In search of the real Rembrandt

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2012 - 10:52 AM

His largest-ever American show is filled with masterpieces. But not all of the 50 paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts are genuine Rembrandts.

Looks like a Rembrandt. Glows like a Rembrandt. Must be a Rembrandt, right?

Not necessarily.

Take the two paintings shown above. Both bear Rembrandt's signature. Both are thought to depict the artist's wife, Saskia, who appears to be wearing the same pearl earrings, necklace and cloak in both pictures.

Illuminated with Rembrandt's typical backlighting, they show off the painter's skill at imitating textures -- delicate lace, lush velvet, shimmering brocade, gossamer hair, dewy flesh. Although not as psychologically penetrating as his most famous pictures, they still are sensitive and sympathetic. Both have illustrious histories and were long assumed to be authentic Rembrandts. But one is no longer believed to have been painted by the master.

Which is which?

That question has puzzled Rembrandt scholars and fans for decades, not just in the case of these two pictures but in response to dozens of his paintings in collections throughout the world.

Starting Sunday the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) offers visitors a chance to test their eyes against those of the experts. The largest Rembrandt exhibit ever assembled in this country, "Rembrandt in America" includes about 30 paintings by the master, along with another 20 or so that were once attributed to his hand but are now thought to be by followers or close associates.

None is a fake created to fool buyers. The show is drawn from 27 major American museums and three private collections, all of which assumed the paintings were his when they acquired them. Instead they illustrate changing ideas about authenticity, how art is made and valued and how an influential artist's style can become virtually a "brand."

Even organizers of the show don't agree on how many bona fide Rembrandts are in it.

"That depends on who you talk to," said MIA curator Tom Rassieur, whose previous Rembrandt exhibits have been seen in Boston, Chicago and Japan. He wrote two essays for the excellent catalog for "Rembrandt in America," which was organized in cooperation with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

"What's a Rembrandt is very complicated and I don't want to present this exhibition as the word of God, because it's a very human and fallible issue to make these attributions," said Rassieur. "We invite the public to use their own eyes."

A busy and tumultuous life

Arranged in loose chronology, the paintings roughly follow the tumultuous life and career of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69), who was born and trained in Leyden, a commercial center in southern Holland. By 1632 he had settled in more cosmopolitan Amsterdam, where his insightful portraits and polished surfaces quickly attracted prominent clients and a thriving workshop of students and assistants.

In 1634 he married Saskia van Uylenburgh, a well-connected heiress who became a favorite model. Her death in 1642 seems to have sent him into a tailspin, in part because Saskia had left her money to their son, Titus, with the stipulation that Rembrandt could use it until he remarried.

Always living beyond his means, Rembrandt could never afford to pay his son and so lived "in sin" with his next companion, Hendrickje Stoffels, who also figures in many paintings, including the MIA's famous "Lucretia," 1666, in which Rembrandt depicts her as a tragic Roman heroine who committed suicide to save her honor.

Bankrupt in 1656, he downsized, moved to an unfashionable neighborhood and dodged creditors by having Hendrickje and Titus employ him. In his final decade, his work became more psychologically intense and unsparing as he downplayed theatrical props in favor of brooding and ruminative poses, especially in his many self-portraits.

Stylistic chameleon

Galleries full of Rembrandts can be disconcerting because they appear to be the work of not one but many artists. Like Picasso, he was endlessly innovative in response to artistic trends, commissions, subjects and personal circumstances. Broadly speaking, his paint tends toward high polish in the early years and becomes rougher, more textured, sketchy and impressionistic as he ages. But even that generalization breaks down.

"About 1630 he did a number of self-portraits in the same year in three different styles -- rough, smooth and a hybrid," said Dennis Weller, curator of Northern European art at the Raleigh museum. "That ability to change styles within a short time period has caused endless problems" for scholars trying to establish chronologies and to distinguish his work from that done by students, assistants or followers.

The three self-portraits in the Minneapolis show span Rembrandt's career, from a marvelously shadowed 1629 piece in which he seems about to speak, to a callow 1634 number and then to the National Gallery of Art's riveting warts-and-all (literally) 1659 image.

At the MIA, "authentic" Rembrandts are hung among paintings that experts now consider to be workshop pieces. In the 17th century it was common for the master to touch up work by an assistant or student and sell it under his own name. Clients even sometimes stipulated how much attention they expected from the top dog and at what price. This led to such a proliferation of "Rembrandts" that by the mid-20th century an improbable 750 to 1,000 paintings were attributed to him, about 175 of them in American collections.

In 1968 a Dutch group formed the Rembrandt Research Project to apply scientific techniques and archival research to Rembrandt studies. By the time it disbanded in 2011, the project had published five volumes totaling more than 4,000 pages and reduced his oeuvre to about 320 paintings, plus some still in question. In the end X-rays, infrared photography, chemical analysis, dendrochronology (counting tree rings) and other scientific techniques proved helpful but not conclusive because Rembrandt and his associates often used the same pigments, canvas from the same bolt and even wood panels from the same trees.

'It really shows how Rembrandt won'

The study validated a number of masterpieces that are in the show, including the MIA's "Lucretia" (which has never been doubted), the powerful "St. Bartholomew" (1657) from the Timken Museum in San Diego and a more introspective 1661 interpretation of the same saint from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

High points on view among his early 1630s work include "Old Man With a Gold Chain," two pairs of life-sized husband-and-wife portraits -- all sporting fabulous white ruff collars -- and the breathtakingly alive "Portrait of Marten Looten" from Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The project also led to a better appreciation of Rembrandt's top students, among them Isaac de Joudreville, Govaert Flinck, Ferdinand Bol and Jan Lievens, who are now credited with images in this show.

Paintings that have been demoted to Not-Rembrandts are still interesting even if they're no longer pilgrimage pictures. The Cleveland Museum of Art once thought it had four Rembrandts, all downgraded long ago. Still, seeing them in this show was "hugely informative," said Jon Seydl, the museum's curator of European painting and sculpture. After comparing Cleveland's pictures with others in the show, the museum plans to restore its "Portrait of a Woman," which now looks "more interesting and subtle" than before. It has divided opinions about De Joudreville as the possible painter of its "Bust of a Young Man With a Gold Chain." And the other two "will mostly live in storage," he said.

"People had stopped writing about them and coming to Cleveland to look at them," Seydl said of the ex-Rembrandts. "In a most generous way, you could say the museum had made a lot of mistakes and really didn't like to talk about it. Now we can. It really shows how Rembrandt won. He got all these people in his lifetime and shortly after to emulate him and do it really well."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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  • REMBRANDT IN AMERICA

    When: Opens Sun. Ends Sept. 16. Open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Wed. and Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thu.

    Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 3rd Av. S.

    Tickets: Adults $14 weekends, $12 weekdays. 612-870-3000 or www.artsmia.org.

    Related exhibit: "Rembrandt's Miniature World," etchings from Minnesota collections.

    Catalog: "Rembrandt in America: Collecting and Connoisseurship," 224 pages including 150 color illustrations, $35 paperback.

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