FROM THE NETHERLANDS TO YORKSHIRE: The Rembrandt Exhibition at Temple Newsam

It takes a special kind of courage for one of the most well-renowned artists in the world to make an appearance in a country house in Yorkshire. Yet that is exactly what Temple Newsam has done with its latest exhibition of a selection of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s etchings and prints.

Rembrandt himself is one of the biggest names in Western art. Exhibitions of his work in London, Liverpool and other places sell out in minutes. Countless books have been written about him. His name is often seen to be synonymous with ‘art’. But the question is why is the hype around this exhibit at Temple Newsam so minimal?

Few would know it was there; there is little advertisement in the rest of the house, and the room the works are held in is isolated. The exhibition room is located on the second floor of the house, with only one entrance. However, it can be argued that this makes for a quieter and more peaceful viewing experience.

Upon entering the room, you realise that Temple Newsam has decided to lay bare Rembrandt’s first pieces in their starkest form – they are hung in simple frames, spread out from one another and with strong lighting. This allows viewers to analyse the detail of the etchings and prints, while disallowing distraction. The first installment of the exhibition, titled ‘Portraits and People’, showcases Rembrandt’s early prints of people. The arrangement of the works themselves also helps guide the viewers’ eye  from left to right, travelling from his iconic self-portraits, to etchings of his wife Saskia, then to a selection of his traveler and beggar studies. As the viewers’ eye lands first on Rembrandt’s face, it is immediately established whose exhibition it is. ‘Cropped Self-Portrait in Cap and Scarf with the Face Dark’ is one of the first works the viewer sees, a typical Rembrandt work – alluding to the sitter’s character and persona, yet being shrouded in mystery. It is these self-portraits that the public know and love; Temple Newsam is reminding the viewers that this is a typical Rembrandt exhibition, on par with great past exhibitions.

Interestingly enough, the particular work that stands out before the rest is ‘Portrait of the Young Saskia’, a portrait of Rembrandt’s wife. This is hung over the fireplace in the centre of the room, immediately drawing viewers’ attention. The curator may have made this decision in tribute to Rembrandt’s beloved wife, or simply because it is one of the most detailed and interesting pieces in the room.

The quality of the works themselves is impeccable – despite them being from the 17th century, they have been excellently preserved, and still retain the character and charm that they would have had 400 years ago. His traveller and beggar studies in particular portray the feeling of vulnerability yet distance that we still understand and associate with the homeless today.  The etchings and sketches as a whole highlight how Rembrandt developed his famous technique, and show his detailed observations of facial expressions and depictions of emotion.  The exhibition also has an aspect of uniqueness, as magnifying glasses are provided, in order for visitors to analyze detail better – they are not being shut out; they are welcome to explore and investigate. This makes a pleasant change from the usual physical and theoretical distance between audience and artwork.

However, the exhibition does have its downfalls – collectively there is a problem with accessible information. The accompanying labels to the works and bare and vague, with little information beyond the name, date and material. Despite Rembrandt being a well-known and successful artist, it would still be reassuring to have a few words explaining his thought process and the context of the work. The only information that goes into depth is the large board that the visitor sees on the left-hand side of the room, which explains mainly about Rembrandt’s biography without much information on his work and its circumstances. This is nice enough for the casual visitor, but visitors with a specific interest in art will feel let down. The exhibition seems not to know its target audience as magnifying glasses are provided for an analytical probing of the work, suggesting an academic audience, yet the information is rather formless. There is even a hand-out for children, which despite being both fun and interesting, confuses the idea of an expected audience further. Staff is also hard to come by. Room stewards do not seem to come and go through the room, which makes it difficult to ask them questions about the exhibition.

Despite this, the venue for this exhibition is a strong one. Temple Newsam House itself is a splendid Tudor Jacobean mansion, renowned as being the birthplace of Henry Lord Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots’ infamous husband. Aside from the Rembrandt exhibition, the House has over forty fully restored rooms and impressive collections of fine and decorative art. This air of wealth and pomp coincides well with the exhibition, as it allows an impressive build up to such a reputable artist, and provides a subtext to his highly-thought-of work.

All in all, this exhibition of Rembrandt’s works teaches a valuable lesson in how artists can find their signature style, and still have success through it almost 400 years after their death. Temple Newsam has managed to execute a simple yet impressive display of his work, and shows that revisiting the past is just as effective as exhibiting the present.

The second instalment of this exhibition, Rembrandt and the Bible, will run from 8 April – 20 July 2014.

Catherine Elliott


Rembrandt and the Bible
8 April – 20 July 2014

Temple Newsam House
Selby Road
Leeds, LS15 0AD

Filed under: Art & Photography