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For the first time ever, 'All the Rembrandts' are on display in Amsterdam


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of the death of the Dutch master painter Rembrandt.

To celebrate his life and legacy, museums in the Netherlands are dedicating the entire year to new exhibits showcasing his work.

Jeffrey Brown traveled to Amsterdam, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The Night Watch by Rembrandt van Rijn. Every day, thousands of visitors crowd into Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum to catch a glimpse of one of history's most celebrated art works, a masterpiece of storytelling, light and shadow, on a mammoth scale.

But we got our own after-hours look at it and the other works in the museum's extraordinary new exhibition titled All the Rembrandts. It's part of the Netherlands' celebrations commemorating the 350th anniversary of his death, and marks the first time this world-renowned museum has made its entire collection of Rembrandts open to the public.

Jane Turner: This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it all out.

Jeffrey Brown: Jane Turner is curator of prints.

Jane Turner: It's something you can just come back to over and over again, and each time you look, you will see something new and something different.

Jeffrey Brown: There are 22 paintings, including grand portraits of Dutch high society and scenes from the Bible, 60 drawings, and more than 300 prints. They span his career, and show an artist unmatched at capturing the humanity in his subjects, even in sketches of daily life, like this one of a pancake-maker and some very hungry children.

Jane Turner: She looks a bit cynical, and she's thinking, you will get your pancake when I see the money. And the young kid -- it's brilliant. He's digging in his pocket and he's really, really digging.

And Rembrandt, he's managed -- he makes the leg bent a bit.

Jeffrey Brown: Right.

Jane Turner: And so you really feel that movement of trying to find his coin.

Jeffrey Brown: But this is a street scene, right? I mean, it's just something he...

Jane Turner: This is a street scene. This is something that he would have seen. But it's the brilliance with which he observes humanity.

Jeffrey Brown: The sketches also offer a glimpse into Rembrandt himself and his development as an artist.

Jane Turner: You see the artist thinking on paper. There are mistakes, and he doesn't try to cover it up. He's not doing it for somebody else or to sell. He does it for himself. And then you get the raw inside glimpse of what he thinks, what makes him laugh, what makes him grieve, what makes him sad.

Jeffrey Brown: One of his main subjects was himself. The exhibition opens with a roomful of self-portraits done throughout his life, smiling, frowning, young, and old.

He used them, in part, to practice techniques that would come to embody his larger works. In other cases, they served as a statement to the outside world, one that at times had its critics.

Jonathan Bikker: They called him the first heretic in art history.

Jeffrey Brown: Jonathan Bikker is curator of research here, and author of the new book "Rembrandt: Biography of a Rebel."

Jonathan Bikker: A number of them mentioned that he broke the rules of our art.

Jeffrey Brown: Which meant what?

Jonathan Bikker: A variety of things. Some of the things they accused him of doing, we wouldn't think of as radical at all, for example, painting old wrinkled women, for example.

What you were supposed to do was to select the best, the most beautiful things in nature, and improve upon that. Rembrandt didn't do that. For Rembrandt, this was the ideal playing field for light and dark.

Jeffrey Brown: For Bikker, the culmination of Rembrandt's achievement is the painting known as The Jewish Bride, a portrait of two lovers cast as the Old Testament's Isaac and Rebecca.

Jonathan Bikker: This is the greatest painted ode to love that was ever made.

Jeffrey Brown: The greatest?

Jonathan Bikker:The greatest.

Jeffrey Brown: It also shows Rembrandt's technique, here, the use of thick layers of richly colored paint.

Jonathan Bikker: It's modeled like clay. The high point of that technique is figuratively and literally in the sleeve of Isaac. That is the thickest passage of paint in any 17th century painting produced in Europe. Every painting that Rembrandt did was a different experiment.

Jeffrey Brown: The celebration also sheds new light on Rembrandt the man, walking the streets of Amsterdam, a celebrity artist in his own day, in one of the world's wealthiest cities.

Lidewij de Koekkoek: He lived on quite a large scale . He spent a lot of money. He was an avid collector of expensive and beautiful things.

Jeffrey Brown: Lidewij de Koekkoek is the director of the Rembrandt House Museum. Rembrandt originally bought the house at the height of his fame near one of Amsterdam's iconic canals, and he used it as a living space, studio and workshop for his apprentices.

Lidewij de Koekkoek: Here, his first wife, Saskia.

Jeffrey Brown: A new exhibition examines his social network, family, friends and colleagues.

Lidewij de Koekkoek: We have this romantic idea about Rembrandt being very grumpy, being a lonely genius. But he wasn't at all. I mean, he was obsessed by art, and art was foremost in his life.

So he surrounded himself with people, and that is what the exhibition shows, people that shared his interest in art, that he could discuss art with, connoisseurs, pupils, artist friends.

Jeffrey Brown: Well-connected, but not always easy.

Alette Fleischer: We, of course, think of him as a genius, but a genius with -- I don't know, with a temper, and opinionated, and not being always a very nice guy.

Jeffrey Brown: Alette Fleischer, an art historian, leads tours on Rembrandt in Amsterdam, and took us to the Royal Palace, site of one of the lowest points of his career. As the story goes, Rembrandt was commissioned to paint a portrait of the first century warrior Gaius Civilis, but his version, a moody and gritty depiction, wasn't what his benefactors were expecting.

And they pulled the painting shortly after its completion.

Alette Fleischer: The client wanted one thing, and he gave them another story. And he was completely sure that what he did was the right thing. His man was more truthfully felt.

Jeffrey Brown: While he continued to receive commissions, his later life proved turbulent. Overspending led Rembrandt to declare bankruptcy, and he spent the remainder of his life in relative poverty.

He was buried in a rental grave here at the Westerkerk, his remains eventually moved and lost to history.

Jane Turner: It was a life filled with success, happiness, great tragedy.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's all there in the artwork, notably in the portraits of his wife, Saskia. She gave birth to four children, but only one survived to adulthood. And she herself died just shy of her 30th birthday.

Curator Jane Turner:

Jane Turner: There are lovely portraits of her, but there are also a series of very sad drawings, when -- before or after she's lost one of her children. And this is gritty, everyday life, and poignant. And you can imagine him wanting to sit with her because she's sad or she's ill or whatever. And while he sits with her, he draws her.

Jeffrey Brown: And it comes through that he loves her.

Jane Turner: He adores her. He absolutely adores her.

Jeffrey Brown: For Jonathan Bikker, it's that ability that keeps Rembrandt relevant and beloved three-and-a-half centuries after his death.

Jonathan Bikker: We still have emotions in the 21st century. It's what defines us, basically, as human beings. So when we look at Rembrandt's paintings, but also his etchings and his drawings, we actually experience our own humanity.

Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition All the Rembrandts runs through June 10.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

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