Any spring or summer trip to Holland is a visual party, but this year promises something extra.
The tulips will be blooming, sprouting in long sheets of color that skim the low-hanging horizon, of course. The Dutch will be sailing past on their bikes, straight-backed and elegant, with babies and dogs bumping along in baskets up front. And the canalboats will be floating under humpbacked bridges. That's all a given. But now the country is adding a full complement of art premieres that inscribes all that beauty and helps rebrand the Netherlands as one of Europe's great cultural hubs.
Thank Rembrandt for the added gift. This year marks the 350th anniversary of his death, and the Dutch aren't going to let you forget it. Just about every major museum in Holland is featuring a Rembrandt-related exhibit, and the result is an art show rolling out in successive waves throughout the year.
Start in Amsterdam. The Rijksmuseum, as the Netherlands' premier gallery, isn't content to flaunt its usual powerhouse paintings by the master. Its current exhibit, aptly titled "All the Rembrandts," showcases for the first time every last Rembrandt painting, drawing and etching in its voluminous collection and makes a case for the less familiar works. It runs until June 10.
The exhibit smartly starts off not with the well-known canvases, but with the early self-portrait etchings that reveal a wunderkind at work, learning to capture any mood. Variously laughing, pouting, angry and surprised — and literally trying on different hats, from velvet berets to feathered caps and Orientalist turbans — Rembrandt is a veritable 17th-century Cindy Sherman, tracing a whole world of humanity in his own concentrated gaze. The dizzying range, locating the universal in the individual and vice versa, ends up being as flamboyant a display of artistry as the big masterworks that come later in the show. These include his mammoth "The Night Watch" and the exquisite "Portrait of a Woman, Possibly Maria Trip."
As the exhibit flows from the many faces of Rembrandt to the many faces of Amsterdam itself — his egalitarian portraits of burghers, preachers, Jews, brewers, philosophers, actors and grande dames — it demonstrates why the painter was so ahead of his time, and in some ways the progressive, tolerant soul of Holland itself. In a tradition-bound age when other European painters were still churning out stiff paintings of kings, queens and minor saints, Rembrandt was an all-embracing humanist, capturing a collective portrait of a radically democratic, tolerant city, caught in the glow of its Golden Age.
A European cultural capital
The point isn't lost on the Dutch. The Rembrandt celebrations are as much a salute to Amsterdam's Golden Age as its favorite son of a painter, and the anniversary offers fuel to an increasingly urgent push. Trying to stem the flow of partyers drawn to the city's libertine reputation — as the toked-up capital of hookers and dope — Amsterdam has been working to reclaim its justified reputation as one of Europe's great cultural capitals. And while its attempts to gentrify the red light district and redirect the tourists' gaze haven't yet stemmed the surge of weekend club kids, this year's big Golden Age fiesta is a strong reminder that the artistic city Rembrandt captured is still very much alive.
The Rijksmuseum — which will continue its celebrations with an exhibit of 17th-century Spanish and Dutch master painters this fall, titled "Rembrandt-Velazquez" — isn't the only cultural player in town. The Van Gogh Museum is exhibiting its own powerhouse show, pairing Van Gogh and David Hockney landscapes. The juxtaposition demonstrates that Van Gogh, like Rembrandt, was another Dutchman far ahead of his time and emblematic of the country's own progressive spirit. In fact, his raw, haunted landscapes read as more contemporary than Hockney's relatively tame Yorkshire scenes.
At the Rembrandthuis, the meticulously preserved townhouse where the painter lived and worked, a series of exhibits running through the year explore Rembrandt's social circle and a collection of works by artists — from Degas to Picasso — inspired by him.
For a sample of the city's ongoing cultural vitality, simply walk into a living Rembrandt portrait; no need for the scrim of canvas. The proof that Amsterdam is still very much Rembrandt's city comes clear the minute you escape the tourist-bound hub of Dam Square. At the western arc of canals, Amsterdam splays out in all its original glory with a cityscape of step and bell gables, back-street canals and bowed bridges.
How best to replicate a Golden Age day? First stroll the nine streets that run between the canals. The city's original pioneering burghers would be proud of their successors' boutiques.
Skip the corporate Amsterdam Cheese Co. shops that have suddenly sprouted everywhere, selling waxy versions of artisanal Dutch cheeses, and head to the De Kaaskamer van Amsterdam, where the Edams and Goudas do their hometowns proud. Then drop into Laura Dolls for vintage party-girl dresses, Prinsheerlijk Antiques for a bulging warehouse of European finds, and the Frozen Fountain for a sample of the best of Amsterdam's contemporary designers.
Return to the Rijksmuseum for dinner, where the restaurant Rijks sits in a renovated wing of the museum and serves dishes often inspired by the gallery's collection.
Then sleep it all off in a canal-side, Rembrandt-worthy hotel. The Ambassade, a row of joined 17th- and 18th-century houses fronting on a bend of the Herengracht Canal, is famous as the top choice for authors on book tours. Its library lounge comes stocked with signed volumes by all the authors who have stopped by, from Zadie Smith and Isabelle Allende to Salman Rushdie, who hid out here during the fatwa. One canal over, the Dylan is all understated chic (try for the beamed loft rooms) and anchored by a Michelin-starred restaurant. A few blocks north, closer to Anne Frank's house, the recently renovated Pulitzer features teasing salutes to Dutch traditions, including headboards that echo Amsterdam's gables, and offers a Rembrandt package that bundles in tickets to both the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt's house.
Don't sleep in too long, though. To do full justice to the Dutch Golden Age, you should head out of town.
Too often overlooked, the Netherlands, despite its small size, offers a bounty of regional beauty spots, from Friesland in the north, where the old shipping ports look like a Hans Brinker stage set, to the eastern province of Drenthe, where Van Gogh painted the moors. The quickest side trips, though, are south of Amsterdam, where The Hague is showing its own premiere collection of Rembrandts at the Mauritshuis museum and where Delft, still looking pretty much exactly as Vermeer painted it, is countering with a fall exhibit of the city's other Golden Age master, Pieter de Hooch.
Just to the north is Leiden, where Rembrandt's life story began. If Amsterdam was the site of his maturity, fame and eventual decline, Leiden was the hometown where he got his start, and the city is itching to celebrate.
There is a formal city walk that follows in the footsteps of the artist, starting at the site of the house where he was born in 1606. The house itself has been demolished, in a prime example of dimwitted city planning, but a plaque on the wall of the contemporary building commemorates the spot. Here you can see the same quintessential Dutch view that Rembrandt saw, across a canal to a reconstructed version of the original windmill.
A few blocks from the house is Leiden's own medieval red light district, haunted by the rowdy spirit of the famous prostitute known as Green Hair — another Dutch freethinker ahead of her time, at least in terms of cosmetology.
The walk then turns more sedate, passing the stately step-gabled Latin school where Rembrandt studied and the painting studio where he had his first lessons. And then there is Leiden itself, a very model of the kind of Dutch beauty tangible everywhere outside Amsterdam. Seamed by its own master canal, and famous for its early botanical garden, the city makes for a classic lowlands idyll.
The added bonus is Leiden's inevitable staging of its own Rembrandt show this fall at the city's Lakenhal Museum. Titled "Young Rembrandt, 1624-1634," the exhibit is built around a big unveiling.
For the first time, a recently discovered Rembrandt painting, "Let the Children Come to Me," will be on display. Though awkwardly overpainted in spots, the crowd scene features a self-portrait of the young Rembrandt struck by sunlight, peering down at a dense crowd scene of madonna-like mothers and squirming children, old men and toothless crones.
In the end it's the image of an artist surveying his favorite muse, a messy but still beautifully human mob.
Food and travel journalist Raphael Kadushin regularly writes for Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications. In the Star Tribune, he recently wrote about Puglia, Italy.