A collaboration between the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue make an impressive showing for Rembrandt paintings in the United States. About 50 paintings are exhibited at each venue, of which about 30 are considered by the artist.
The first Rembrandt painting, still considered authentic, to come to America (Metropolitan Museum of Art) is the portrait of Herman Doomer, which arrived in 1884. The New York collections tended to lead in acquisition, but as this catalogue demonstrates, there was plenty of activity outside New York. The role that Wilhelm R. Valentiner played in the formation of American museum collections was critical for Dutch painting and especially Rembrandt. If we now regard two-thirds of Valentiner’s 175 paintings published as by Rembrandt in his 1931 Rembrandt Paintings in America to be by other artists, we are still left with some stunningly beautiful paintings from that group, and many others that have arrived in this country since then. The exhibition and catalogue present the range of Rembrandt’s oeuvre from his earliest activity to his last few years, with an emphasis on portraits and single figures of the 1630s to the 1650s. The two self-portraits bracketing this range are that of ca. 1629 (Indianapolis Museum of Art; cat. 4) and that of 1659 (National Gallery of Art; cat. 34). Americans preferred portraits to history paintings; when they acquired histories, they preferred single-figure characters, such as Lucretia, Flora, or the apostles. Perhaps they wished to avoid complicated history and myth subjects that demanded a literary background. More likely, they favored portrayals of real people, who, presumably and generally, shared values of mercantilism, hard work, and the Protestant faith.
Painted in bright colors and loaded brush, the two earliest works here exhibited are bound to be a surprise for the American viewer, as they are neither gloomily dark or soulfully expressive. Dating from 1624-25, these are two panels from a series of Five Senses:The Three Singers (Hearing) and The Operation (Touch). (Cat. nos. 1 and 2; p. 89). The third surviving panel of this series is The Spectacles Peddler (Sight, p. 34, fig. 8), now at the Lakenhal, Leiden. The authors relate this series to the trend of depicting intense physical reactions that is strong in the works of the Dutch Caravaggisti, implying that Rembrandt saw few original works by Caravaggio. However, Rembrandt had the opportunity to see a number of original Caravaggio paintings (and some accurate copies by others) in Amsterdam, especially those that belonged to Louis Finson. When Finson settled in Amsterdam in 1617, two years before his death, he brought a number of paintings by Caravaggio along with his own copies. The Utrecht Caravaggisti were not the conduit for Rembrandt’s familiarity with chiaroscuro dramatic paintings, and Finson, although he may fall into the category of the northern Caravaggisti, has a markedly different and tactile paint application and preference for violent subjects. The Senses series closely relates to Finson’s own Allegory of the Four Elements (Milan, Rob Smeets Gallery) of 1611 which presents four figures in dynamic interdependence, in forceful poses and facial expressions. This is the sort of painting that made an impression on Rembrandt for its physicality and lively brushwork, and also on Lievens, for his early paintings, including the grand Feast of Esther (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh) of ca. 1625.
This is a welcome complement to the 2007 Dutch Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Walter Liedtke, and the 2009 web exhibition Rembrandt in Southern California, edited by Anne Woollett (http://www.rembrandtinsocal.org/).