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Leiden psychology student is distant relative of Rembrandt

Benson van der Bij is a family member of Holland's most famous master: Rembrandt van Rijn. What does he think of this relationship? And did he know that Rembrandt was also enrolled as a student here?

Grand exhibitions, a wave of new books and numerous television programmes devoted to Rembrandt. This grand master of painting, sketching and etching died 350 years ago, which makes 2019 a special Rembrandt year. Psychology student Benson van der Bij is an admirer of Rembrandt. Wherever possible he visits all the exhibitions on Rembrandt and on his wall at home he has a framed poster of the Nightwatch - his favourite painting.  But there is one thing that distinguishes him from all the other millions of admirers: Benson is a member of Rembrandt’s family. 

Fragment from the television programme 'The secret of the master' with a self-portrait of Rembrandt and a photo of Benson.

Leiden family De Goeij

The relationship came to light in 1991 when the Leiden city archivist discovered data on Rembrandt’s family in Leiden. Rembrandt has no direct descendants. His son Titus, the only child to live beyond childhood, had a daughter Titia, but she had no children of her own. A number of descendants of Rembrandt’s oldest brother Adriaen were discovered. In the 18th century, his great-granddaughter Theodora married a member of the De Goey family, a name that was later changed to De Goeij. Benson’s grandmother, Adriana Cornelia de Goeij, is descended from that same De Goeij family and consequently also from Adriaen van Rijn. View the family tree of the Van Rijn family down to Benson van der Bij.  

‘Children at school didn’t believe me’

What does Benson think of this remarkable relationship? ‘It’s very nice and special, but it doesn’t mean much more than that to me,’ he says matter-of-factly. At junior school he did sometimes mention that he is related to that famous 17th-century artist. ‘But the children didn’t believe me. At least not until I gave a class talk when I was 11 and showed them my family tree. It was only then that they took me seriously.’ Since then everyone who learns of the relationship always asks whether he too is artistically gifted. ‘I like drawing and woodworking, but they’re not things I do very often. My aunt Noor is an artist.’  

Benson did not realise that Rembrandt was also enrolled at Leiden University.

Rembrandt was also enrolled in Leiden

Psychology student Benson was surprised to hear that Rembrandt was enrolled as an arts student at Leiden University in 1620 – although the question is whether Rembrandt was mainly interested in the advantages of enrolment, such as tax-free beer and exemption from archery duty. Like many other people, Benson also did not know that Rembrandt painted portraits of a number of Leiden alumni, including Nicolaes Tulp, Marten Soolmans (from the double portrait Marten & Oopjen) and Jan Six. ‘That’s amazing; I had no idea!’ Nor did he know that the University Library has around a hundred prints by Rembrandt in its collection.    

Photo impression of the portrait of Marten Soolmans at the Law Faculty. The exact location of the canvasses is under discussion.

Rembrandt route

The University wants to make use of this special year – the celebration of its 444th anniversary – and the Rembrandt year to highlight this little-known history: a Rembrandt route showing large-scale paintings by Rembrandt at University premises that are related to the painting. One example is a portrait of Marten Soolmans, who studied Law in Leiden, at the Law Faculty. The municipality has just issued a permit for these canvasses and the aim is to open the Rembrandt route on Museum Night on 18 May. Benson: ‘This is a great way to make students and other Leideners aware of this historic connection!’

Psychology in Leiden

Benson grew up in the village of Hooghalen in Drenthe. Did the fact that Rembrandt studied in Leiden play a part in his decision to study psychology here? ‘No, but it was a nice coincidence. As my grandmother said, “That brings things full circle.” I chose Leiden mainly because of the freedom studying Psychology here gives you. I wanted to focus on social psychology because I'm particularly interested in group processes. Right now I’m doing research on prejudices between native Dutch and Moroccan Dutch people. I also play an active part in the “One country, one community” foundation that aims to bring together people from different cultural backgrounds.’

Artist Daphe Wageman made a copper print of Benson and submitted it to this summer's 'Long live Rembrandt' exhibition. A jury will shortly decide whether this work will be included in the exhibition in the Rijksmuseum.

The secret of the master

Benson’s family history has become something of an unpaid part-time job. For several years now the media have contacted him as a descendent of Rembrandt. ‘I made an appeal for the Nightwatch to be classed as a key work in the artistic Dutch heritage, for the television programme Het pronkstuk van Nederland [The jewel of the Netherlands].’ And for the Het geheim van de meester [The master’s secret] programme Benson donated one of his hairs. In this programme artist Charlotte Caspers makes amazing reconstructions of famous masterpieces. In Rembrandt’s painting Jeremia there is a hair still stuck in the paint, which could be Rembrandt’s hair. Presenter Jasper Krabbé painstakingly questioned his relation to Rembrandt. ‘Then at some point I said that the Nightwatch feels “familiar”. That was a bit of an exaggeration.’ During this Rembrandt year he has also been asked to don a 17th-century costume at one of the Rembrandt activities, but that was going a bit too far for him. ‘It shouldn’t become some kind of parody.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos: Sean van der Steen
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