Story and Photos
By Melissa Ruttanai
As a New York native, I grew up around big name museums like the Metropolitan and Guggenheim. When I hear the word exhibit, my mind immediately conjures up images of huge white spaces, queues around the block, and paintings you can’t get close to or else your breath may chip the paint. I supposed that’s why I like small museums and boutique exhibits that focus on one story or artist instead of 5000 years of human civilization. I can stand almost nose to canvas with a painting and won’t flinch as a security guard clears his throat aggressively. I like furniture original to a home and windows that play as much a role in the presentation of art as does the light they let in. So on a summer trip to Amsterdam with my husband and two best travel buds, I made a beeline for the Rembrandt Huis, a museum that should attract massive crowds but in the shadow of the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum enjoys a simple solitude in the heart of Amsterdam.
A Kitchen and the Half Bed
I love kitchens. This is probably because they are usually the heart of the home and the scene for baked goods, slow roasted meats, and crackling firewood. But most people don’t give this room enough credit as if they never had a grandma set out a special piece of cake just for them in their own homes. Sadly most visitors sail in, take a few pictures, and cruise right out the front door. But the kitchen is where you can get a true sense for the cultural values of any given time period. There are copper pots and large bowls, serving dishes and silver spoons. All these indicate to me that the household could and often did feed a steady stream of people. Little chairs sat by the fire place, not necessarily for children but for the soup maid to stir bubbling broths. But what I loved most about this room in the Rembrandt house was hidden behind a large cupboard in the corner of the kitchen. Less than 2 meters long, inside a lightless hole, a fluffy bed was constructed into the wall.
Actually, it was a half bed because even back in those days when people were smaller, no adult could stretch out on her back. Or even in the fetal position. Listening to the audio guide, I laughed out loud as other visitors gave a cursory glance and walked away.
In Rembrandt’s time, people believed that sleeping on your back could induce death. They feared that if they were not upright they’d literally lose there breath and suffocate before morning. So the cook and many people of her time slept sitting up. Hilarious to think of all those people in Rembrandt’s house nodding off as they leaned against the wall trying to get comfortable inside a tiny cabinet.
A Torture Device? Inside a Painter’s home?
Up the tight stairway that seems to also serve as the backbone of the house, a little room sits off to one side of the house between two large salons full of Rembrandt’s work. Delicate papers hang from the ceiling, drying on a clothes line. Tiny knives and inkblotters litter a table. And in the middle of the room, a giant oak machine is poised, ready to flatten its next victim. Get your hand too close and you’ll get it back paper thin.
“Are you ready for the etching demonstration?” A woman in a smock called our attention as her hand rested on the medieval killing machine. “It’s a press that artists use to create imprints.” My heart sank. No bloody history here. No grueling secret prisons in Rembrandt’s home. My twisted mind quickly found new distraction as the woman began to create art using a metal plate and an assortment of etching knives.
I have to be honest. The only thing I know about etchings is what I’d puzzled together on Antiques Roadshow, a television series where professionals appraise junk that people have around the house. In one episode, a guy brought in an inkblot picture for appraisal. It didn’t look like much until the official looking man in the suit took out a stylus and pointed delicately to one corner of the picture and read out the name: Rembrandt. And like magic, the yard sale picture became a priceless family heirloom. Everyone watching from TV land saw dollar signs in the man’s eyes.
In the Rembrandt Huis, the employee showed us the different tools that are used to make a plate. What I liked during the demonstration was that the woman explained that the plates create the actual pictures on paper. So an artist must create their scenes in its mirror image and that includes their name. My death chamber machine that sat in the room was the rolling press used to place the picture onto the paper. If there is no demonstration during your visit you can still watch a video depicting the process.
Most of the time, these types of workshops and guided tours often leave me disappointed. The guide usually pontificates to the crowd and I then feel compelled to act engaged when in fact I am counting the seconds to exit and explore on my own. But the etching lesson was great, mostly because the woman was an artist herself. She explained each step, showing us inks and knives and answering questions. Then when she rolled the paper through the machine, it seemed that I didn’t need the doom and gloom of medieval torture chambers. The woman had created something unique to a time period and presented us with a piece of art.
After the workshop ended, we were invited to continue up to Rembrandt’s personal studio. The light from the bay windows seemed to cast everything in a clean golden glow. A giant canvas sat in the middle of the room beside a large desk with a visitor’s sign-in book opened to an empty page. I signed my name, adding the date and a brief message. “Love the half bed in the kitchen and the etching workshop was a nice surprise!”