otto I (1971-74)
  • Palamedes before Agamemnon (1976, 1983, 1991)
  • Palamedes before Agamemnon: a Historic Analogy of the Conviction of Johan van Oldebarnevelt (1984)
  • Alexander's Magnanimity (1987)
  • The Three Horatii before King Tullus (1999)
  • Imputation of Piso (2011)

The historical piece is a display card of varied painting techniques. E.g. in the curly hairs, Rembrandt wielded his brush quite experimentally. He scratched the layer of paint with the back of the brush, as if he was working on a copperplate.

A Rembrandt for Leiden

Already at the opening of Museum De Lakenhal in 1874, it was regarded as highly regrettable that not a single painting of Leiden's most famous son was on display. Only in 2012, this was finally redeemed. In that year, Museum De Lakenhal succeeded in buying a painting by Rembrandt - and even a painting from the earliest period of his career, when he still lived and worked in Leiden.

THE SPECTACLES PEDLAR

The painting is known as 'The Brillenverkoper' (The Spectacles Pedlar) and is part of a series that depicts the senses. The Spectacles Pedlar focusses on sight, 'Drie zangers' (Three singers) depicts hearing and the 'Operatie' (Surgery) depicts touch. The latter two panels from the series are missing, but would, obviously, have depicted taste and smell.

Rembrandt, Spectacles Peddlar (detail), ca. 1624
Rembrandt, Spectacles Peddlar (detail), ca. 1624 Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden

In the Rembrandt year 2006, when the 400th anniversary of the birth of the artist was celebrated, Museum De Lakenhal presented the 'Brillenverkoper' for the first time together with its two counterparts, that belong to a private collection. At the time, it also became apparent that the painting hails from Leiden. Owing to impressive support from the Gemeente Leiden (Municipality of Leiden), the Vereniging Rembrandt (Rembrandt Association), the Mondriaan Fonds (Mondriaan Fund) and the Vriendenvereniging VBL (Museum the Lakenhal Community of Interest), the museum was able to buy the painting.

The 'Brillenverkoper' already shows Rembrandt's talents as an artist. The remarkable contrast between light and darkness (chiaroscuro) due to which the faces seem to light up in a strong source of light, the loose brush strokes which touch up the fabrics and the plain faces that are 'painted from the life', unadorned.

REMBRANDT'S FATHER AND MOTHER

Rembrandt often used acquaintances and family members as a model. The woman on the 'Brillenverkoper' e.g. strongly resembles a model that is depicted in many of his paintings from his period in Leiden and who has been referred to as Rembrandt's mother, Neeltje van Zuydtbroeck, since the seventeenth century. The old man just might be the artist's father, Harmen Gerritsz. van Rijn, a miller from Leiden. We know how he looks in a portrait from approx. 1630. Both of them often act as extras in paintings of fellow townsmen and contemporaries Jan Lievens and Gerrit Dou too. In 2005-2006, Museum De Lakenhal dedicated an exhibition to 'Rembrandt's moeder. Mythe en werkelijkheid' (Rembrandt's mother. Myth and reality).

Queen Beatrix and curator Christiaan Vogelaar at the opening of the exhibition 'Rembrandt's Mother'
Queen Beatrix and curator Christiaan Vogelaar at the opening of the exhibition 'Rembrandt's Mother' Museum De Lakenhal, Leiden, 2005