With her sorrowing eyes and blood-stained chemise, "Lucretia" has always been one of Rembrandt's most compelling paintings, a longtime star of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts' collection and a magnet for art lovers internationally.

Thanks to the art-world clout of this legendary Roman noblewoman painted nearly 350 years ago, Twin Citians will be able to see the largest collection of paintings by the Dutch master ever gathered in this country.

"Lucretia" was the bait used to secure "Rembrandt in America," which opens Sunday at the MIA, featuring about 30 pictures by Rembrandt himself and 20 others from his workshop or associates.

"It's literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see masterpieces by one of the world's greatest artists," said Kaywin Feldman, the Minneapolis museum's director. The MIA's last major Rembrandt exhibit was in 1960, and the new show includes pictures from private collections that even Feldman had never seen.

"Lucretia's" tale illustrates the horse-trading that goes into assembling a major exhibit like this one, which took more than five years of negotiations among 27 American museums and three private collectors.

A key to securing important shows is having great art to lend. In this case the MIA had two bargaining chips in play, both of them "pilgrimage pictures" that draw art connoisseurs to Minneapolis.

The first was "Lucretia," which great museums in Amsterdam; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; New York City and elsewhere have borrowed for important exhibits. "I'm proud to say that she's universally regarded by Rembrandt scholars as one of the two greatest Rembrandt paintings in America," said Feldman. (The other is not in the show: "Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

Shortly after she became MIA director in 2008, Feldman was asked to lend "Lucretia" for the exhibit. She agreed, but only if Minneapolis became a stop on the tour, which started last fall at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and showed at the Cleveland Museum of Art this spring. It closes in Minneapolis Sept. 16.

MIA played a 'trump card'

"We absolutely participate in horse-trading," Feldman said. Given the volume of loan requests, however, museums have to be "very judicious" about which shows they will do. Decisions are influenced by institutional prestige, the quality of the scholarship, possible future loans and the condition of pictures requested. The Minneapolis museum never lends its Van Gogh painting, for example, because of its value and fragile condition.

But a second MIA "pilgrimage picture" was crucial to securing another Rembrandt masterpiece, his dramatic "St. Bartholomew," which depicts a ruggedly handsome fellow casually fingering the blade of the knife that will soon flay him alive. It's on loan from the Timken Museum in San Diego, a tiny institution that owns just 45 paintings, all of them top quality by big names.

The massive Metropolitan Museum of Art was able to lend five Rembrandts to the show and replace them with other Dutch masterpieces, but the Timken was in a pickle.

"You try not to make it a quid pro quo where you say, 'I'll lend you this if you lend me that,' but if something leaves, we have a big hole," said the Timken's director, John Wilson. So Cleveland offered to lend the museum a rare early Nicolas Poussin and the MIA stepped in with Francisco de Goya's 1820 "Self-Portrait With Dr. Arrieta."

"For Minneapolis to lend us that Goya is a real sacrifice on their part because it is one fantastic painting," Wilson said, adding that the Timken didn't just "slap it on the wall," but made it the centerpiece of a mini-show and lecture series.

"In the end we played our trump card," said Tom Rassieur, the MIA's print curator and Rembrandt expert.

"Lucretia," painted in 1666, just three years before the artist died, ranks among "the most moving and powerful female images ever produced by Rembrandt," Raleigh curator Dennis Weller writes in the exhibition catalog.

It came to Minneapolis in 1927 when Herschel Jones, publisher of the Minneapolis Journal (a predecessor of the Star Tribune), bought it from a New York gallery. His widow sold it to the institute in 1934. The price was $115,000, which is equivalent to about $2 million now (after adjusting for inflation) but was probably a bargain even then. It is certainly a pittance given that Rembrandt's top auction price stands at $33.2 million for a picture sold in 2009.

'Pouring his heart out'

Rassieur believes the subject -- a Roman woman who was raped and/or blackmailed by a prince and then killed herself to preserve her honor -- was intensely personal to Rembrandt. His common-law wife of many years, Hendrickje Stoffels, had died three years earlier. They were unable to marry for complicated financial reasons and, after becoming pregnant with Rembrandt's child in 1654, she was excommunicated and they became social pariahs. Rembrandt went bankrupt a couple of years later and spent his final years dodging creditors before dying in 1669.

Hendrickje, as Rembrandt remembered her, became the model for Lucretia, who also had been dishonored and violated by her community.

"When Rembrandt made that painting he was literally pouring his heart out," Rassieur said. "For me this is Rembrandt's rage coming out and his mourning of the treatment that Hendrickje was dealt. Maybe it was even an accusation that the society killed Hendrickje. You can't sit before that portrait without feeling an incredible depth of emotion."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431