In Amsterdam, loving Rembrandt again

Homes along a canal includes where Jan Six once lived (second from right), whose portrait Rembrandt painted, in Amsterdam.

Although Rembrandt lived and worked in Amsterdam starting in late 1631 and died there in 1669, it’s fair to say that he has never proved to be the same kind of tourist draw as another Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh, or the diarist Anne Frank, even though all three of them have dedicated museums in the city.

In recent months the 17th-century Dutch master’s life and work, particularly his final years, have been getting a reappraisal.

Two exhibitions celebrate his last two decades, the blockbuster “Late Rembrandt” at the Rijksmuseum (previously shown at the National Gallery in London) and “Rembrandt’s Late Pupils” at the artist’s former home, the Rembrandt House Museum (rembrandthuis.nl), running concurrently until May 17. To coincide with these shows, Rembrandt-related events include a walking tour and a boat trip highlighting his life in Amsterdam.

Since the “Late Rembrandt” exhibition opened Feb. 12 at the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl), visitors have crowded in to feast their eyes on 100 works, including masterpieces such as “The Jewish Bride,” the “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” and “Bathsheba With King David’s Letter,” as well as “The Portrait of Jan Six,” regarded by many as the most exquisite Rembrandt still in private hands.

The show has contributed greatly to renewed interest in Rembrandt, who in the 20th century was sometimes regarded as the “darker” predecessor to the Rijksmuseum’s other big draw, the beloved colorist Johannes Vermeer.

Landmarks associated with the artist dot Amsterdam. Those taking the self-guided Rembrandt walking tour can browse the lovely narrow byway of Staalstraat, where the “Syndics” was painted inside what’s now the Droog design shop, and the Doelen Hotel, which houses the former Great Hall of the Kloveniersdoelen, where the “Night Watch” was first displayed. The 16-euro boat tour, organized by Blue Boat Co. (blueboat.nl), passes by the Westerkerk, the church where Rembrandt’s wife is buried, as well as Rembrandt’s former homes.

It’s easy to understand why scholars have often regarded the end of Rembrandt’s life as tragic: His wife of eight years died in 1642 at age 29, he went bankrupt in 1656 and had to auction off most of his possessions and sell their home. He fell out of favor with city officials and patrons. And by the time he died at 63, he was so poor that he was buried in an unmarked grave.

But a very different picture emerges from research associated with these new exhibitions. Although he certainly struggled with his life circumstances, the last 20 years of Rembrandt’s life appear to have been remarkably productive, if not happy.

“It’s a very fertile period,” said David de Witt, the chief curator at the Rembrandt House.

Around 1651, the artist decided to ignore convention and focus on a new way of painting, employing the “looser brushwork and the powerful dynamism that comes with that,” said de Witt, adding, “You see this move toward greater introspection and less overt extreme emotions, more thought processes.”