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The Syndics, 1662

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A meeting of five important Amsterdam inspectors behind a table. Although it seems a dull affair, Rembrandt manages to turn this meeting into an exciting, lively gathering.

Portraits of important people are potentially very dull, mainly because the patrons interfere and want to be portrayed in a predictable and formal way. And the customer is always right. But somehow, Rembrandt managed to take a very different approach, whereby the group portrait of five notables is still interesting after more than 350 years. Although the men are portrayed in a very different way, they have retained their dignity. X-rays of the painting show how Rembrandt laboured to arrive at this composition during the painting process.

Important gentlemen

We see the wardens of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild looking up from behind their table. They are important, dignified gentlemen in an important metropolis. Syndics supervised the quality of dyed woollen fabrics – or ‘laken’ in Dutch – that were made and treated in Amsterdam. Although the work was quite tedious, it was important, as they were responsible for safeguarding the reputation of this major share of the city’s economy. In 1801, the City of Amsterdam offered to sell the painting to a forerunner of the current Rijksmuseum, the Nationale Konst-Gallerij. However, the director did not want it, as he thought it was dull. 

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Dignity
Rembrandt’s portrait certainly lends the inspectors dignity, which the painter achieved by depicting the men slightly larger than life and painting the group from a lower viewpoint. It is as if Rembrandt has placed his easel in a hollow and taken account of the possibility of the painting being hung high on the wall. We, as viewers, come into the room and see the gentlemen look up from their work.

Variation in style

Rembrandt’s characteristic free and broad style of painting varies considerably within one and the same painting. Some parts, such as the subjects’ faces, are painted in more detail than others. The illuminated corner of the tablecloth at the front attracts attention, not only for its bright colours, but also because of the rough appearance of the fabric, which Rembrandt made with daubs, streaks and scraped layers of paint. Rembrandt gently steers the viewer’s gaze to wherever he wants.

The X-ray shows how Rembrandt searched for the ideal composition, moving his subjects around a few times.
Liveliness 

Looking at the X-rays shows us Rembrandt’s search for a lively composition. The head of the chairman (the seated man with the book open in front of him) was tried out in two different positions before completion. The man to the left of the chairman was originally standing upright, but Rembrandt added life and dynamism to the painting by having the man stand up. The X-rays also show how the wardens’ servant (the bare-headed man) was put in no fewer than three different positions before this final one.

In Rembrandt’s work, there is a perfect balance between light and shade, action and stillness, and communication between the subjects and contact with the viewer

A dull meeting

To show that the five guild members formed a unit, Rembrandt deliberately dressed them in the same way, without making reference to their respective ranks. In Amsterdam, merchants and regents preferred to do business together. And in Amsterdam, group portraits of high officials usually looked conservative and static. But Rembrandt turns a dull meeting into an exciting and lively gathering. It is a perfect balance between light and shade, between action and stillness, and between communication among the inspectors and with us.

  • Welcome or unwelcome?

    One of the syndics is looking at us as if he has been interrupted in his important work. Have we disturbed him or are we welcome?

  • Schoonheid van tapijt

    Although the paint of the tablecloth has faded in places over time, the beauty of the fabric is still impressive.

Welcome or unwelcome? 

The fact that everything falls into place, despite being so disordered, makes this work unique. We are drawn into the painting. There are heads at different heights looking in all directions, a man rising from or sitting down on his chair, and a palpable tension from men who regard us viewers with a stern gaze. And the question this work evokes in its viewers after all these years is: are we welcome, or will we be sent away directly?

Over het schilderij

  • The Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, known as The Syndics, 1662
  • Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 279 cm
  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; on loan from the City of Amsterdam
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