AMSTERDAM | As COVID-19 lockdowns ease and borders reopen, there is a gathering at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum of people from around Europe, depicted in more than 100 Renaissance portraits.
The Dutch national museum’s new exhibition “Remember Me,” covers the century 1470-1570 and features portraits from across the continent by masters including Albrecht Duerer, Hans Holbein and Titian that underscore humanity’s enduring desire to be remembered.
It also shows the lengths artists went to to portray people, their wealth, jobs, power and love for one another.
While the exhibition has been in the works since before the global pandemic swept the world last year, the wish to be remembered is something that felt more pressing than ever amid lockdowns, said the museum’s general director Taco Dibbits.
“We now felt with the corona crisis that people were so far away they couldn’t come to you. You couldn’t travel,” Dibbits said Tuesday. “That was always the case in the Renaissance, when it was far harder to travel and … there was this great longing to have the person with you. I think something that we felt over the last one-and-a-half years.”
The show offers a snapshot of European society in the Renaissance period and includes for the first time in a single exhibition the two earliest individual portraits of Black men known in Europe — a painting by Jan Jansz Mostaert of a man in military attire who was possibly Christophle le More, a personal bodyguard to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and a 1508 drawing, “Portrait of an African Man,” in black chalk by Albrecht Duerer that is on loan from Vienna’s Albertina Collection.
For Dibbits, whose museum has just wrapped up a groundbreaking exhibition bringing the history of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies into sharp focus, the two portraits are a way of bringing Europe’s Black population in the Renaissance out of obscurity.
“There was a presence in the Renaissance, so around 1500, of Africans in Europe and we felt it very important to show these two works, to also show that presence,” he said. “I think that for a long time in the history of art, these works were invisible. So people just thought, well they didn’t exist.”
For Dibbits and Matthias Ubl, the museum’s curator of Early Netherlandish, Italian and German painting, one of the standout highlights of the show is the enigmatic “Portrait of a Young Girl,” painted around 1470 by Petrus Christus. The portrait of an unknown girl is on loan from the Gemaeldegalerie in Berlin, the first time the painting has left the museum since 1994.
Ubl said he first became fascinated by the work when he saw it on a poster as a student in London around 20 years ago.
“When I first saw it, I thought, ‘wow, this is just so amazing. This is one of the most beautiful portraits there is.’ And now it’s here and it’s almost unreal,” Ubl said.
Getting all the loaned portraits to Amsterdam from museums around Europe, the United Kingdom and United States, was a feat in itself at a time of travel restrictions. The show opens Oct. 1 and runs to Jan. 16.
“We’re incredibly grateful that we got them all together,” Dibbits said. “And it’s really like a (re)union, you could say. It was like real people now get back together again and also these people from the Renaissance are now here gathered again together.”