Of Rembrandt, his artistic style, and ambition, amidst budding Indo-Dutch relations of the 17th century

  • A new exhibition at the CSMVS in Mumbai is exhibiting works on loan from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, which includes works by Rembrandt.

  • The exhibition explores Indo-Dutch relations and artistic dialogue in the 17 century.

  • Especially lauded for his portraits and self-portraits, Rembrandt brings a fresh perspective to this long-standing artistic tradition.

A new exhibition at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai is exhibiting 12 works on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, including those by Rembrandt. A collaboration between the two museums, the exhibition also showcases 10 works from CSMVS’ collection. Titled ‘India and the Netherlands in the Age of Rembrandt’ and supported by the Consulate General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Mumbai, it’s a celebration of 400 years of shared cultural heritage and diplomacy between the two countries, and in honour of the 350th death anniversary of the master painter. The exhibition, thematically focusing heavily on Indo-Dutch connections through the centuries, was inaugurated by King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of Netherlands on 16 October and is on till 16 December.

With India flourishing under the Mughal reign and the Dutch enjoying their Golden Age, both countries were thriving economically and encouraging cultural exchange, which resulted in a fascinating artistic dialogue. Joyoti Roy, head of museum marketing and strategy, recounts the inception of the idea: “We wanted to do a show where we explore objects that come from the Rijksmuseum and the idea is to see what was happening [in Europe] in the early 17th century when Rembrandt was painting, and what was happening in India which was under Mughal rule at the time. Because there were trade routes between India and Netherlands, there were lots of things that were being exchanged… So what this exhibition does is basically celebrate, in a non-internet age, the exchange of artistic influence between Indians and the Dutch.”

 Of Rembrandt, his artistic style, and ambition, amidst budding Indo-Dutch relations of the 17th century

Rembrandt self-portrait. All photos from Facebook @ArtistRembrandt.

The show has been co-curated by Professor Jos Gommans of Leiden University, also Chair of Colonial and Global History at the university. Curation of the exhibition is based on his 2018 book The Unseen World: The Netherlands and India from 1550 where he explores artistic and intellectual connections between the two countries at the time. With research focused on global intellectual history, a relatively young field in scholarship and academia, his work focuses on historic politics, state formation, and trade. It is through this lens that he studies the circulation and exchange of ideas, understanding these cultural activities and ideas and their effects on empires. To fully understand the dialogue and effects the arts of the two countries had on each-other, it’s important then to first understand the very view of art and artists at the time.

“I think what is really important to realise is that in the past, painters were working for the church and the court,” says Gommans in an interview with Firstpost. And the 17th century, with an increasing interest in cultural activities, also signals the rise of a middle class. “And the middle class also wants paintings. So there is really a kind of new fashion, [a] craze that people want to own paintings.” And while painters were either Church or Court servants, or service providers for the middle class, “they were certainly not high ranked.” This middle class creates, and demands, its own style and fashion of painting. “So we have these daily scenes of normal people which become very popular and Rembrandt, of course, had to adjust” because “basically, he had a clientele in the middle class,” explains Gommans.

Portrait of a Man with a Magnifying Glass by Rembrandt.

Portrait of a Man with a Magnifying Glass by Rembrandt.

This also meant that like most independent artists today, Rembrandt couldn’t depend solely on selling paintings to make a living, also being a teacher and art dealer. The quality that sets him apart then was his approach to the art itself. His body of work reflects a constantly experimental, evolving, learning approach to colour, light and shadow, and composition. Especially lauded for his portraits and self-portraits, he essentially brings a fresh perspective to this long-standing artistic tradition. While taking off from the Dutch tradition of realistic paintings, Rembrandt’s portraits follow in a different direction. “He starts doing portraits that are much more seductive and emotional than just copying what they are in the real world,” says Roy. Instead of stylised, near-perfect reproductions documenting a person for eternity, Rembrandt’s portraits are intense, full of emotional depth, intimately opening the sitter up to the viewer as a living, breathing person, being reflections of real people instead of detached portraits.

Rembrandt self-portraits.

Rembrandt self-portraits.

Although this approach allows for exciting interpretation when viewing his numerous self-portraits, many scholars suggest that while being intimate artistic explorations of his own psyche, these self-portraits were also tools of marketing himself to his target audiences. Rembrandt’s aspiration was to be invited by the courts; “there’s the market,” says Gommans, adding that working for the courts signalled the highest status for painters. So when the Dutch signalled an interest in strengthening ties with India, it was Rembrandt’s professional interest, coupled with his openness to artistic experimentation, which meant he was open to Indian artistic influences.

“The Dutch wanted to make an impression at the Mughal court. They wanted to sell in the Indian market,” says Gommans. And in this context, a shared visual identity became symbolic of the strengthening connection between the two countries, explained Gommans at a talk at the CSMVS. Rembrandt readily delved into the Indian art world, understanding the artistic tradition, technique, drawing style and materials. He was most influenced by the famed Mughal miniatures, popular at the time, empathising with them and finding ways to integrate their techniques and styles into his own style. “Rembrandt, knowing that he was facing a visual culture that he considered superior, [said] ‘let’s try and see whether we can learn [through] drawing and copying these miniatures’,” explains Gommans.

This exchange certainly worked both ways, with many Indian artists also being influenced by European paintings during the period. “Indian painters became interested in landscapes and perspectives as a result of their curiosity for European painters,” says Gommans. One example is the miniaturist Keshu Das, active during Akbar’s court, and remembered most prominently “as the preeminent and creative explorer of the European mode at the Mughal court.” Famed for painting European figures in front of Indian and ‘Oriental’ backgrounds, his most famous works include St Matthew the Evangelist and Minerva, among others.

Besides subject and theme, Indian artists were also being introduced to new techniques, most prominently the concept of perspective in Western art. “India was learning the idea of perspective from the realist Dutch paintings,” says Roy, adding that in early Indian paintings, “we always show things that are important as big and things that are not important as small.” So the idea of putting certain things in the foreground and others in the background was largely introduced to Indian artists through the Europeans. “And there are examples of one or two miniature paintings put on display from the Indian collection which show nuances of how the Indian miniature artist is developing his skill in perspective,” adds Roy about the exhibition.

India and the Netherlands in the Age of Rembrandt is on display at the Extension Wing of the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the CSMVS in Mumbai, until 16 December, 2019.

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Updated Date: Nov 04, 2019 09:25:59 IST