HE is remembered as one of the greatest artists the world has ever seen, but did you know Rembrandt wasn’t always a great painter? A new exhibition opening at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum tomorrow sheds light on the early years of the Dutch master – and reveals that his earliest work wasn’t actually very good at all.

Young Rembrandt tells the story of the artist, born Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, through pictures painted throughout his first decade of serious work.

The show, which is tonight being opened by the Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Simon Smits, runs until June 7 and shows how the painter graduated from an artist of dubious talent to one of the most celebrated of the Dutch Golden Age.

It covers his time in what is now Oxford’s twin town, Leiden, and in Amsterdam, and includes amusing self-portraits, drawings of his elderly parents, copper etching plates, biblical and historical scenes, and – one of his favourite subjects – portraits of peasants and bearded beggars. For art detectives, there is even a mystery: his huge 1626 History Painting – which shows three young soldiers swearing an oath before a royal figure, surrounded by shields and weapons.

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The picture is riven with contradictions and no one is sure whether it is a depiction of a biblical tale, a scene from antiquity, a theatrical arrangement or a contemporary view.

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Many pictures have not previously been shown together and some hav never before been shown in the UK.

The exhibition, which took an incredible 10 years to plan, includes almost 150 works, some loaned from other institutions and private collectors and flown in from Moscow, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and Japan. 
It is jointly curated by the museum’s Curator of Northern European Art, An Van Camp – who hails from the Belgian city of Antwerp – and the former director of the Ashmolean, Prof Christopher Brown.

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Prof Brown said: “In his early paintings, prints and drawings, we find a young artist exploring his own style, grappling with technical difficulties and making mistakes, but his progress is remarkable and the works in this exhibition demonstrate an amazing development from year to year.”

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, said: “It is hugely exciting that the Ashmolean is hosting the largest ever exhibition, and the first in this country, to focus on Rembrandt’s early years.

“Our partnership with Museum De Lakenhal in Leiden draws on the strengths of our respective collections: the Ashmolean’s outstanding group of prints and drawings; and two of Rembrandt’s earliest paintings from Lakenhal.

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“The show offers a unique opportunity to follow Rembrandt step by step as he develops from an inventive and ambitious teenager to the supremely accomplished and successful artist he became over the first 10 years of his career.

"It is not a straightforward trajectory but it is a thrillingly revealing one that allows us to see the making of one of the world’s great artists.”
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Ms Van Camp said hosting the world-class collection of paintings was a tremendous achievement for Oxford.
“While other Rembrandt exhibitions focus on his later masterpieces, this is a unique opportunity to witness the early stages of his career as an artist,” she said.

“The Ashmolean Museum holds a world-class collection of drawings and prints by Rembrandt but not a single painting. This exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our visitors to see the most wonderful gathering of Rembrandt paintings, prints and drawings and compare them with works by teachers, pupils and artistic rivals.”

Oxford Mail:

She said, his less accomplished early work shed fresh light on the artist’s evolution as a painter.

“Rembrandt’s early paintings are rather clumsy and lack confidence. He hadn’t grasped anatomy or perspective yet and used a bold, garish colour palette. But already they show his promise in dramatic storytelling and play with light. In the later pictures, Rembrandt has mastered both painting and printmaking: his skills in rendering the most dramatic, emotional scenes on a small scale, combined with his masterful play of light shine throughout the exhibition.

Oxford Mail:

“The exhibition tries to dispel the misconception that Rembrandt was a born genius. In fact, his early works are quite clumsy but through trial and error, he rapidly develops within a few years’ time.

"It carries an encouraging message to all that if you really apply yourself, you too might be able to become a master like Rembrandt!”