Rembrandt van Rijn: The Sampling Officials (1662); Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

During the seventeenth century, paintings portraying the members of guilds, families or syndics, were extremely popular in the Dutch Republic. Such group portraits had a decorative function, but they also expressed the identity and self-esteem of the newly established middle class ‘burghers’ who commissioned them.
The problem with such group scenes was that they tended to be somewhat boring. The portrayed mostly stood side by side rather stiffly or sat down at a banquet in a static setting. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) was one of the first artists who experimented with more daring and dramatic compositions for group portraits. The so-called Night Watch, dating from 1642, is undoubtedly the most famous example of these experiments.
The painting we’re looking at here, called The Sampling Officials (De Staalmeesters), was created much later by Rembrandt, seven years before his death. The men on the canvas are the syndics of the Amsterdam Drapers Guild, who supervised the quality of a certain type of cloth called laken. The main charm of the painting is that the sampling officials don’t come across as if they are posing for a group portrait, but rather as if they are surprised by an unexpected visitor; one of the syndics was just about to get seated. Rembrandt created a lively group scene by showing us people who are in turn looking at someone else themselves.


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