AMSTERDAM—He was an artist, a true genius whose gift continues to enlighten and intrigue us 400 years after his birth.
I mean, just look at "The Nightwatch." The portraits. A box of Dutch Masters cigars.
Rembrandt was also, at times, a lout, a drunkard, a skinflint, an unfaithful husband (who fathered a daughter out of wedlock), a pornographer and a notoriously bad businessman.
The life and lifestyle of this city's favorite adopted son--whose Big 4-0-0 had banners flapping everywhere here last summer and which gave us a good excuse to revisit--may not entirely parallel the ongoing reality of Amsterdam, but it's sure close enough. For no great European city, and you know who they are, puts hedonic excess and well-worn charm in such proximity, and with such unrestrained and unapologetic joy.
"Biggest tourist attraction in Amsterdam," declared a hotel concierge bubbling with pride. He was not talking about Rembrandt. He was talking about whores and dope. "When you get home, they'll always ask you, Did you go to the `coffee shop'? Did you go to the Red Light District?
"If you haven't seen them, you haven't seen Amsterdam."
After our brief conversation, I dodged bicycles, ignored intoxicant smog and merely glanced instinctively at the professionals behind the glass and found--two blocks from the hotel--a dreamy dinner at an outside table along a picture-book canal . . .
What a city.
Our focus on this visit, because of the timing, was Rembrandt--full name Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 400, born July 15, 1606, son of a miller in nearby Leiden and literally a monumental presence in his eventual hometown.
And even if the actual birthday party has ended since our visit and the banners have been replaced by whatever's next (the 69th Anniversary of Johnny Vander Meer's Back-to-Back No-Hitters?), that doesn't mean the Amsterdam's Celebration of Rembrandt has been discontinued.
There will always be a Rembrandtplein.
For this story, we more or less followed the Rembrandt Self-Guided Walking Tour set out in a brochure provided by the Amsterdam tourism people, so here we go--after this brief message about bicycles.
"Here in Amsterdam, cars properly stop," cautioned guide Ton Jongenelen, who led a group of us on a city tour a couple of days earlier. "No problem. They have to pay a higher insurance fee if they hit you.
"Bicycles, however, are everywhere. They don't respect any rule, so they can be on a sidewalk, and they pass through the red--always.
"I can guarantee you they never, ever stop. They get bonus points for hitting innocent, unaware American, Canadian, English or most any tourist. You mark it on your bike like a fighter pilot on his plane. Four a day is a nice, average score . . ."
Properly warned, we're starting our Rembrandt Walk at Rembrandt's house, a short, bike-resistant tram ride from city center.
Like most Amsterdam buildings other than those built last Tuesday, the house is predominantly dark brick and with little adornment. As a house, it was a big one for its time. And expensive to maintain. Rembrandt eventually had to sell the place to keep food and genever (Dutch gin) on the table, but it's been restored to what it was when he was doing great work--and peddling self-portraits to his fans for loose guilders.
On its interior walls are examples of his paintings and those of contemporaries and teachers, including Pieter Lastman. More enlightening is a generous sampling--more than a hundred--of Rembrandt's etchings, along with explanations of the process, which is more fascinating than you'd think. (He etched at least 31 self-portraits, which is a lot of mirror-time. Many, as postcards and notecards, are for sale in the gift shop. He would be delighted.) This gallery changes periodically, but it's always etchings and always Rembrandt.
Hint: To really appreciate the etchery, bring a magnifying glass. People do that.