Past and present meet in the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery



It can be hard to imagine that an exhibition of works by 17th century painters would be described as ‘new and interesting’, but those are the words. Rembrandt in Amsterdam: creativity and competition at the National Gallery of Canada the best.

The exhibition, open until September 6, showcases the work of Rembrandt and his student and fellow painters alongside contemporary art that addresses the colonial efforts that made possible the booming art markets of Amsterdam in the 17th century.

NGC Guest Curator Dr. Stephanie S. Dickey, Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art at Queen’s University and an international authority on Rembrandt and 17th-century Dutch art, has been working on the exhibition for the past five years.

Although she has studied the artist for many years, she says the process of anchoring Rembrandt’s work in an international colonial perspective is relatively new to her.

“I think it’s a very timely and refreshing prospect,” says Dickey.

The exhibition graciously connects the issues faced by Indigenous and Black communities past and present with Rembrandt and the art of his peers.

Jonathan Shaughnessy, director of curatorial initiatives at the National Gallery, says linking contemporary and historical art is not without challenges, and that “you have to be very reasonable about how you create these dialogues.”

But in the case of Rembrandt’s exhibition, the choices are almost transparent. The Effect is an exhibition that asks the viewer to look beyond the art of the past into the present.

“I think things fit together in a very particular way that only enhances the context of Rembrandt’s exhibition and really allows for a critical voice, but in a way that complements the general context of the subject very well,” Shaughnessy explains.

While forming the exhibition, Shaughnessy was Associate Curator of Contemporary Art and suggested including the work of Canadian Congolese artist Moridja Kitenge Banza.

“I think you have to be really aware of all the possible conversations when you mix works of art from different time periods, but I actually think it can be a very effective strategy.”

Jonathan Shaughnessy, Director of Curatorial Initiatives at the National Gallery

Banza has two pieces in the exhibition, From 1848 to the present day / Cross section of a slave ship, 2006-18 and From 1848 to the present day, 2006-20. Both feature a teaspoon motif that “evokes goods and resources mined from the Global South for trade in Western markets since Rembrandt’s time,” Shaunghnesy said during the exhibit. opening announcement.

Originally, the installation of the spoon was to take place at the end of the exhibit, but as discussions with the conservation team and Banza progressed, the installation ended up in the portrait room.

“This backdrop of a portrait room who are all patrons, some of them with ties to the world market at the time, has become a very good fit in there,” Shaughnessy explains.

“I think you have to be really aware of all the possible conversations when you mix works of art from different time periods, but I actually think it can be a very effective strategy.”

Another connection to our contemporary world is the similarity between COVID-19 today and disease in Rembrandt’s day. Several waves of bubonic plague crossed Amsterdam during the artist’s lifetime.

Dickey says there are a few labels in the exhibit that relate to bubonic plague or COVID-19, including one for a portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s partner, who may have died of the plague in 1663 .

It also allowed them to exhibit works by Ruth Cuthand, a contemporary Indigenous artist. Its two pieces, Smallpox and Pneumonia, are pearly representations of the two diseases.

“His work specifically refers to the impact of diseases of European origin on indigenous populations, which, of course, was absolutely devastating for indigenous peoples of North America around the same time,” he said. said Dickey.

For the National Gallery, an “encyclopedic museum” that primarily addresses a canon of Western art, including contemporary works, can help the viewer understand that what is presented is often just a story, explains Shaughnessy.

“I think that kind of inter-collection operation is really, really important in being able to get the audience to really think about the stories that are presented,” he says.

In her opening remarks for the exhibit, Dr. Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the NGC, said “that museums today, perhaps especially in North America, need to recognize the context broader colonialism ”.

unique works

But contemporary pieces are not the only unique part of the exhibition. It is also the first time that Rembrandt The Blindness of Samson is presented in Canada.

On loan from the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, where the next exhibition will be presented, the painting is enormous. It is 10 feet wide and 7 feet tall and represents the biblical story of Samson’s hair cut by his lover Delilah in order to steal his strength.

However, even the less prominent works are able to catch the eye. Dickey’s favorite painting is Rembrandt’s Landscape with a stone bridge.

“It’s tiny, but if you look closely there is so much emotion,” Dickey says. “It’s hard to imagine that you can put emotion in a landscape, but there is this gloomy sky and a kind of twinkling light. It is a combination of observation and imagination and juicy paint, juicy brush.

What’s interesting about the painting is that Rembrandt was not a landscape specialist like some of the other artists in this room in the exhibition, says Dickey, but he still really managed to make it something. something special.

“If I could take one home, this is the one I would take,” she said.

In many ways, Rembrandt is as unique as this exhibition of his work. Dickey says he was truly a man of his time, competing in a market alongside other artists who did very similar things, except he was more diverse and more ambitious. He didn’t just paint portraits or landscapes, he did everything.

“He did it all and he did it all brilliantly,” she says. “I think that’s one of the things that elevates him above the rest.”

Timed tickets for Rembrandt in Amsterdam: creativity and competition can be purchased online at and are for a specific date and time, based on availablity. Tickets are issued up to 90 minutes before closing time. Order by phone at 613-998-8888 or toll free at 1-888-541-8888.



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