A new no-holds-barred graphic novel biography of Rembrandt strives to fill in the often dark, drunken and erotic gaps in the tragic life of one of the most famous of Dutch artists.
“Rembrandt” by comic book artist Typex shows the painter as you’ve never seen him before: cantankerous, obsessive and unfaithful.
Rembrandt’s life, 1606-1669, spanned the height of the Golden Age, when the Netherlands was awash with bourgeois and aristocratic money, much of it spent on acquiring art, and the book is both sociological and historical.
“High quality art is a sound investment,” dealer Hendrick van Uylenburgh, who helped launch Rembrandt’s career, tells the young artist in the book. “It gives status and prestige.”
“Rembrandt” is being published as his most famous painting, The Night Watch, is moved back into Amsterdam’s revamped Rijksmuseum, which commissioned the book during its 10-year renovation.
The book features characters from Rembrandt’s life and art, including the main figure in the centre of The Night Watch: black-clad, red-sashed militia leader Captain Frans Banning Cocq.
Banning Cocq at one point questions Rembrandt about an 18-year-old Danish girl the artist slept with the night before, who ended up killing her employer with an axe.
Typex, 50, described by Australian singer Nick Cave as “the second greatest Dutch artist” after Rembrandt, wrote and illustrated the book by “squeezing five years into two-and-a-half years”, with 14-hour workdays, a tempo the obsessive Rembrandt would likely have respected.
“I read a bookcase of books about Rembrandt, made a lot of notes, put all the books to one side and got to work,” Typex told AFP.
“A lot is not known about Rembrandt. What’s known are the official papers, the property contracts, marriage and death records. That’s known, and here and there (there is) a small commentary,” Typex said.
As a result, much of the book is based on anecdotes, but hung on an historically accurate framework of names and dates.
The book illuminates the art record of Rembrandt’s life, which literally fades into the obscurity of his increasingly dark self portraits.
“You never do paid work any more,” laments Rembrandt’s long-term lover Hendrickje Stoffels, his former maid. “Just one self portrait after another. I’m really worried.”
Rembrandt’s wife, his lovers, children and even artistic competitors die, and the artist grows steadily more quarrelsome.
“He had a lot of tragedy, everyone around him died, that’s how it was in those days,” said Typex. “But I didn’t want to make just a sad book.
Typex notably takes a novel approach to the death of Rembrandt’s common-law wife Stoffels.
“I told it all from the perspective of the rat that brings the plague — it’s not at all a sad event for the rat, he gets food and is having the time of his life,” Typex said.
Friend and rival painter Jan Lievens keeps popping up, apparently more commercially successful than Rembrandt in the roaring 1660s.
“These are the sixties,” social climber Lievens tells Rembrandt. “People are spoilt. The customer is king. So he thinks.”
Rembrandt is shown admiring and then signing in his own name a painting by one of his most gifted students, Carel Fabritius.
Fabritius thanks Rembrandt for having signed the painting in his name, a tradition behind much 21st century confusion about which Rembrandts are really his.
Florentine grand duke Cosimo de’ Medici is shown arriving in Amsterdam, trying to track down Rembrandt.
“Stupid tourists,” Rembrandt’s daughter Cornelia says at the sight of the grand duke trying to pick up Dutch girls in a scene reminiscent of Amsterdam today.
“Tell him that for paintings with pretty girls and bright colours he should look to the print dealer on the corner, not me!” a virtually destitute Rembrandt tells the grand duke.
“And now, all of you get out. Piss off out of my house. Capisce? Arrivederci,” a typically irritable Rembrandt cries.
“He was a difficult man, obsessed,” said Typex.
“He could have had it easier if he’d been less outspoken, fallen in with the tastes of rich people. But he just didn’t have the social capacity for that.”