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Rembrandt's People


October 11, 2009

HARTFORD - An illustrious gallery of subjects showcases the Dutch Master's genius in a landmark exhibition in downtown Hartford.

As the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art undergoes a $15 million renovation, it is concentrating on smaller, focused exhibitions inspired by works already in its collection.

The first, though, revolves around a master whose work has quite publicly not been part of the Atheneum collection.

In fact, when it opened quietly Saturday, "Rembrandt's People" marked the first time authentic works by Rembrandt van Rijn have been seen in Hartford in nearly 70 years. Seven works by the 17th-century Dutch master have been loaned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth and two private collectors.

The portraits of men and women, commissioned works and replications of biblical stories, of sitters known to Rembrandt and some whose names have been lost to history, are enhanced by Rembrandt's own masterful 1659 "Self-Portrait" from the National Gallery, in which the artist looks at the viewer with an intense gaze, his worn 53-year-old face framed by tufts of graying curls. (It's the portrait in the center of this section's cover.)

Rounding out the small exhibit are two works in the Atheneum collection that were thought to be authentic Rembrandts for decades before researchers proved otherwise.

In its day, the "Portrait of a Young Man (possibly Titus)" was the most expensive acquisition in Atheneum history, purchased for $150,000 in 1954 by then-director Charles C. Cunningham.

Once owned by an English collector, it was thought to have been overlooked by Rembrandt scholars, a newspaper story at the time said, because it "remained in the obscurity of a small private collection."

Scholars vetted it at the time, including Harvard University Rembrandt authority Jakob Rosenberg, who declared it "one of the finest Rembrandt originals that ever came to this country."

Three other works ascribed to Rembrandt and together appraised for $1 million were given to the Atheneum in 1962. That the nation's oldest public museum could have four Rembrandts was "an exceptional trove for a museum of Hartford's size," The Courant noted at the time.

But it proved to be too good to be true.

In 1978, when the works were studied again by art scholar Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann and a team of Yale graduate students and museum curators, just before a show called "Paintings from the Netherlands and German-Speaking Countries," none of the Atheneum's works was found to be by Rembrandt.

One, named "Portrait of a Woman in Profile (possibly Saskia)" from 1615-1660, with a mass of showy jewelry, has since been attributed to Govaert Flinck, a Rembrandt student and imitator. "Portrait of a Young Man (possibly Titus)" is now ascribed to an "Imitator of Rembrandt."

Eric Zafran, the Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art for the Atheneum, who organized the exhibit, looks at that work with disdain, pointing out its deadened eyes compared to the vivid orbs in Rembrandt's "Self Portrait" nearby, and the sloppy rendering of the man's necklace. There had also been some discrepancy as to the age of Rembrandt's son, Titus, at the time the painting supposedly was completed. He looks a lot older than 15.

The "Woman in Profile" also looks inferior, especially in comparison to the splendor of "Young Woman at Her Toilet (Old Testament Heroine)," which begins the exhibit. It exudes a light and glow missing in the Flinck.

(The other Atheneum paintings once incorrectly ascribed to Rembrandt didn't make they cut. They remain in storage, Zafran said.)

In 1978, Cunningham, who by then had become curator at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass., said, "There may be some revaluation of some of the paintings that are now rejected." But so far that hasn't happened.

The 1978 investigation into the works wasn't all bad. Indeed, 12 paintings in the Atheneum collection were upgraded as a result, including "The Return from the Flight into Egypt." Thought to be from the Rubens school, it was found to have been painted by Rubens himself.

"Rembrandt's People" consists entirely of portraits, mostly similar in size, in various settings. Yet each conveys the psychological insight into the sitter that had been Rembrandt's greatest skill, a quiet inner picture of the subject be it the burgher in the 1635 "Portrait of Anthonie Coopal," the single one in the show done on a panel rather than canvas; or the aged bony hands of the man posing as "The Apostle James the Major." That 1661 painting is mirrored by another quasi-religious pose, this one by Rembrandt's mistress, in the 1654-60 "Portrait of Hendrickje Stoffels."

"The Apostle James the Major," the work in the exhibit to that most recently changed hands, fetched $30 million two years ago, giving an idea of the riches on display in the small exhibit space (extra security has been hired).

Zafran said the generosity of the lending institutions stems from how cooperative the Atheneum has been in the past in lending outs its masterworks.

"It's nice," Zafran says, "that the Wadsworth can call in its chips."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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