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Dutch Treat

Susan Hood

October 14, 2009

Rembrandt's People

Through Jan 24, Wadsworth Athenuem Museum of Art, 600 Main St., Hartford, (860) 278-2670, wadsworthatheneum.org

Rembrandt's psychologically penetrating likenesses have beguiled collectors, artists and the public in relatively recent history, from the 19th century into our own. A small yet choice selection of portraits by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), loaned by public and private collections in North America, is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art through Jan. 24. The seven original works plus four others on display in "Rembrandt's People" illuminate the enduring appeal of the Dutch Old Master.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, known internationally as a showplace for the Baroque, is using this opportunity to elucidate why its first-rate collection has a Rembrandt gap.

It's not for lack of trying; although "Chick never considered buying a Rembrandt," said Eric M. Zafran, the Atheneum's curator of European art and the exhibition's organizer. He was referring to A. Everett "Chick" Austin, Jr., the museum's director from 1927 to 1944, whose savvy and foresighted purchases of Old Master paintings, including the first Caravaggio in America, are fabled. Austin did, however, obtain the loans of two, possibly three, Rembrandts for thematic shows he staged in Hartford.

It was Austin's friend and successor, Charles C. Cunningham, who sought high-quality examples by the biggest names of the Dutch Golden Era for the Atheneum. In 1954 and again in 1961, the art world sent accolades to Cunningham when he acquired two "authenticated" Rembrandt portraits. The latter, supposedly of the artist's wife, Saskia, was a gift. The earlier, purportedly of Rembrandt's and Saskia's son Titus, was purchased for approximately $130,000 to $150,000, according to news reports.

Like Austin, Cunningham bought cannily and brilliantly for the Atheneum, purposefully building upon his predecessor's foundation. It happened that he, his expert advisers and others were wrong about the "Rembrandts." In 1978 their re-attribution was officially announced by the museum in its catalogue of Northern paintings (largely written by Yale graduate students, most of whom went on to illustrious careers as frequently published scholars, curators and museum directors).

While acquiring a painting to learn eventually that its burnished glow has dulled is disappointing, it's not a total loss. Art scholarship has advanced rapidly since the 1960s through an array of unrelated technologies embracing print and the proliferation of photographic images, medical diagnostics, and chemistry, not to mention growth in museum studies and connoisseurship. And by hanging its two past-lauded and since downgraded works near the virtuoso Rembrandts, the Atheneum is providing an eye-opening education in discernment to the public.

The so-called portrait of Saskia in profile is believed to be by Rembrandt's pupil Govaert Flinck. Zafran states that the identification is dubious, and notes that she has a cross dangling from her neck, something not found in any Rembrandt. Yet this charming picture is livelier and much better than I recall. She fares quite well, in dramatic opposition to the flat and feebly painted portrait of a young man.

Viewers ought to bear in mind that these are among hundreds of paintings around the world that have been relegated to the Old Master's followers and imitators.

But the artist's reputation has not suffered. "Rembrandt's name evokes honesty and greatness," says Zafran, who is amused that pastel sticks and oil paints, bracelet charms and a popular tooth whitener bear Rembrandt as brand names. He is particularly struck by the irony of dental products named after the Dutchman, because teeth make seldom but terrible appearances in Rembrandt portraits and not ever in his numerous self-depictions.

And unlike many Old Masters, Rembrandt never lapsed into obscurity, although he certainly fell out of fashion in his lifetime. His works always received prominent placement in European museums, where students and professional copyists could emulate his compositions and manipulations of paint. The Atheneum is showing good copies of Rembrandt self-portraits from its American painting collection: one by the Hudson River School artist Asher Durand, who visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence in November 1840, the other by portrait painter and museum curator George Henry Story, who visited the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 1890.

The seven works in "Rembrandt's People" span his career, from the early 1630s to the mid-1660s. Delightfully varied, they embrace biblical subjects, commissioned likenesses, and busts of "ordinary" individuals. The most famous work and only self-portrait in the show is the painter at age 53, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, the international art world eagerly awaits the Dec. 8 auction at Christie's London of a Rembrandt portrait. The auction house expects a minimum of $28 million but hopes for $41 million, which would shatter the price ceiling for an Old Master painting.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
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