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BOONE, NORTH CAROLINA — The Rembrandt in America show at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) is the largest Rembrandt show ever staged in America, containing 47 works. It’s organized into eight or nine mini-shows in a gallery space that’s laid out in an elongated “U” shape. The first half of the exhibition covers Rembrandt’s early career and the Amsterdam portraits. The back room (or the bottom of the “U” shape) is an exhibit of all of the major catalogues on Rembrandt’s work. The second half of the exhibit progresses from a room of pieces by Rembrandt’s workshop and his students, then into the history paintings and finally into to a room of portraits of his family members.
The paintings are incredibly preserved. They seemed clean — the colors were varied, shockingly bold at times and the paint seemed fresh. There is hardly a crack to be seen in any of the paintings. The wall text uses standard language and is enough to help interpretation along without going into great depth. The most humorous element is the way they’ve written the attributions — everything from “Rembrandt” to “Rembrandt(?) and workshop” to “Follower of.” The lighting is on the dim side, which is unfortunate, but lighting is a fine line and you want to see the vibrancy of the color.
The idea for the show is two-fold. The curators wanted to gather most of the Rembrandt paintings that were already in North America, and they wanted to explore the idea of collecting Rembrandt’s work in a world of ever-changing attributions.
The mania for Rembrandt began among European collectors in the 18th and 19th C. Every noble collection in England, Russia, France and Germany had to have at least one Rembrandt. With the decline of the European economy at the end of the 19th Century, collectors began to sell off their Rembrandt paintings to the newly minted American industrialists. J. Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Andrew Mellon are among the most notable names responsible for the influx of Rembrandt’s work. Eventually, a great number of the privately purchased Rembrandts were donated to public collections. According to the catalogue for Rembrandt in America, all but one Rembrandt painting in the collections of the National Gallery of Art in DC and New York’s Metropolitan Museum were donated. By World War II, the pace of the Rembrandt trade died down and the evaluation of the paintings began.
For a location such as Raleigh, NC, the Rembrandt show is an excellent idea. The inspiration for the show began with a fortunate connection between Rembrandt and the NCMA. One of the former directors of the museum, Wilhelm (William) R. Valentiner, was one of the foremost Rembrandt scholars of his time, and in 1931, he published Rembrandt Paintings in America, which documented the 175 so-called Rembrandts on the continent.
Valentiner’s attributions were optimistic, at best, and very few of those 175 paintings are still considered to be authentic. The exact number of official Rembrandt paintings has wavered within the last century from between 230 (according to The Rembrandt Research Project) to just over 700 (Wilhelm Valentiner’s number). The back room of the exhibition is devoted to Rembrandt catalogues which have varying opinions on the exact number of official paintings. The curators tracked the numbers in each catalogue and posted the data on the wall above the books.
Currently, most of the extant Rembrandt paintings are in Germany, the UK, France and the US, with a few others in the Netherlands, Russia, Italy and elsewhere. Very few of the history paintings are in private collections and almost all of the portraits passed around in private collections until landing in museums. So in a sense, the portraits were easier to acquire by the time American collectors wanted and could afford them so they make up the bulk of the American Rembrandts.
During the American buy-up of Rembrandt’s work, there was a faction of vocal critics who encouraged European collectors not to sell off their treasures for fear of losing track of their heritage, but the major Rembrandt masterpieces were already established in museums at this point. A brief look at the Rijksmuseum‘s website puts their acquisitions of their major Rembrandt works in the early 1800s, with lesser works acquired in the early 1900s. The history of American collecting with respect to Rembrandt seems to be that of picking through the mass of lesser works to find brilliance that was overshadowed by the major works in European collections.
The ability to find genius in the lesser known Rembrandt paintings is what defines American connoisseurship of Rembrandt, and that’s a big part of this show. “Lucretia” (1666), “Self-Portrait” (1659) and “Portrait of an Old Man” are truly great paintings. A good example of the kind of issues that curators are currently debating is embodied in Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Man Reading.”
Dennis Weller, co-curator of the exhibition explained to me that Ernst van de Wetering,head of the Rembrandt Research Project, believes that this painting, signed and dated in 1648, isn’t actually a Rembrandt, but that it’s supposedly by one of his students or someone in his workshop.
Given the lighting setup, this painting is something of an outlier. There is no direct light on the face, but it is back lit, with a well-lit hand. Weller said:
“There are only two paintings done that year — this one and one other. At the time, he had stopped painting almost completely to work on prints, and in many of the prints, he was working on back lighting. So it’s possible that it really is Rembrandt experimenting with a technique from his prints and applying it to his painting.”
The label has the attribution, “Rembrandt van Rijn (?) and workshop.” It is signed, after all, and the hand and book are skillfully painted, but the face lacks the network of mark-making that seems to be something only Rembrandt could do. The paintings that unequivocally belong to Rembrandt’s hand have an interlocking network of marks that echo each other through the highlights, mid-tones, shadows and the backgrounds, perfectly revealing light and shade and following the form with respect to anatomy. The network exists partially in the paintings that are attributed to his students or are workshop collaborations, but the marks in those paintings just don’t cohere, repeat and echo the way they do in the paintings attributed to the master himself.
We’re left to wonder about Rembrandt the artist and how he worked. How did his followers, students and his workshop come into play? Which sections of the paintings did he prefer to paint himself? What did he leave to his workshop? Was there even a sense of ownership or authorship comparable to our contemporary thoughts? The followers of Rembrandt did produce some good work, as displayed in the fascinating “Rembrandt or Not Rembrandt” room of the show.
The concept of authorship that we operate with in our culture currently places the artisan at the bottom of the hierarchy, with the artist or idea-generator at the top. It’s curious to think that most people nowadays seem to be content with the notion that artists often don’t produce their own work, and some even scoff at people who do, but looking back we’d never accept that a work is by Rembrandt just because it is created based on his idea.
Rembrandt in America will be on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art (2110 Blue Ridge Road Raleigh, North Carolina) until January 22, 2012. The exhibition will also travel to the Cleveland Museum of Art (11150 East Boulevard Cleveland, Ohio) from February 19 – May 26, 2012 and to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, Minnesota) from June 24 – September 16, 2012.
Homepage image credit: Rembrandt, detail of “Self Portrait” (1659), image courtesy of The North Carolina Museum of Art.