Amsterdam: Moments in time

Windmills at Zaanse Schans in Amsterdam.
Windmills at Zaanse Schans in Amsterdam.
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With a Rembrandt exhibition due to open in London next week. Sarah Marshall visits the artist’s home city, Amsterdam.

As he gazes tenderly at the young woman, one arm resting on her shoulder, she clasps his other hand to her chest, appearing to reciprocate his affection.

The Jewish Bride, which now belongs to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, may be overshadowed by Rembrandt’s better known The Night Watch, but when Vincent Van Gogh first saw the painting in 1885, he proclaimed that he would gladly give up 10 years of his life to sit in front of it for a fortnight with only a crust of dry bread to eat.

The masterpiece, painted in 1665, will be exhibited in London for three months as part of a blockbuster exhibition at the National Gallery, which also casts a spotlight on the city that helped shape the Dutch Golden Age. Following on from last year’s ceremonious reopening of the Rijksmuseum after a 10-year renovation, Amsterdam consolidates its position as one of the most important artistic hubs in Europe, reclaiming some of the glory enjoyed in the 17th century.

Taking a boat tour along the criss-crossing canals, towering townhouses crowd the street like a wonky set of incisors. Decorated with elaborate coats of arms, many belonged to wealthy merchants and constituted prime real estate. Rembrandt purchased his property on the corner of Jodenbreestraat for 13,000 guilders in 1639 and while bankruptcy in the mid 1650s forced him to move to a more modest property in Rozengracht, an inventory of his belongings was used to reconstruct the house which now operates as The Rembrandt House Museum, home to the biggest collection of his etchings.

The Salon is filled with historical paintings by Pieter Lastman, Hercules Segers and Jan Lievens. Distinctive by its emotive expression, locking gaze with the viewer, one work (number 63) stands out from the rest; the Portrait of Eleazar Swalmius, on temporary loan from the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp, is the only painting by Rembrandt in the house.

Upstairs is a ramshackle collection of dusty curios; exotic shells, brain coral, feather headdress, armadillo shell and lion skin which were once prized possessions of the artist.

A number of animal derivatives, such as cactus flies from Mexico, were also used to create some of the 14 pigments used by Rembrandt throughout his lifetime. Artist Eric Armitage demonstrates the paint-making techniques, using a heavy porphyry stone (a type of volcanic rock) to grind powdery dyes, which are then mixed with flaxseed oil and stored in pigs’ bladders.

In the 17th century, many artists would purchase ground pigments from the windmills in the countryside outside Amsterdam. At one time, there were 1,000 mills in operation, used to make paper, wood, oil and many other products, but now, only a handful remain as part of a historical reconstruction at Zaanse Schans, a 40-minute bus ride from the city.

I hear the mills before I see them; heavy sails tug at creaking boards, paddling through the air like a fleet of fully-rigged barques on the high seas. De Kat claims to be the world’s only remaining wind-powered dye mill selling antique paints. Parts of this particular mill date back to 1720, and watching cogs turning and heavy stones grinding is a reminder of the work, time and effort that went into producing a piece of art.

Many of those finished works would hang on the walls of Amsterdam’s grand canal houses, such as the six 17th and 18th century properties, which have been renovated to create the new 93 room Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam hotel on Herengracht. Amounting to much more than luxury accommodation, the property offers a glimpse into the past with a lavish entrance hall, dominated by a Louis XIV-style wooden staircase.

The excellent Librije’s Zusje restaurant, created in partnership with the team behind three Michelin-starred De Librije, is decorated in accents of ochre and lapis lazuli, and as I sit down to a tasting menu of mind-blowing creations, I imagine I might be joined by Vermeer’s Girl With A Pearl Earring.

For the most part, Rembrandt was fortunate enough to make a decent living from his work, but by challenging conventions with his innovative use of light, shade and action, he inevitably ran into problems.

Several militiamen depicted in The Night Watch, for example, were unhappy with the work and for many years, he received far fewer commissions.

But his financial difficulties didn’t end there; the troubled artist ran up debts at the Bols distillery owned by his neighbour Lucas Bols, a major shareholder in the Dutch East India Company.

Today, the House of Bols tells the story of genever, a botanic infused, malt wine based spirit, which paved the way for the better-known gin and has since spawned 36 liqueurs used around the world.

The bartender fills a tulip-shaped glass with Old Geneva until the viscous liquid forms a lip overhanging the brim; this is exactly how Rembrandt would have enjoyed his tipple. It’s a fitting tribute that one of Amsterdam’s busiest nightlife districts, Rembrandtplein, should be named in honour of the city’s most cherished resident.

While sitting outside one of the neon-lit bars, I notice a couple walking arm in arm and my thoughts return to The Jewish Bride.

Three hundred and fifty years on, the same emotions are shared – proof that it’s not just the bold colours in Rembrandt’s paintings that have withstood the test of time.

• Sarah Marshall was a guest of the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam (www.waldorfastoria3.hilton.com), who offers rooms from £395 room only. A tasting menu in Librije’s Zusje costs £85, without drinks.

EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Amsterdam from 11 UK airports, with prices starting from £19.99 per person (one-way, including taxes and based on two people on the same booking).

For more information on the destination, visit www.holland.com