Even though the special Rembrandt Year of 2019 is not yet upon us, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum is already treating its audience to a spectacular show. There is some high society at the Rijksmuseum. Over 35 life-size portraits are gathered in an exhibition of the rich and famous from the past. And they are painted by the very best artists in art history.
This article appeared first in Hello Amsterdam magazine, edition March-April 2018.
Marten and Oopjen
High Society celebrates two extraordinary paintings by Rembrandt. In 2016, French Musée du Louvre and Rijksmuseum were able to acquire the wedding portraits of Dutch Golden Age couple Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit. It is the only couple that Rembrandt ever painted life-size, standing and full length. This special format was originally reserved only for monarchs and high nobility. Later, wealthy middle-class people were also able to afford this kind of exclusive portrait. With the High Society exhibition, Rijksmuseum reveals the history of this type of portraiture for the first time.
Both paintings of the Dutch couple were in need of restoration, which has been completed only recently. To celebrate this memorable moment, Rijksmuseum has invited some friends to the party. Over 35 life-size portraits of princes, noblemen, and otherwise famous people are here to celebrate with Marten and Oopjen. The works were all painted between the sixteenth and the twentieth century. They are portraits by great masters like Veronese, Velázquez, Gainsborough, Sargent, and Manet. To name but a few. This is the first time a museum dedicates an exhibition solely to this type of portraiture painting. Loans have come from museums and private collections from all over the world.
The exhibition is called High Society for good reason. Marten and Oopjen’s friends are international well-to-do’s like dukes, countesses, and members of aristocratic families. They are appropriately dressed according to the latest fashion of their times. The backgrounds vary from richly decorated interiors to lush settings in the outside landscape. The result is a much-varied set of works, embodying both a historic sense of fashion as well as the changing ways in which artists liked to portray their subjects. This exhibition shows that life-size portraits took various forms and served a variety of functions.
During High Society, the viewer can take a sidestep and see another exhibition. Guilty Pleasures is on show in the adjacent galleries. If you look at the portraits in High Society as displaying the rich and famous at their best, think of the latter one as getting a glimpse into the real world behind them. Over 80 prints and drawing show a peek into the lives behind closed doors. Those works tell a tale of secret parties, excessive drinking, gambling, and visits to brothels. The two exhibitions together are two sides of the same medal, complementing each other’s stories.
High Society, Rijksmuseum. 8 March to 3 June 2018.