Living next door to Rembrandt

pexels-photo-136133.jpegIf only Dutch artist Willie van Dork had listened to reason, he could have been just as famous as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

He had a lot in common with Rembrandt and some learned observers early in his career thought he was technically a better painter.

But Willie carried a flawed gene that made him do stupid things or, at least, brilliant things long before their time.

His father, Freddy, had the flawed gene.
He started up a chain of hamburger fast-food outlets called van McDork’s and went to the wall.

His grandfather, Johannes, had it too.
He piled the family fortune into Internet pornography and gambling stocks long before there was even a computer.

He blamed it on his father, Herman, a fish monger, who turned his fish market into a stock market.

No wonder Willie’s mother, Wilma, was so worried about her son.
She tried to make him see sense the day she went to visit him in Amsterdam.
Coincidentally, he lived in the same street as Rembrandt whose mansion she had to pass to get to Willie’s cardboard box on the sidewalk.

“Why can’t you be like a normal penniless, er guilderless, artist and live in a garret, Willie?” Wilma lamented, tears in her eyes and with no where to put her handbag in the cramped surroundings.

“Oh, that would be a sell out, mother. Do you know how I’d have to raise money to pay the rent?” Willie said. “I’d have to paint things that people actually wanted to buy. I’ve told you before: I want to be the kind of artist who paints what I WANT TO PAINT, not what other people want.”

“And what’s wrong with painting what other people want to see?” Wilma said. “You have s-o-o-o much talent, Willie. You could make a good living catering for your customers, and still have time to do your own thing. Why can’t you be more like that nice Rembrandt boy up the road? Er, rich.”

Willie spat on the pavement in disgust.

“I will never sell myself out like Rembrandt! Who cares what other people want me to paint. I told you: I paint what I WANT TO PAINT. Sooner or later, people will see that I am the true genius, not him.”

His reaction, given the family’s history and defective gene, was totally predictable.

Willie and Rembrandt were actually born on the same day, July 15, 1606, and in the same city, though on opposite sides of Leiden.
They both showed early artistic flair, enrolling in the University of Leiden in their early teens.

History does not record whether they knew each other.

Rembrandt did not stay at the University of Leiden for long; he left to study with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch and then in Amsterdam with Pieter Lastman. It was an era before cameras, and he got on to a nice little earner in Amsterdam painting portraits of rich and famous people. He became so rich and famous painting portraits of the rich and famous, he even painted his own portrait, about 60 times, probably until he got himself right.

And so, Rembrandt was able to live the high life in his mansion, with servants and the best clogs money could buy.

Willie stayed on at the University of Leiden and got his degree.
It was a promising start but somewhere along the way, he became interested in a fascinating new area of art.
It was that fascination, goddamit, that took him and his cardboard box to Amsterdam.

His parents had no idea what he was up to, hence Wilma’s unheralded visit.

“Son, I don’t really understand what you are doing here?” Wilma said.

“Trust me mother. One day, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in 100 years, maybe not in 400 years, but one day, I swear, what I am doing will be all the rage in the art world,” Willie said.

“But what is it exactly?” Wilma asked.

“Well,” said Willie. “Do you know why the tulips grow so well here in Amsterdam, mother?”

“I’ve never given it much thought,” she replied, scratching her head.

“The manure, that’s why, mother.

“Amsterdam cowpats are widely regarded as the best cowpats in the known world for horticulture.”

“I don’t understand the connection with your artwork,” Wilma said.

“Neither did I at first, mother,” Willie said.

“I just sensed there was gold in them thar cowpats.

“But when I reconstituted them, all I got was a dirty brown colour – the same hue every artist in town is throwing on to their canvas.

“I wanted more. Much more. I didn’t want to do what everyone else is doing to satisfy commercial appetites. Stuff the money, I want to paint what I WANT TO PAINT, not what other people want me to paint.”

“But what IS that?” cried Wilma.

“Well,” Willie said. “Every morning, I go down to the cattle saleyards and collect manure in my bucket here.

“I bring it back, dry it on the footpath, then paint it in all manner of colourful paints: red, yellow, orange, green, you name it.

“Then I put each of the items up for sale as mantelpiece ornaments.”

“Really?” said Wilma, turning up her nose. “And do you sell many.”

“Not many,” said Willie. “Well, none at all really. But I will. I know I will. It’s just a matter of time. I believe if I paint WHAT I WANT, my admirers will come. I know that one day I will be famous.”

Alas, Willie never found that fame – even long after his death.
But he did go to his deathbed with two huge consolations.
In 1656, Rembrandt lost his fortune and declared bankruptcy.
Willie never accumulated any fortune to lose.

Rembrandt is known today as one of the greatest painters in the history of Western art.

Willie van Dork is still known today as the biggest bullshit artist Leiden ever produced.

©August 29, 2000 John Martin. All Rights Reserved

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