Owning people and selling them was once a big business dating back to ancient times, making slave traders very rich. But while this is an old story that occurred in many cultures, you don’t expect a beloved Old Master like Rembrandt, known for his warmhearted paintings, to have profited from such a hateful pursuit.

Cashing in

Making this fact known is an upcoming exhibit called “Slavery” at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where many of Rembrandt’s works hang. You might say he lucked out living in the Dutch colonial period because that was when Netherlanders accumulated their wealth in the slave trade and sought proud portraits of themselves.

Rembrandt cashed in by painting slave traders like Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit.

Prettifying ugliness

The Observer reports Soolmans and Coppit as heirs to one of the largest sugar refineries in Amsterdam - a business that relied on “the forced labor of enslaved Africans.” Rembrandt’s painting of the couple is being featured in the exhibit to demonstrate how he gave cover to colonials who made a killing preying on human misery.

The coverup

To show this couple’s ill-gotten gains in a benign way, Rembrandt described them looking out at the viewer with bland facial expressions, clearly without a worry in the world. Still, it’s hard to ignore their indulgence in embellishments like ruffled collars and jewelry that their slave-trading afforded them.

Why did he do it?

The exhibit also tells true stories by the tragic dramatis personae of the time – those of the slave owners and the enslaved. But the focus of the exhibit is Rembrandt’s paintings of Soolmans and Coppit. And the question that nags here is why did Rembrandt do it? It’s not as if he were a starving artist.

As The Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones points out, Rembrandt was “reeling in commissions from the Amsterdam elite.” And get this, he was only 28 years old when he made it big.

Given that history, what would move him to paint this couple?

Saving grace

Is it possible that Rembrandt’s way of picturing this couple was him commenting on what he thought of them and their ugly way of life? I say this because rather than his usual descriptions of couples together in the same picture, he separated Soolmans and Coppit, each standing alone.

Also, while each is dressed in modest black, Rembrandt showed them far from modest by adding in the showy objects of their success, their gold and silver accessories.

On the other hand

Maybe, Rembrandt was signaling all that, and maybe he wasn’t. But an exhibit called Slavery starring this beloved Old Master saddens and sickens. The very inclusion of his portraits in an exhibit under such a vile title seems shameful.

It’ll be hard in the future to refer to the Dutch “Golden Age” again without thinking of Rembrandt and the inhumanity of his slave-trading patrons. Good for the Rijksmuseum for braving this revelation.