Reviewed August 2018
Squirrel Walsh, Imaging Services Coordinator
Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library
The Rembrandt Database is a resource designed by and for museum professionals and scholars familiar with Rembrandt scholarship. Originally funded by Mellon Foundation grants, The Rembrandt Database is now incorporated into the main database of the Netherlands Institute for Art History (The RDK), which also provides access to other projects such as RemBench. The RDK is also responsible for the project’s continued maintenance and expansion. The data is impressive in scope and derived from over twenty institutions in both Europe and the Americas. Viewing the contents of the database is free; additional functionality such as saving selected artworks requires free registration on the RDK site.
The main page of The Rembrandt Database is dominated by a large banner of rotating images of Rembrandt’s work, with the RDK logo at the top right. In the middle of the page is a section that allows the viewer to use the search box or to explore by clicking either the bright green box labeled “artworks” or the blue box labeled “research documentation.” The search box either searches the artworks or the research documentation, but not both. The size and coloration of the “Explore” boxes catch the eyes of the viewer, rendering the search box less visible and encouraging viewers to jump right into the artworks database.
The artworks database is color-coded green. A sidebar with a panoply of metadata facets is on the left. A single search box sits at the top of these facets; however, unless the user switches to “Advanced” mode and explicitly adds “The Rembrandt Database” to the “Project Field,” the search will revert to querying all items in the RDK database instead of only items in the Rembrandt Database. There is no easy way back to the Rembrandt Database, short of returning to rembrandtdatabase.org and starting again. Easily overlooked, the most straightforward way to search across all fields is to use the search box on the main Rembrandt Database site.
Clicking on a painting supplies a tremendously detailed and information-rich record, including data on provenance, exhibition history, a bibliography of scholarship, links to technical documentation, and more. If known, biographical information about the people represented in the painting is also presented. While many of the images included feature zooming capability, only small JPG files of the paintings can be downloaded. Most of the data is linked; for example, clicking on “Location collection: Paris” shows every item in the RDK database labelled as located in Paris. The “Artistically Related” section of some paintings’ entries also contains links to other works in the greater RDK database that reference or relate to the painting. Again, however, as with search the context of the Rembrandt Database is lost when a user clicks on one of these links.
The research documentation database is color-coded blue. Though easier to use than the artworks database, it presupposes a large body of knowledge on the part of the user. For example, the user is expected to know what audioradiography is and how to interpret the image generated by that process. Especially helpful in this section is the inclusion of both an image of the painting and an image taken from the investigation. Thus, thanks to the interface design, it is fairly straightforward to determine which documentation belongs to which painting of Susanna and the Elders.
For museum professionals, especially for conservators, this database is an invaluable resource, replacing hours of research and representing new possibilities for art scholarship. Undergraduates and non-academics would require some tutelage; there is significant risk of them getting lost in the complexity of the database and the amount of data supplied. RDK could improve usability by differentiating the Rembrandt Database more clearly from their general collections database, but overall the richness of the metadata and their commitment to the project is admirable.