True to Life is coming to the National Gallery of Victoria


As an art dealer and artist, Rembrandt collected insanely and amassed a treasure trove of works of art. These were significant and enabled him to see landscapes and other artists’ depictions of their reality; He did not travel outside of Holland but argued that he had seen enough in daily life in Amsterdam. The Wunderkammer has also proved invaluable here. He was fascinated by what other artists were doing and wanted to offer his own version.

A natural innovator, he preempted mass dissemination by mastering etching, which meant he could spread his work beyond the borders of his native country and help spread his name and reputation across Europe. According to Kayser, he began making very small etchings in 1628.

“Tiny prints the size of a sticky note, he takes portraits of his mother, father and himself… the closer you look, the more rewarding [they are]. He packs the emotion of a baroque painting into these very small media.”

Self-Portrait in a Cap, with Wide Eyes and Open Mouth, Etching, 1630.

Self-Portrait in a Cap, with Wide Eyes and Open Mouth, Etching, 1630.Credit:Reich Museum

In an early self-portrait from 1630, on loan from Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, we can see the great artist practicing facial expressions. He looks in the mirror and pulls faces, paints himself and maybe thinks about the theater and what actors do, says Kayser.

“He does something new and original in every single print; he reinvents and finds a different way of telling the story. He will keep coming back to some motifs to emphasize a certain element of story or emotion.”

Rembrandt, one of the great realists, drew models from life but, contrary to convention, did not follow proportion or romanticize or idealize, which drew criticism in his day. Kayser says the attention to detail in these drawings is often extraordinary – he even added the indentations of her stockings and garters.

Interested in the everyday, he attracted people from all walks of life, including the poorest, as well as those engaged in domestic activities such as “engrossed in an act of reading – nobody does it like Rembrandt”.

“He went further than anyone and made it a central theme in his artwork.”

Christ crucified between the two thieves (The Three Crosses) c. 1653-55

Christ crucified between the two thieves (The Three Crosses) c. 1653-55Credit:NGV

In his biblical scenes he added a beggar to bring the work into the here and now to make it more realistic. In another of Christ and His Parents, Rembrandt does not depict the infant baby or the crucified adult, but envisions and draws a little boy and his family, looking like any other family walking together.


As for the nomination of the master’s favorite works, Kayser laughs, there are far too many. “They are so detailed. It strikes me that there are no clichés – it’s all about gestures. They are so subtle and impressive.”

“Rembrandt is a fantastic storyteller. That’s really what he does, that’s what ties it all together. And the ingenuity – he’s totally original, even as he’s constantly drawing on the work of others, how he tells stories and reinvents all those stories,” says Kayser. “He’s been credited with a Shakespearean range – he’s not just for his time, but for all times, as Ben Jonson said. That’s why he’s so fresh. You can connect [his works] immediately.”

Rembrandt: True to Life opens at the National Gallery Victoria on June 2nd and runs until September 10th.

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Jaclyn Diaz

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