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American Rembrandts converge on Minneapolis

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A celebration of one of the grandest of the old masters — Rembrandt — begins this weekend at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The MIA's new show "Rembrandt in America" examines not only the life and career of the 17th century Dutch artist, but also the confusion over which paintings are actually his work.

MIA President Kaywin Feldman always chooses her words carefully, which makes what she says about Rembrandt quite striking.

"Rembrandt was an absolute genius," she stated."And I've actually gone out on a limb so I will continue to do it today and say that I think he was the greatest artist whoever lived."  

Amidst the dozens of paintings collected for "Rembrandt in America" it's near unavoidable to be astonished by the beauty and the power of the pictures. The portraits are almost 400 years old but they are so vibrant they almost shimmer. The subjects stare out into the room. The effect of those ancient eyes is frankly unsettling.

Rembrandt in America is a collaboration of the MIA, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Cleveland Museum of Art.  It's the largest-ever assembly of Rembrandts in US history.

Many of the portraits are huge. Curator Tom Rassieur urges visitors to pause as they walk in the door and look to the right

"Come up closer and see these things," he says.

On the wall hang two small painted panels.

"If you saw these pictures at a flea market you might walk right by them," Rassieur said.

The Operation
The Operation (Touch) is the earliest known Rembrandt painting still in existence. Curator Tom Rassieur says still it shows many of what became the Dutch master's hallmarks.
Image courtesy of the MIA

But these are Rembrandts. And special Rembrandts at that.

"The earliest." Rassieur said.

The panels from around 1624 depict two of the five senses. Rembrandt painted them as a young student and they are crude compared to his later work, but Rassieur  said that evidence can be seen of the techniques which were to make the painter famous.

"In these pictures we see an intense interest in illumination and shadow," Rassieur said.  

 One is called "The Operation (Touch)." The other is "The Singers (Hearing)." Both provide glimpses of the humor Rembrandt often wove into his work, Rassieur said.

 "The senses that are shown are always shown in a negative connotation. So here we have the sense of touch, but it's all about pain, it's not about the pleasure of touch," he said. 

An un-anaesthetized patient writhes in agony in "The Operation." You can't hear "The Singers" but it's clear just by looking they are far from harmonious.

Rembrandt in America; Lucretia; 1666
The MIA owns Rembrandt's Lucretia, painted in 1666. It is considered one of the best Rembrandts in the US, and is given pride of place in "Rembrandt in America."
Charles Walbridge/Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The exhibit spans Rembrandt's career from student to rising star in Amsterdam, one of the artistic centers of the world in the 17th century, to the point where the work from his studio was the most sought after of its time. There are also the later works when as an older man he lost everything, but even in bankruptcy continued to paint. One of the finest examples from that period is the MIA's Lucretia, painted in 1666 in just one day but considered one of the two best Rembrandts in the U.S.

Feldman says Rembrandt could capture human emotion with a few strokes of a pen, and the rich detail of his oils fill them with life.

"You really get the sense of the flesh and the blood beating , pulsing behind that flesh. He captures hair and texture and color in the most remarkable ways," Feldman said.  

There are 30 portraits, self-portraits, historical and mythological depictions, all from the brush of the master himself. All of them come from U.S. museums or private collections, hence the name for the exhibit, "Rembrandt in America."

The other 20 pictures exhibited also come from US collections and were once credited to Rembrandt, but no longer. The confusion stems from the workshop system where artists would teach apprentices to paint in their style. Some became so good it can be unclear which were the work of the master and which were by the student. And that, Feldman says, is the other important part of the exhibition.

"It's absolutely a fascinating story," she said, "Because in 1968, the Dutch government formed something called the Rembrandt Research Project which was intended to figure out exactly which pictures were by Rembrandt, because at the turn of the last century it was thought there were close to a thousand works by Rembrandt. We are now closer to 300 and declining rapidly." 

Back in the 1930's a survey identified 175 Rembrandts in US collections. Scholars now believe the actual number is just a third of that. Even with the Research Project there is still disagreement over many pieces, and the MIA staff hope visitors will make up their own minds.

The show opens Sunday and runs through mid-September. Feldman says that for her, having all these Rembrandts is just like Christmas.