Acclaimed, rarely seen Rembrandt portrait on display

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Portrait of Jan Six, 1654, oil on canvas. Courtesy The Yorck Project.

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Portrait of Jan Six, 1654, oil on canvas. Courtesy The Yorck Project.

AMSTERDAM (AP) – If portraits could talk, Jan Six might have much to say about his family.

The merchant, poet and civic leader, painted by Rembrandt in 1654, has watched his descendants make money, marry into Holland’s best families, engage in infidelities and sometimes quarrel over their fabulous inheritance.

For most of the past 350 years, he has hardly moved. Rarely has he left the family home. When the ancestral canal-side building was torn down in 1915 to broaden a road, he moved around the corner, where he is perched on the wall next to a tall window overlooking the Amstel River.

Now one of Rembrandt’s most celebrated paintings is on public display until Nov. 29 at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum while the 58-room Six mansion undergoes renovations.

Throughout the ages in which Rembrandt’s work has commanded unimaginable prices – they were expensive even in the artist’s time – it is remarkable that the portrait has remained a family heirloom.

Perhaps just as remarkable is that each generation has produced a male heir to carry on the name – a tradition now at risk by the unmarried Jan Six XI, who is 32.

“We like to keep the paintings in their original setting. They are meant for private lived-in homes,” says Jan Six X – sometimes called Ten – the current keeper of the family treasures. Most museums, he says, look like hospital rooms with nice wall hangings.

While the portrait is at home, passers-by can glimpse it through the window about 12 feet (four meters) above street level.

But a close-up view is only possible by invitation to the six-story 17th century building. As part of the 2008 deal with the government, the number of visitors has grown from a few hundred a year – mostly VIPs. But it is limited to about 5,000 because the family still lives there. Passes are available at the Rijksmuseum, and the house is open for two hours on weekdays when art students guide small groups on brief tours of the lower two floors.

The Six family has been haggling with Dutch governments for more than 100 years over access to the Netherlands’ most valued private art collection, which many deem to be a national heritage.

Hounded by death duties with the passing of each generation, Jan Six VII created a foundation in 1901 to officially take ownership of the collection, thus avoiding punishing inheritance tax.

Since at least 1957, the family has been getting a state subsidy, but the current patriarch (Ten) has gone to court several times over the level of support for the artworks and the house.

As part of the latest deal worth hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars) a year in maintenance and security costs, he has pledged to exhibit the portrait of his ancestor more often.

The 62-year-old Jan Six X – who has the hereditary title of Lord of Hillegom – made a career in advertising and later as a publisher of art books. His elder son is a former Sotheby’s expert on old masters who has now opened his own consultancy.

The family fortune was founded in the textile trade by the original Jan Six’s parents, Jean Six and Anna Six-Wymer. His mother was widowed young, but became a business tycoon in her own right with a monopoly on the import of indigo dye, said Ten in an interview in one renovated room of his home. Wymer invested her profits in Amsterdam real estate, which provided rental income to her descendants.

Rembrandt’s friend Jan Six left the management of the family business to his brother while he focused on writing and buying art – beginning a collection that would be expanded over the centuries by gainful marriages.

Portrait of Jan Six shows Rembrandt’s genius for innovation at a time when most subjects, dressed in formal black with white ruffled collars, sit stiffly for the artist, their images often surrounded by symbolic emblems like a book or a globe to describe their characteristics or interests.

The 36-year-old Jan Six has a scarlet cloak casually thrown over one shoulder, and is captured nonchalantly pulling on his gloves as if he is on his way out the door. A thick mane of russet hair spills from under his broad hat down to his shoulders and frames an inquisitive look on his tilted face.

The work combines two techniques; the incredible detail of the face and bare right hand, contrasting with the indistinct, almost impressionistic, cloak, gray tunic and chamois-gloved left hand, achieved with quick strokes of the brush.

The three-quarter-length figure has no background clutter. Nearly a third of the canvas is black, making him emerge into light at a distance where he seems ready to shake the viewer’s hand. The light strikes his left side, which is why Ten places him to the right of the window, where the light of 21st century Amsterdam becomes part of the scene.

Historian Simon Schama, in his 1999 book Rembrandt’s Eyes, called it “the greatest portrait of the 17th century. … Wherever one looks in the painting there is startling evidence of this instinctive marriage between exact calculation and liberated handling.”

The portrait of Jan Six, who died in 1700, shares wall space in the mansion with images of another 235 relatives. The patriarch is placed opposite his mother, also painted by Rembrandt, in the front parlor. Among 100 other works in the collection are paintings by Frans Hals, Albert Cuyp and Paulus Potter.

There are “hundreds of stories” about the family, says the reigning descendant. Jan Six II was Amsterdam’s longest serving Lord Mayor, in office 32 years before his death in 1750. The wife of Jan Six VI so feared death that she made provisions in her will for a bell cord to extend above ground from her grave so she could ring it if she woke up.

After the Germans occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Jan Six VIII secreted the collection’s most important works into a concealed room at the Amstel Brewery, a company he chaired. On the theory that the best place to hide valuables is under the nose of the enemy, he opened the brewery to the Nazis as an officers’ mess.

“So my grandfather collaborated – a little bit,” says Ten. At the same time, he hid microphones in niches around the mess, and the waiters were all members of the resistance listening for intelligence, he said.

All the stories are recorded in the family archive and library, which occupies 285 meters (935 feet) of shelf space and which took 16 years to enter into a computerized inventory. Documents date to 1032, even before the family moved to Amsterdam and made its fortune, and include a signed and wax-sealed charter from Britain’s King Charles II.

Although technically the collection no longer belongs to the family, Ten is the only member of the foundation’s board with sole discretion on how the collection is maintained.

He says it’s a responsibility he was trained to accept since he was 5 years old. “It takes your life,” he says. “You must want to do it.”


Associated Press Writer Toby Sterling contributed to this report.

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