Screen review

Their Rembrandts

Notes on art, history, and appreciation driven by the heart.

by Sara Blad | 30 January 2021

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Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading in Drumlanrig Castle. Photo: Dogwoof.

From the title of Oeke Hoogendijk’s documentary, ‘My Rembrandt’, one might assume that the movie is about Rembrandt, the artist. Instead, the movie is about the lengths that people and institutions will go to purchase, care for, and identify a Rembrandt artwork. This is a movie dedicated to people’s passion for Rembrandt’s art.

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Jan Six X standing in front of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six. Photo: Dogwoof.

These passions often lead the collectors whom Hoogendijk interviews to talk as if their Rembrandts are living beings. Thomas S. Kaplan admits that he kissed a Rembrandt the moment he held legal title to it: ‘When I first saw her, in the flesh, I went up to the painting, took it by both sides of the frame, and I kissed her on the lips’. The Duke of Buccleuch talks about the woman in Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading (1655) as if she is a part of his family. Hoogendijk’s camera trails the Duke and Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits as they try to find a suitable spot to hang her in his monumental castle. The Duke explains: ‘We want her in a space that is close and comfortable and where she can read her book while we read a book as well’. Occasionally, the Duke thinks the old woman is about to look up from her book, as if to share an interesting fact or funny comment. Anecdotes like these demonstrate collectors’ intimacy with these objects, underscoring the emotional power a Rembrandt painting still holds centuries after he put brush to canvas. These quotes may feel like spoilers, but these written words are no match for the emotional cadence with which these collectors describe the effect of their paintings. 

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The Duke of Buccleuch reading with Rembrandt’s Old Woman Reading. Photo: Dogwoof.

One of the most interesting conversations in the documentary is between Jan Six X and his son, Jan Six XI, an art dealer and art historian. Six X describes an imagined reality explaining the difference between two Rembrandt etchings of his ancestor, Jan Six I. Six XI complains that his father is making assumptions about Rembrandt’s thought process, rather than looking at the objects and trying to understand only what can be scientifically substantiated. Six X retorts: ‘You look at it scientifically and as a non-art historian, I can say what I like’. This one argument teases the documentary’s central tenet: art appreciation and art history are intimately connected but not the same thing. Hoogendijk dedicates her documentary not to Rembrandt’s life and artistic practice, but to the journeys his artistic creations have made and the lives they’ve touched along the way. And these journeys become part of the works of art, as people’s imaginations reinvent these objects time and time again.