The North Carolina Museum of Art has curated an exhibit of 30 works by Rembrandt from American collectors, which is especially appropriate considering that the museum's first director was partly responsible for authenticating many works as painted by the Dutch artist that turned out not to be actual Rembrandts.
"Rembrandt in America" opens Oct. 30 at the museum, then travels next year to Cleveland and Minneapolis.
The 30 paintings are from private collections and more than two dozen American art museums. The exhibit also includes works no longer attributed to Rembrandt, including two in the North Carolina museum's own collection.
"Starting in the late 19th century, when wealth moved to America, Americans began buying Rembrandts in great numbers for great amounts of cash," said Dennis Weller, curator of Northern European Art at the North Carolina museum.
People such as J. Paul Getty, Andrew Mellon and George Eastman were particularly attracted to Dutch and Flemish painters because their portraits and landscapes were more approachable than French or Italian works. And Rembrandt was the most desired by these collectors, who saw similarities between the rise of the Dutch republic and that of the United States, said Weller, a curator of the exhibit.
Their interest created nothing short of a frenzy among Rembrandt buyers. Enter William Valentiner, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City before he became the first director of the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1955.
He accepted more than 700 paintings as being by Rembrandt. "At the very time that all of these new Rembrandts discoveries were coming onto the market, that's when the American collectors were on the prowl," Weller said.
Included are the two paintings at the North Carolina museum: "The Feast of Esther," now attributed to Rembrandt colleague Jan Lieven; and "Young Man with a Sword," attributed only to the circle of Rembrandt. Valentiner was among experts who authenticated both as being by Rembrandt.
Valentiner wasn't authenticating works he knew were paintings by Rembrandt's pupil's or associates; works were coming out of private and museum collections in Europe for sale, and Valentiner used techniques far less high-tech than the ones available today.
After decades of research, experts agree Rembrandt painted about 320 works.
"He was what you call an expansionist," said Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Met and a specialist in Flemish and Dutch paintings. In 1995, Liedtke curated a show titled "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt: In the Metropolitan Museum," which showed the Met's 21 Rembrandts and 21 works previously attributed to the Dutch artist.
Valentiner was the first serious scholar of Dutch or Flemish paintings in the country, Liedtke said. "He had great merits," he said. "But he represented the extreme of a common phenomenon at the time, which was to discover paintings in the Rembrandt style and call them Rembrandts. It's not his personal fault, but he was optimistic."
For example, Valentiner thought several of the subjects in portraits were Rembrandt's family members and surmised that only Rembrandt would have painted portraits of those close to him. But later research showed that some of the sitters weren't related to Rembrandt and that his family members might have sat for students.
Even today, it's more an art rather than a science when it comes to attributing a painting to Rembrandt. Students used the same canvasses and brushes as the master, so materials don't determine what constitutes an actual Rembrandt. "It's just the quality of the execution — the intensity of the emotion expressed by the sitter, the quality of light," Weller said. "It's the way in which he defines the bone structure under the skin in the cheeks. He used color subtly. It's just something when you face these paintings that's very moving and timeless."
Authentication also requires expert agreement.
"What makes a Rembrandt a Rembrandt now in the absence of documents that tell you ... is consensus among the specialists," Liedtke said.
A signature is meaningless as Rembrandt had the right to sign any painting from his workshop and often didn't sign major works for churches, government or the powerful because everyone knew who created them. That wasn't unusual — van Dyke and Rubens also didn't sign their works, Liedtke said.
"Rembrandt in America" will be on view at the North Carolina museum through Jan. 22. It opens at the Cleveland Museum of Art on Feb. 19, 2012. It closes there May 28, 2012, and opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts on June 24, 2012.