Amsterdam: 400 years of Rembrandt

Amsterdam pays tribute to its favourite son this anniversary year. But rather than one big retrospective, there are lots of exhibitions to see - which reflects the sheer variety of his work, says Claire Wrathall

For a city keen to court tourists, to have two main attractions out of commission at once might look like carelessness. But this year's Rembrandt anniversary means that even with the partial closure for refurbishment of the Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk, Amsterdam remains a pre-eminent destination for art lovers. Rather than mark the 400th birthday with one blockbuster retrospective, however, museums are mounting a succession of 15 themed exhibitions to reflect the variety - portraits, historic and biblical scenes, landscapes, oils, drawings, etchings - and size of his body of work. These willshowwhy he deserves his reputation for greatness, both as an innovator - look at how he manipulated light, and scratched and slathered paint - and as a painter of humanity.

But what of the man? An hour or two at the Rembrandthuis, the by-dour-Dutch standards ostentatious mansion he lived in for 19 years until he declared himself bankrupt the day before his 50th birthday, is illuminating. Using his drawings and the inventories collated by the bailiffs, the museum has been reconstructed to resemble his home as it probably looked. In the salon, the carved box bed, the classical figures on the chimney piece, the chairs, are just as they are in his 1642 drawing "Saskia in Bed". Then there's his studio with its two stoves - for the sake of his models, and his hands - and muslin draped above the windows to temper the light as it fell on his easel, again just as it appears in his drawings.

But better yet is the Kunstcaemer, his astonishing cabinet of curiosities - antiquities, stuffed reptiles, antlers, armour, weapons, coins, shells, coral - testimony not just to his inquisitive nature and need for props, but to his success. For, thanks to the popularity of his work and the dowry of his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, he was briefly rich - a celebrity whose image collectors sought, hence the 80-odd self-portraits.

Amsterdam's other Rembrandt-related sights are unexpectedly undeveloped. Even the churches where he and his family are buried make little of the graves. Rembrandt was interred, though no one knows where, in the splendid Westerkerk, along with his son, Titus, and housemaid-turned-common-law-wife Hendrickje Stoffels, with whom he lived for 16 years (Saskia's will prevented them marrying). But the church deserves visiting when the tower is open, for if you can face the 186 steps to its 85m summit, the views of the spider's web of canals, the narrow gabled houses and their secret gardens are superb.

It's worth, too, venturing into the Oud Centrum, the oldest, seediest part of the city, where voluptuaries in provocative underwear sit miserably in windows (come early, before the sex trade wakes up). Rembrandt would have known the now-precariously leaning merchants' houses, with their fancy gables, abundant windows and blackish-green paintwork, built when Amsterdam was held to be the most modern city in the world. Here the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, contains what was Saskia's grave, though penury later compelled Rembrandt to sell it.

Better to press north to Centraal Station and hop on a train to Leiden, half an hour away and Rembrandt's birthplace. His family home is long gone, replaced by a 1980s apartment building. But Leiden is exceptionally pretty, bisected by the Rhine (hence Rembrandt's appellation, van Rijn), crosshatched with canals and dotted with Rembrandt-related places: the Latin school he attended; the university, the Netherlands' oldest, he enrolled at; the 900-year-old canalside market; a windmill like the ones his successful malt miller father owned. There's also a clutch of first-rate museums, such as the Lakenhal, which has a collection of works by his teachers Jacob van Swanenburg and Pieter Lastman, friend Jan Lievans and pupil Gerard Dou.

If you're in the Netherlands this week, head south to Maastricht, where The European Fine Art Fair (known as Tefaf) runs until 18 March. This year, exceptionally, there are two Rembrandt paintings on sale, "The Apostle James the Major" and "Man in a Red Doublet". Original Rembrandt prints start at around €5,000 (£3,400). If you see something you respond to look long and hard, it may be the last time it'sshown.

KLM (08705 074074; klm.com) flies to Amsterdam Schipol from £72 return. The newest hotel in Amsterdam, well placed for the museums, is the beautifully designed but student-run College Hotel, Roelof Hartstraat 1 (00 31 20 571 15 11; thesteingroup. com/college), which offers doubles from €247 a night. The NH Doelen, Nieuwe Doelenstraat 24 (00 31 20 554 0600; nh-hotels.com) is near Rembrandtplein and has doubles from €104 per night

1. The Oude Kerk



WHAT TO SEE Rembrandt's wife, Saskia, was buried in the Weitkoper's chapel of this magnificent Gothic church, the oldest and most rewarding to visit in the city, not least because it functions principally as an exhibition centre and concert venue.

CONTACT Oudekerksplein 23 (00 31 20 625 82 84; oudekerk.nl)

2. Jewish Historical Museum



WHAT TO SEE A resident of the then Jewish quarter, Rembrandt painted a number of important Jewish citizens as well as Old Testament themes with Hebrew captions. The museum affords an insight into the city's Jewish heritage, and stages The Jewish Rembrandt (10 November-4 February 2007).

CONTACT Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1 (00 31 20 5 310 310; jhm.nl)

3. Café in de Waag



WHAT TO SEE Now a candle-lit bar/restaurant, the city's turreted former weigh house contained the "theatre" in which Dr Nicolaes Tulp conducted his anatomy lessons, the subject of Rembrandt's first formal group portrait. Tulp's real name was Claes Pieterszoon, but he changed it to "tulip" in anticipation of Dutch bulb mania. CONTACT Café in de Waag, Nieuwmarkt 4 (00 31 20 422 7772; indewaag.nl)

4. Zuiderkerk



WHAT TO SEE Now a municipal-planning information centre, this was Rembrandt's local church, while he lived on Jodenbreestraat, which is why three of his children were buried here. Some claim this was where he painted 'Night Watch', whose canvas was too big for his studio (others hold he painted it in his own backyard). CONTACT Zuiderkerkhof 72 (holland.com)

5. Rembrandthuis



WHAT TO SEE Gives an insight into the artist's life, even if its displays are a reconstruction. Exhibitions include: Rembrandt: Quest of a Genius (1 April- 2 July); Rembrandt the Etcher (8 July- 3 September); and Rembrandt and Uylenburgh (16 September-10 December). CONTACT Jodenbreestraat 4 (00 31 20 520 0400; rembrandthuis.nl)

6. Royal Carré Theatre



WHAT TO SEE All-singing, all-dancing 'Rembrandt De Musical' (book by Anna de Graef, music by Jeroen Engelebert and Dirk Brosséopens, starring Henk Poort), runs from 12 July-1 October, at Amsterdam's premier lyric theatre. The press release suggests it'll be sensational in the worst sense. CONTACT Amstel 115-25 (00 31 20 622 5225; theatercarre.nl)

7. Van Gogh Museum



WHAT TO SEE Obviously Van Gogh was influenced by Rembrandt: "What an intimate, infinitely sympathetic painting," he said of 'The Jewish Bride'. But the relevance is the exhibition Rembrandt-Caravaggio, which runs until 18 June.

CONTACT Paulus Potterstraat 7 (00 31 20 570 5200; vangoghmuseum.nl)

8. Rijksmuseum



WHAT TO SEE The Philips Wing is home to a peerless collection of Rembrandts, while temporary exhibitions include Really Rembrandt (until 24 May); Rembrandt the Storyteller (11 August-11 October); and Rembrandt the Observer (14 October-31 December). CONTACT Jan Luijkenstraat 1 (00 31 20 674 7047; rijksmuseum.nl)

9. Rozengracht



WHAT TO SEE It's not the canalside street Rembrandt would have known when he moved into number 184 in 1659. But it's worth the detour en route to Blender, a modish restaurant/bar designed by the impossibly hip Dutch practice, Droog. CONTACT Blender, Van der Palmkade 16 (00 31 20 486 9860)

10. Westerkerk



WHAT TO SEE Close to the Rosengracht, this monumental church was begun in 1631, 38 years before Rembrandt was buried here in an unmarked grave. It's large, light interior is open at weekends in July and August. But the tower (April to September) is well worth the climb. CONTACT Prinsengracht 279

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