Sunday, July 29, 2012

Major Artist, Minor Works

Two weeks ago today, we attended the exhibition, “Rembrandt In America”, at the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts.

Everyone in the family went to the exhibition. Even my nephew and niece were in attendance, although the exhibition was of limited interest to them. (My niece was carried by her father, and she fell asleep in his arms halfway through the display rooms; my nephew listened to my mother as she talked to him about the paintings, but only a couple of the paintings truly engaged him.)

“Rembrandt In America” presents the story of American individuals and American institutions collecting Rembrandt artworks. The largest assemblage of Rembrandt paintings ever gathered in North America, “Rembrandt In America” is unquestionably an exhibition of some importance—yet I remain unconvinced that the exhibition is good, or even insightful.

From the date of his death (1669), Rembrandt always retained his fame in the Low Countries and in Germany. In Britain, France, Italy and Spain, however, the name of Rembrandt disappeared from art history books for more than two centuries. His rediscovery in those latter countries was to occur only in the late 18th Century (Joshua Reynolds was instrumental in the rebirth of Rembrandt in Britain). Rembrandt has not fallen from view since.

By 1800, when Rembrandt’s works were once again in demand throughout the continent and in Britain, collectors encountered an obstacle: Rembrandt owners in the Low Countries and Germany were unwilling to part with their Rembrandt works. In fact, by the late 18th Century, most Rembrandt artworks—and almost all key Rembrandt artworks—had long since been deposited into royal, church and civic collections in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, never again to change ownership. The result was that, from 1800 onward, the great demand for Rembrandt paintings was met by a supply of relative insignificance in terms of both quantity and quality.

American collectors were at an especial disadvantage. The great period of American collecting occurred between the end of The American Civil War and The Stock Market Crash Of 1929. Few Rembrandt artworks were on the market during this period—and those that were were small and mid-sized paintings of relative unimportance. (Most that were on the market came from Britain; the heirs of British Rembrandt buyers, finding themselves strapped for cash two and three generations after their ancestors’ purchases early in the 19th Century, sold their Rembrandt paintings to American buyers late in the 19th Century.)

Many of the so-called Rembrandt paintings purchased by American collectors between 1866 and 1929 turned out to be not by Rembrandt. Over the course of the last several decades, countless Rembrandt paintings in the U.S. and elsewhere have been “downgraded” by Rembrandt scholars from “Rembrandt” to “Workshop Of Rembrandt”, “School Of Rembrandt”, “Circle Of Rembrandt”, “Follower Of Rembrandt”, “After Rembrandt” or “Formerly Attributed To Rembrandt”.

Indeed, New York’s Metropolitan Museum Of Art presented an exhibition a few years ago displaying its Rembrandt paintings currently deemed authentic alongside paintings owned by the museum formerly thought to be authentic Rembrandts. The latter category far outnumbered the former in an exhibition aptly titled “Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt”.

Most of the Rembrandt paintings on display in Minneapolis, like most Rembrandt paintings in America, were small and mid-sized individual portraits. There were only a couple of religious paintings included in the exhibition, and no group portraits at all. The paintings in Minneapolis, entirely representative of Rembrandt holdings in the U.S., were in no way representative of Rembrandt’s total output.

Until roughly 1640, Rembrandt’s most important paintings were religious paintings. Many of the religious paintings were giant paintings inspired by and in competition with the giant religious paintings produced by Peter Paul Rubens. After 1640, Rembrandt’s most important paintings were group portraits. Many of the group portraits were giant portraits inspired by and in competition with the giant group portraits produced by Frans Hals. Rembrandt’s large-scale religious paintings and group portraits are bold, commanding, colorful works, sweeping in their majesty and drama.

Rembrandt’s individual portraits, in contrast, are small, intimate, muted works, painted for an audience that wanted to see itself portrayed, above all, as bearing gravitas, dignity, piety and restraint. The individual portraits represent only one facet of Rembrandt’s work—yet, in the U.S., that facet is the only one that may be seen, simply because that facet was the only one on the marketplace between 1866 and 1929.

It is only in Europe that art lovers may observe the full range of Rembrandt’s art.

Amsterdam and Munich are the chief repositories of Rembrandt’s large-scale masterworks. One cannot begin to understand Rembrandt without visiting the vast Rembrandt collections on display in those two cities.

The paintings we examined two weeks ago presented a narrow, constricted, even misleading view of the great artist. Rembrandt was much, much more than a small-scale domestic portraitist.

Moreover, the portraits on display in Minneapolis were not among Rembrandt’s finest. The most select of Rembrandt’s individual portraits have always been in European collections.

American holdings of Rembrandt, bluntly put, are not particularly impressive—and the very thinness of America’s Rembrandt holdings was the unintended theme that overpowered the “Rembrandt In America” exhibition.

Many Rembrandt experts believe that the finest Rembrandt painting in the U.S. is “Lucretia”, a painting owned by the Minneapolis Institute Of Arts. “Lucretia”, quite naturally, was included in the exhibition. With respect to Rembrandt’s complete work list, “Lucretia”, whatever its merits, is nowise a work of great significance.

Therein resided the problem with the exhibition: major artist, minor works. The exhibition was important yet unsatisfying—and perhaps even disappointing.

We may go a second time, during a weekday, when crowds should be smaller, to have another look.

1 comment:

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