Rembrandt in Basel
Unlike Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), his compatriot from the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, never visited Basel. The Catholic Erasmus is even buried in the cathedral (Münster) of Basel. However, at that time it was not an episcopal city anymore, and the cathedral was no longer a Catholic church since the Reformation in 1529.
More than three hundred and fifty years after the death of Rembrandt, the humanist meets the painter in this city. The art museum, situated at the foot of the cathedral and close to Erasmus’ old residence, pays attention to Rembrandt and his artistic relationship with the Orient. Although Rembrandt never visited the Orient either, oriental objects often formed an essential motif in his art. The United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) was founded just before his birth (1602), and the young self-proclaimed and self-confident Protestant Republic sailed the seas, made possible by the Twelve Year Truce (1609-1621) with the Spanish Habsburgs.
The Orient was a broad concept these days. At the time it included the area to the east of Vienna, the Balkans, Japan, China, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and North Africa. The Ottoman Empire was the formidable (Islamic) opponent of the Catholic Habsburgs and thus an ally of the Protestant Republic (“a Turk rather than a pope”).
The exhibition (Rembrandt’s Orient. West Meets East in Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century, Rembrandts Orient. Westöstliche Begegnung in der niederländischen Kunst des 17. Jahrhunderts) is not a Rembrandt exhibition but treats his art with oriental images from this historical and cultural perspective. It puts the use of oriental motives into the context of his time and of contemporary artists.
In addition to top paintings and engravings by the Master himself, including a painting from the collection of the Earl of Derby in Liverpool (hundred years not shown in public), there are many works by contemporaries, including those by his teacher Pieter Lastman (1583-1633), still lifes, miniatures, engravings, documents, city views and an Asia map by Willem Jansz Blaeu (1571-1638).
The exhibition begins with a militia piece with the black and white clothing of the Calvinist rulers by Bartholomeus van der Helst (1613-1670). It also shows an oriental tapestry, however. Rembrandt also noticed the interest in the Orient as a beginning artist in 1626. He gave it his interpretation: a (Calvinistic) moralistic image in an oriental setting (music, turban, oriental motifs, scantily clad lady, this had only one meaning). However, he missed the point as a beginner. Oriental objects did not have a moralising task with the Calvinist elite but accentuated the status of a regent, merchant, scholar, military, or explorer.
The beginning of oriental studies and interest in this culture, the first Dutch translation of the Koran, a collection of miniatures with oriental motifs from the Millionenzimmer collected by Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780) of the Court in Schönbrunn near Vienna are part of the show.
The portrayal of sultans (and thus the elite of the Republic) was delicate, even then, as witnessed by Samuel van Hoogstraaten (1627-1678) in his work on the art of painting (Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schildererkonst; anders de zichtbaere werelt (1678). At the exhibition one can read:
“do you wish to portray the Turkish Sultan in all his magnificence ? Then paint him in white satin or silver cloth mixed with green, and patterned with large flowers. Set the lofty turban with its painted feathers on his head” (Lust u den Turkschen Sultan in zijn pracht te verbeelden? zoo schilder hem in’t wit Satijn of zilver laken met groen vermengt, en met groote bloemen doorwrocht. Stel hem den hoogen Tulbant met geschilderde veeren op’t hooft).
It is still topical, although the sultan and the oriental world have lost their status. It is good that Rembrandt is not an experimenting artist these days. It could have been dangerous for him (further information: www.kunstmuseumbasel.ch).