Amsterdam – so Instagrammable, even Rembrandt was painting snapshots

Celebrations of the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt include a major exhibition at the Rijksmuseum. Gabrielle Fagan goes in search of the original selfie

The beautiful Dutch city of Amsterdam has more canals than Venice

I'M WOBBLING along cobbled streets on a bicycle, on my way to visit someone who could be regarded as the world's first Instagrammer.

Being on a bike for the first time in 20 years is an event for me; in cycle-mad Amsterdam, it's the most authentic way to travel. But far more extraordinary is discovering that the social media pioneer is iconic artist Rembrandt, who died centuries before the photo-sharing site was even a twinkle in anyone's eye.

The way he sowed the seeds for one of the most popular ways to communicate today is revealed for the first time in the new All The Rembrandts exhibition at the Rijksmuseum (until June 10 2019), which I'm going to view.

Marking the 350th anniversary of the painter's death, part of a year of celebrations in the Netherlands, it shows the 17th century Dutch miller's son was not only obsessed with self-portraits – akin to our 'selfies' – but way ahead of his time in chronicling, through drawings and sketches, his daily life, family, and friends, for his and their enjoyment.

It's a habit that would be entirely recognisable to the online 'posters and boasters' of today.

"Rembrandt was the first artist in history – the first Instagrammer, one could even say, and that's not trying to be popular – to really capture the world around him," declares Taco Dibbits, director of the museum.

"No artist before the 20th century made as many self-portraits as he did. He painted his family, he drew his friends, he went out into the streets, the countryside and he even lets us enter his own bedroom, where his sick wife was stretched out. He was a rebel who did not abide by rules of art, and consequently, we're brought into his private world."

The Old Master, who dominated the Golden Age of Dutch painting in the 17th century, could never have dreamt of his legacy being so influential on those using 21st century mobiles.

But Taco insists: "If I use words like 'selfie' and 'Instagram', it's because he fashioned the way we look at the world, and the way we take photographs.

"He's the first person to register the life around him and make it personal. He never idealises, so he really portrays people how they are. Without him, we would still be painting – or trying to paint – pictures of gods and goddesses, and scenes from antiquity."

For the first time in history, the museum is showing every Rembrandt it owns.

"Light makes the drawings fade, so we almost never show them. An exhibition likes this only happens once in a generation," promises Taco.

Self Portrait as The Apostle Paul, 1661

Twenty-two paintings, 300 sketches and 60 drawings, many of which are normally hidden away in climate-controlled storage, show a fresh-faced young man rocketing to worldwide success, but whose life is marred by tragedy.

He was devastated by the death of his wife, Saskia, outlived all those closest to him, including his four children, and struggled in old age with poverty and loneliness.

It's also the last chance for a while to see the one painting not in the exhibition, his masterpiece and huge tableau, Night Watch, which has pride of place in the museum's Gallery of Honor, but will be obscured when work on restoring it begins in July.

Gaining an insight into this artistic genius is just one highlight of a three-day visit to a city which boasts more canals than Venice and where I discover, as a keen amateur artist, it's possible to easily immerse yourself in art.

I've travelled from London St Pancras by Eurostar, on its new direct route to Amsterdam, which takes under four hours to arrive direct into the city centre.

My base is luxury boutique hotel, The Dylan. Built on the site of the city's first theatre, where Vivaldi once conducted an orchestra, it's an elegant fusion of old and new.

Want to go Dutch in Amsterdam? Get a bike

Historic wood-panelled walls and rafters harmonise perfectly with contemporary pared-back decor. It's a treat for gourmets, with a brasserie and Michelin-starred Vinkeles restaurant. Crucially, it provides the ultimate in 21st century comfort; my room even has a bed which automatically adjusts itself to my body temperature.

Location is all – particularly when time's limited – and The Dylan is well placed in the fashionable heart of city, beside the small boutiques, art galleries, bars, and restaurants of the famed Nine Streets (De Negen Straatjes), and overlooking the famous Emperor's canal – one of the three prime waterways.

Most importantly, I'm only a 10-minute bike ride (the hotel has cycles for hire) or a short walk away from Museumplein, the city's largest square.

It has a stellar choice of art venues. As well as The Rijksmuseum, there's the wonderful Van Gogh Museum, currently showing the works of British artist David Hockney (until May 26, 2019), the Stedelijk Museum, for contemporary and modern art, and the MOCO Museum, currently exhibiting works by English street artist Banksy.

Another nearby must-see is Rembrandt's House, now fully restored and a museum, which gives brilliant demonstrations of his paint mixing and etching techniques.

Its latest exhibition, Rembrandt's Social Network, focuses on his relationships with his friends and family, further burnishing his credentials for engaging in a modern way.

To refresh my palate, I step away from the galleries and frames, for lunch and a tour aboard a private canal boat. Travelling along part of the city's 75 kilometres of waterways with Captain Maarten Van Vliet of Classic Boat Dinners is fascinating, as he's a fund of knowledge on the area, history and key landmarks.

This is a relaxing way to view the city and enjoy a panorama of its richly diverse architecture, ranging from the ultra-modern to the signature canal-side houses, and their charming, gabled facades.

It may have been a whistle-stop visit, but by following in Rembrandt's footsteps, I've found this city – whose life and residents he captured on canvas and paper – is a feast for the eyes on every level. As an aspiring artist, what more could you ask of a destination?


:: The Dylan offers a three-night Rembrandt Art Package, valid until June 12 2019, from £1,236 (two sharing). It includes breakfast, one dinner, two tickets to Rijksmuseum, and two tickets to Rembrandt House Museum. For more information, email or call +31 20 530 2010.

:: Eurostar (; 03432 186 186) operates a direct service from London St Pancras International to the Netherlands, with one-way fares starting from £35 (based on a return journey). Fastest London/Amsterdam journey time is three hours and 41 minutes.

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