Rembrandt’s genius was no overnight success. He worked hard to get it right

His early work was 'feeble' and he wasn't even the best painter in his home town. But he possessed an incredible ability to depict complex emotions in his work. Perhaps, suggests William Cook, that is why Rembrandt took so long to get going

Thursday 14 November 2019 17:51
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Rembrandt's 'Interior with Figures', 1627
Rembrandt's 'Interior with Figures', 1627

In the Lakenhal Museum in Leiden, an ancient university town about 30 miles from Amsterdam, there’s a stiff and stilted painting of a bunch of posh blokes in fancy dress. If it was by any other artist it wouldn’t attract a second glance, but among the crowd of faces in the background there’s a young man who looks strangely familiar – an unkempt youth with a bulbous nose and a mop of curly hair. This face in the crowd is a surreptitious self-portrait, the earliest self-portrait by the greatest portrait painter who ever lived.

Ask anyone where Rembrandt came from, and chances are they’ll say Amsterdam – the city where he made his name. However, the place where he was born and raised and learnt his craft was Leiden, and now his historic hometown is staging the first show ever devoted to his early years. Young Rembrandt is a fascinating survey – the story of a tyro artist struggling to find his feet. At the start of this show his paintings feel forced and diffident. By the end of the show, 10 years later, they’re full of life. But it’s not just these later masterworks which catch the eye – it’s also his awkward apprentice works. What’s so intriguing about Rembrandt (and so heartening for the rest of us) is that his immense talent took so long to bloom.

“For me, what is so remarkable is in some sense how – how can I say this about Rembrandt – how feeble the early pictures are,’’ says Christopher Brown, the co-curator of this Anglo-Dutch exhibition. “Had he died after those first few pictures, we would have no interest in him at all.’’

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