In the city of Amsterdam, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) continues to reign as its artistic sovereign. Many of his masterpieces hold court at the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch State Museum that contains the world’s largest collection of Rembrandt paintings, offering a characteristic and wide-ranging overview of his works.
The city is also home to the Rembrandt House Museum, which reconstructs how the building would have looked, from family quarters to artist workshop, when Rembrandt lived in the space. However, one of the more unique and intimate places to see Rembrandts in their original setting is at the Six Collection, a private aristocratic home a few minutes’ walk from the Rembrandt House Museum.
The House of Six
For a long time, the Six Collection was little-known by the general public. There was limited press, as the family preferred that their treasures remain discreet, although the guest book boasts visitors such as Tsar Alexander I, and Presidents Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. However, the Six Collection received international attention when it was included in the beautifully filmed 2019 documentary “My Rembrandt.”
The film explores the world of privately owned Rembrandts, from works in the collections of grand British and French aristocratic families to a self-made American businessman. An exclusive glimpse of the Six Collection is included in the documentary. The current patriarch, Jan Six X, and his son, Jan Six XI, a noted art dealer, give a brief tour of the family’s grand canal home, which is resplendently filled with important pieces of historic furniture, paintings, imported textiles, gilded leather wallpaper, silver, glass, porcelain, classical sculpture, Egyptian artifacts, and family archives that extend back around 1,000 years.
The highlight of this collection is a Rembrandt portrait of their ancestor, the first Jan Six. Jan Six XI shares in the documentary, “It’s incredible being so close to a painting like this when you grow up and to an artist like this. That’s really unique.”
Jan Six I—heir to a large merchant fortune made in the cloth trade, a man of letters, and one-time mayor of Amsterdam—was an active artistic patron during the Dutch Golden Age. He was friends with Rembrandt, a prolific painter recognized as the greatest artist of his time.
Rembrandt’s work is renowned for its captivating depictions of space, form, texture, and dramatic lighting contrasts. For his portraits, he had a rarified ability to convey a subject’s thoughts, feelings, and character through their expressions and gestures. This came from his perceptive and detailed life studies of a sitter and their possessions.
Rembrandt’s painting “Portrait of Jan Six” is considered one of the artist’s greatest works, its prestige elevated by its remaining in the same family who commissioned it. The Collection’s self-published “The House of Six” describes the work as a “lively and very human painting … [in which] Rembrandt allowed his own style to shine through.” The composition shows Jan, with his long curly red hair, pronounced jowl, and pockmarked cheeks in a more than half-length pose as he looks out in a contemplative manner. He appears to be readying to go out, as he is wearing a wide-brimmed black felt hat, elegant light grey coat with yellow buttons, and a short red cloak trimmed with gold lace casually draped over one shoulder.
In this intimate portrait, Rembrandt captures him in the midst of putting on his gloves. The artist employs impasto, thickly applied broad brushstrokes, characteristic of his later works, giving texture and dimensionality to the modeling of the figure and increasing the illusion of space. In contrast, a Rembrandt portrait in the Six Collection of Jan’s mother, Anna Wymer, which was painted over a decade before “Portrait of Jan Six,” is more conventional and sober in technique and overall image.
Rembrandt’s Etch of Six
Rembrandt was also a virtuoso and abundant printmaker, creating works celebrated for their innovation, detailed perception, painterly quality, and ability to suggest a range of illuminations. Additionally, Jan Six was the subject of a 1647 Rembrandt etching.
Etching is an intaglio printmaking technique in which an image is drawn onto a treated metal plate and placed in acid. The plate is then inked, with the material only filling the incised lines. Paper is placed on the plate and it is run through a press.
Rembrandt’s “Jan Six” etching was printed in a series of five states and has achieved legendary status. Examples can be found in illustrious collections such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, British Museum, Hermitage Museum, Rijksmuseum, and Six Collection. The latter also owns accompanying sketches and the original copper plate.
In this portrait of Jan Six, Rembrandt uses layers of densely packed crosshatching to achieve a refined velvety background tone with light that dances around the interior scene. As in his oil portrait, Jan Six is shown informally, in a casual state at home. He is contemplative, a deep thinker with his scholarliness on full display. There is reading material waiting to be read, piled high on a chair, as he leans against the windowsill immersed in a book.
Rembrandt likely worked directly on the copper plate from life given the minute details, such as the peg holding up the window that were not in his preliminary sketches. A hat, cloak, and walking stick are just barely legible at the left of the interior and speak to Jan’s exterior life (perhaps foretelling the accessories in “Portrait of Jan Six”). However, Rembrandt places his emphasis on the inner world of Jan Six, who has turned his back on the outside in order to focus his attention on the acquisition of knowledge. An atmosphere of introspective absorption characterizes both of Rembrandt’s portrayals of Jan Six.
Sisters of the Six
Over the centuries, the Six Collection has not been immune to the universal “death and taxes.” In order to pay estate taxes, objects, including masterpieces such as Johannes Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid” and “View of Houses in Delft, Known as ‘The Little Street’,” Rembrandt’s “Half-length Figure of Saskia in a Red Hat,” and Jan Steen’s “Girl Eating Oysters,” left the collection. These four works are now owned by major museums; both Vermeers are at the Rijksmuseum.
In the early 20th century, the Dutch State came to an agreement with the Six family that as long as they would keep their collection intact and housed in The Netherlands, they would be exempt from inheritance taxes. Additionally, maintenance for the Collection is partially subsidized by the State. Thus, the Six Collection can be viewed by appointment on an hour-long tour, free of charge.
As the current Six patriarch says in “My Rembrandt” regarding his family’s ancestor portraits, “To me they’re still alive, because this is where they live.” Happily, both “Portrait of Jan Six” and the generational Jan Six will remain together at home, available to receiving visitors.
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