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'My Rembrandt' documentary lets you look into the privileged club of Old Master owners

From kissing a portrait of a woman on the lips, to cutting a co-buyer out of a bargain, acquiring a rare work by the Dutch painter does not always bring out the best in people

Jan Six XI with Portrait of a Young Gentleman (1634), in a still from "My Rembrandt"

What is it like to own a Rembrandt? In the documentary “My Rembrandt”, it depends on who you are asking. If you are the affable Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland, one of the largest landowners in Europe, sitting in a secret room in the vast Drumlanrig Castle with A Woman Reading a Book (1655), it is almost like a member of the family. “She is the most powerful presence in this house,” he says, as he reads his own book in a chair nearby. Does his insurance agent know that the painting now hangs above an active fireplace?

For Thomas Kaplan in New York, who owns 15 Rembrandt paintings (part of his “Leiden Collection”), acquiring Rembrandt’s Study of a Woman in a White Cap (1640) enabled him to kiss that woman on the lips. How many people can say that? How many would admit it?  

Kaplan’s favorite among his 15 is Bust of an Old Man (1633), the size of a baseball card. It looks as if Rembrandt painted the man’s unruly hair and beard in a fury. The subject and portable size suggest that Rembrandt, whose fortunes rose and fell on commissions, made this one for himself.

So, owning a Rembrandt can be transcendent, and tactile. Obtaining one does not always bring out the best in people.  

At the core of “My Rembrandt” is the Amsterdam dealer Jan Six XI. In 1664, Rembrandt painted his ancestor, Jan Six I, described grandly (and debatably) by Simon Schama, as “the greatest portrait of the 17th century”. Forty-ish Jan has a keen eye, and says he “loves the hunt”. In a Christie’s sale, he finds a painting listed as “Circle of Rembrandt” that he believes the master himself made. To get Portrait of a Young Gentleman (1634), he enlists an anonymous “investor”, and another man who says he agreed to buy the work with Six claims he was ultimately cut out of the deal. Proud of that $185,000 bargain, Jan, with a grin that signals both triumph and self-doubt, is on to his next discovery.

We also meet the genial Baron Eric de Rothschild as he sells a pair of full-length Rembrandts in 2015 to pay his brother’s tax bill, a mere $173m or so. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris want the portraits. The Dutch raise most of the money in the name of bringing the pictures home, while the French plead poverty, until the Paris government weighs in. Finally the two countries agree to buy the portraits together. Air-kisses at a ceremony in Paris are the icing on some serious wrangling.  

The doc is directed by Oeke Hoogendijk, whose marathon 2014 film “The New Rijksmuseum” was an unblinking look at a mega-project where almost everything went wrong. In a more immediate way, “My Rembrandt” follows transactions as they happen. We hear from characters (including the dean of Rembrandt specialists, Ernst van de Wetering) who provide vivid drama that scripted films about art rarely capture. If that is not enough, the cinematography by Gregor Meerman and Sander Snoep lives up to the job of capturing masterpieces.   

• "My Rembrandt", directed by Oeke Hoogendijk, 95min, in Dutch and English, streaming in the US on Virtual Cinema, hosted by Film Forum