Revolutionary Rembrandt: Masterpieces from the Leiden Collection

Musée du Louvre is currently presenting Masterpieces from the Leiden Collection: The Age of Rembrandt; a selection of masterpieces by 17th-century Dutch painters, including Gerrit Dou, Jan Steen, Jan Lievensz, Frans van Mieris – and of course Rembrandt. The exhibition focuses on what was – until recently – a relatively unknown and unnamed collection formed by Dr. Thomas S. Kaplan and his wife, Daphne Recanati Kaplan, who have quietly assembled the body of works since 2003 – quietly that is, until now.

In fact the Kaplans have been generous by allowing access to this collection, having loaned works on more than 170 occasions. But the couple have never lived with any of the paintings, instead made the principled decision to take paintings from the private domain of previous collectors and return them to the public eye; believing that the works – especially those of Rembrandt – have an important socio-cultural role to play in our currently unstable post-truth world.

Although the collection ‘highlights the “fine painters” of Leiden’ – and not (as the American philanthropist and Francophile pointed out) – the collector of the work; instead Kaplan and his wife wished to take a back seat to the artists in their collection, most notably Rembrandt. Having created the largest private holding of the artist’s work, among which is Rembrandt’s striking Minerva, part of a series of ‘strong women and mythological goddesses’. Kaplan has a plan for this collection.

The philanthropist admits that the collection is part of a manifesto, one that is an attempt to promote humanism and tolerance in a world suffering from a frightening lean to the far-right which is embracing intolerance as part of its own global manifesto; this is a collection made public to highlight the need to respond to an attack on progressive thought, creativity, and freedom.

As Andre Malraux stated that Rembrandt was ‘the first to touch the soul’ with his painting; perhaps the artist’s brush is the tool we need to battle the cold embrace of intolerance? With this progressive sensibility in mind, the collection will later travel to The Long Museum in Shanghai and the National Museum in Beijing in 2017 and 2018 – then on to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘beauty will save the world’; and perhaps Rembrandt is indeed the artist capable of transcending the enveloping darkness?

Kaplan’s vision of the artist is as a riposte to the brutal philistines of Palmyra, an antidote to the ugly lies of the far-right, an attempt to build bridges between disparate cultures, using the ‘soft power’ of great art that will touch the universal soul in us all.

When we view the collection from this progressive perspective, it places the artist in a revolutionary light; it is startling to be reminded of the contemporary power of artist’s work and what – on a global level – it might help to achieve. This is a series of works with the power to remind the viewer of the beauty in the world, and Rembrandt’s unconventional beauty was indeed revolutionary. In this we must remember the importance of beauty as a positive influence, after all beauty is truth.

In this context Rembrandt is rendered ambitious and idealistic, something that we need to aspire to again, reminding us that art is inclusive, and that perhaps the artist can take a tangible role in healing global divides that are in danger of destroying great culture and progressive thought. Perhaps here at the Louvre it has finally been pointed out that the revolution is indeed possible, and let us hope that Kaplan has started that revolution.

Paul Black
Art Journalist

Featured image – Masterpieces from the Leiden Collection: The Age of Rembrandt – Musée du Louvre, Paris – until 22 may 2017 Photo: P A Black © 2016

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