In all honesty I must begin my comments on Rembrandt in America with the admission that I am really not a Rembrandt person. Clearly Rembrandt stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries during the Dutch “Golden Age,” and it goes without saying I would be thrilled to have an autograph Rembrandt painting come to the Museum (unfortunately, the three we thought we had have all been de-Rembrandted!). My interests have centered elsewhere in the field, however—specifically Frans Hals and painters in his circle, among them Jan Miense Molenaer. Readers might recall the Molenaer exhibition I did at the NCMA in 2002. So, naturally, one might wonder why a “non-Rembrandt” person would agree to devote most of the last three years of his life to a large and complex Rembrandt exhibition.
The answer lies in the fact you can’t really function as a 17th-century Dutch painting curator without dealing with Rembrandt. The long shadow he casts over Dutch art touches nearly everyone, and one can argue that his popularity has never been stronger than it is today. Certainly much of this interest centers on the lingering controversies over whether a particular painting was painted by Rembrandt or by one of his assistants. So, as one deals with the myth, reality, and especially the marketability of Rembrandt, I asked myself, what is the glue that could hold these concepts together? More important, how do these concerns relate to the North Carolina Museum of Art? The answer was simple—William Valentiner, the NCMA’s first director.
As one of the world’s foremost authorities on Rembrandt during the first half of the 20th century, Valentiner was largely responsible for expanding the accepted number of Rembrandt paintings. His flawed accounting would eventually embrace more than 700 works. This expansion happily coincided with a huge appetite for Rembrandt paintings by American collectors, an interest that began just after the Civil War. These “Gilded Age” collectors—many were often described as “robber barons” (or “the 1 percent,” to use today’s terminology)—snagged some of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces. Others, however, bought studio works, imitations, and even outright forgeries. To their credit, though, many eventually gifted their “Rembrandts” to American museums.
Thus, it was my idea to link Valentiner with Rembrandt and the collecting of his paintings in America. Since collecting history has long been of interest to me (note my Sinners and Saints exhibition), I was returning to a comfort zone as I considered the viability of Rembrandt in America. With the help of my co-curators, we created a project that was intellectually sound, visually exciting, and certainly worth pursuing. Long story short, we successfully made our case to the museums and individuals who agreed to lend works to the show. So while I am exhausted, I couldn’t be prouder of the exhibition, its installation, and the accompanying catalogue. And yes, I guess I have become a Rembrandt person!
Dennis P. Weller is the NCMA’s curator of Northern European art and co-curator of Rembrandt in America.