The Curious Case of Louis Royer’s Rembrandt Monument
by Sara Blad | 31 March 2021
Louis Royer’s Rembrandt Monument. Photo: Author’s own.
I was thinking something wasn’t quite right as I circled sculptor Louis Royer’s cast iron Rembrandt Monument (c. 1852) in Rembrandt Square, Amsterdam. I finished my rotations and stood in front of the Rembrandt statue that towered over me. I assessed his features: thick, luscious curls ballooned out of his painter’s beret; his prominent brow ridge shaded his eyes from the sun; his mustache and goatee outlined his full, unwrinkled lips. His tight shirt stretched over his muscular chest, revealing the contours of his body. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much of Rembrandt, I thought to myself. Where were the cloaks, robes, and other voluminous garments that traditionally enveloped his body? In fact, his shirt was so tight that a few buttons popped open, as if to suggest that he often frequented the 17th-century version of a gym.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1628, oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo: Rijksmuseum.
I really did not recognize this man and I have been studying 17th-century Dutch art at the Courtauld since September. My internal monologue was suddenly quoting Keke Palmer’s famous who-ing of Dick Cheney: ‘I hate to say it, I hope I don’t sound ridiculous, I don’t know who this man is. I mean, he could be walking down the street, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t know a thing. Sorry to this man’. Of course, being in a public square named after Rembrandt and seeing Rembrandt’s own signature embossed on the statue’s pedestal screamed at me that, yes, this man is Rembrandt. These contextual clues did not correspond with my visual analysis of the figure before me. My eyes processed an image of a man who is decidedly not Rembrandt, or at least, not a version of Rembrandt that I recognized. This contrast between the version of Rembrandt in front of me and the Rembrandt in my mind was so jarring that the sculpture initially felt to be ahistorical.
And yet, how can one possibly commemorate the man who drew, etched, and painted his own likeness throughout his life almost 80 times in only one statue? If one were to source inspiration from Rembrandt’s own body of work, they could choose from young Rembrandt, middle-aged Rembrandt, old Rembrandt, laughing Rembrandt, surprised Rembrandt, and pensive Rembrandt, to name a few options.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Cap: Laughing, 1630, etching, 49 x 42 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo: Rijksmuseum.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait in a Cap, Wide-Eyed and Open-Mouthed, 1630, etching, 50 x 45 mm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Photo: Rijksmuseum.
This begs one to question what it means to create a statuary monument to Rembrandt after he left us so many self-portraits. With the advent of the internet and open access policies, many people are familiar with Rembrandt’s likeness. The Rijksmuseum itself (which opened in 1885) acts as a kind of monument to Rembrandt because it was designed with a purpose-built gallery dedicated to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (c. 1642). In 2019, the Rijksmuseum honored the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death by designating the year as the ‘Year of Rembrandt’.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait at the Age of 34, 1640, oil on canvas, 102 x 80 cm, National Gallery, London. Photo: National Gallery.
So why was Royer commissioned to create this public monument to Rembrandt? Rembrandt was not as popular in the 19th century as he is today, and it’s possible that the commissioning committee thought the statue would enhance the painter’s public standing. But it’s more likely that nationalistic ideals inspired the committee. Lieke Janssen argues that the commissioning committee wanted to use the memory of the art of the Dutch Golden Age to inspire nationalistic sentiments among the Dutch population. The committee may have thought this especially appropriate given that the Belgians had in 1840 constructed a statue of Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens in Antwerp. Janssen argues that the committee’s inability to raise enough funds for a bronze statue indicates that the project was less about Rembrandt’s individual value and more as a counterpoint to the Belgian’s Rubens statue. After all, the Belgians had recently gained independence from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1831.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1659, oil on canvas, 84.5 x 66 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Photo: National Gallery of Art.
Rembrandt van Rijn, Self-Portrait, 1669, oil on canvas, 65.4 x 60.2 cm, Mauritshuis, The Hague. Photo: Mauritshuis.
Perhaps then it is not so surprising that Royer, a Dutch sculptor who trained with neoclassical sculptors Bertel Thorvaldsen and Antonio Canova’s studio, chose not to prioritize just one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Instead, Royer reinvented Rembrandt’s image by transforming Rembrandt to fit his neoclassical style, albeit outfitted in 17th-century costume. Royer did not need to recreate a Rembrandt self-portrait, so he envisioned him through his own style, imagination, and memory. Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but it needs to be said: this is a monument to Royer’s interpretation of Rembrandt, the Rembrandt he envisioned in his head, in addition to being a monument to Rembrandt himself. And I don’t begrudge him for molding this statue from his own singular vision. Sculpting the Netherlands’ first national monument to Rembrandt, arguably the country’s most famous artist, is a monumental responsibility.
While Royer’s statue is the first statue of Rembrandt (and more broadly, the first of a visual artist in the Netherlands), I do not think that it should be the only monument to Rembrandt in Rembrandt Square. One would need to commission each person’s idea of Rembrandt to capture his legacy and immortality among each person who has admired his work. Just as one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits does not account for the breadth of his work, Royer’s interpretation of, and monument, to Rembrandt cannot stand on its own.