Amsterdam – A Destination So Instagrammable, Even 16th-Century Artists Were Painting Snapshots
The Dutch city celebrates 350 years since the death of Rembrandt. Gabrielle Fagan goes in search of the original selfie
17 March 2019
All Credits: PA
I’m wobbling along cobbled streets on a bicycle, on my way to visit someone who could be regarded as the world’s first Instagrammer.
Being on a bike for the first time in 20 years is an event for me; in cycle-mad Amsterdam, it’s the most authentic way to travel. But far more extraordinary is discovering that the social media pioneer is iconic artist Rembrandt, who died centuries before the photo-sharing site was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye.
The way he sowed the seeds for one of the most popular ways to communicate today is revealed for the first time in the new All The Rembrandts exhibition at the Rijksmuseum (until June 10, 2019), which I’m going to view.
The All The Rembrandts exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Museum Square, Amsterdam (Gabrielle Fagan/PA)
“Rembrandt was the first artist in history – the first Instagrammer, one could even say, and that’s not trying to be popular – to really capture the world around him,” declares Taco Dibbits, director of the museum.
“No artist before the 20th century made as many self-portraits as he did. He painted his family, he drew his friends, he went out into the streets, the countryside and he even lets us enter his own bedroom, where his sick wife was stretched out. He was a rebel who did not abide by rules of art, and consequently, we’re brought into his private world.”
A rarely seen sketch in pen and brown ink by Rembrandt of his wife, Saskia in their bedroom, displayed at the All The Rembrandts Exhibition, at the Rijksmuseum (Gabrielle Fagan/PA)
For the first time in history, the museum is showing every Rembrandt it owns.
“Light makes the drawings fade, so we almost never show them. An exhibition likes this only happens once in a generation,” promises Taco.
Twenty-two paintings, 300 sketches and 60 drawings, many of which are normally hidden away in climate-controlled storage, show a fresh-faced young man rocketing to worldwide success, but whose life is marred by tragedy.
He was devastated by the death of his wife, Saskia, who outlived all those closest to him, including his four children, and struggled in old age with poverty and loneliness.
It’s also the last chance for a while to see the one painting not in the exhibition, his masterpiece and huge tableau, Night Watch, which has pride of place in the museum’s Gallery of Honor, but will be obscured when work on restoring it begins in July.
Gaining an insight into this artistic genius is just one highlight of a three-day visit to a city which boasts more canals than Venice and where I discover, as a keen amateur artist, it’s possible to easily immerse yourself in art.
I’ve travelled from London St Pancras by Eurostar, on its new direct route to Amsterdam, which takes under four hours to arrive direct into the city centre.
My base is luxury boutique hotel, The Dylan. Built on the site of the city’s first theatre, where Vivaldi once conducted an orchestra, it’s an elegant fusion of old and new.
Gabrielle Fagan in the courtyard entrance to The Dylan hotel, in the heart of Amsterdam’s most fashionable district, the ‘Nine Streets’ (Gabrielle Fagan/PA)
Another nearby must-see is Rembrandt’s House, now fully-restored and a museum, which gives brilliant demonstrations of his paint mixing and etching techniques.
Its latest exhibition, Rembrandt’s Social Network, focuses on his relationships with his friends and family, further burnishing his credentials for engaging in a modern way.
A demonstration of Rembrandt’s etching technique at the Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam (Kees Hageman-Redactioneel/PA)
To refresh my palate, I step away from the galleries and frames, for lunch and a tour aboard a private canal boat. Travelling along part of the city’s 75 kilometres of waterways with Captain Maarten Van Vliet of Classic Boat Dinners is fascinating, as he’s a fund of knowledge on the area, history and key landmarks.
This is a relaxing way to view the city and enjoy a panorama of its richly diverse architecture, ranging from the ultra-modern to the signature canal-side houses, and their charming, gabled facades.
It may have been a whistle-stop visit, but by following in Rembrandt’s footsteps, I’ve found this city – whose life and residents he captured on canvas and paper – is a feast for the eyes on every level. As an aspiring artist, what more could you ask of a destination?
How To Get There
The Dylan offers a three-night Rembrandt Art Package, valid until June 12, 2019, from £1,236/ AED 6,046 (two sharing). It includes breakfast, one dinner, two tickets to Rijksmuseum, and two tickets to Rembrandt House Museum. For more information, email [email protected] or call +31 20 530 2010.
Eurostar (eurostar.com; 03432 186 186) operates a direct service from London St Pancras International to the Netherlands, with one-way fares starting from £35 (based on a return journey). Fastest London/Amsterdam journey time is three hours and 41 minutes