Rembrandt in America: North Carolina Museum of Art

The Creation of the North Carolina Museum of Art

William Valentiner served as the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts for nearly 20 years. He then spent nearly ten years in California as director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The J. Paul Getty Museum in Santa Monica. His next stop was Raleigh where he was hired as the first director of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Larry Wheeler, Director, North Carolina Museum of Art:
When we consider the creation of the North Carolina Museum of Art in the right dead middle of the 20th century in 1947, in the early '50s, there was no great concentration of banking and industrial wealth in North Carolina. The way we came to have a museum is that some farsighted statesmen and civic leaders determined that it should be paid for with taxpayer dollars, that money should be appropriated to create a collection of art for the people of the state so they, too, can have access to these great creations that were being stored in New York and Boston and Philadelphia. And so it was the democratic counterpoint that is so fascinating about the creation of this museum.

Lucky North Carolina Hits Jackpot in ArtDennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
Prior to the opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art, Valentiner had been involved in vetting the acquisitions that were being purchased with the $1 million the state appropriated in 1947 to buy a collection for the state. And that's the core of the northern European old master collection that we're very proud of today.

The Opening of the North Carolina Museum of Art

The North Carolina Museum of Art was the first state museum in the country and opened its doors in April of 1956.


Larry Wheeler, Director, North Carolina Museum of Art:
It was called the "Miracle on Morgan Street," in downtown Raleigh, and then the great Kress paintings came shortly thereafter, some of the great early Renaissance pictures, some of the greatest in this country, and other great old master paintings joined them.

Larry Wheeler, Director, North Carolina Museum of Art:
Now there were some other museums in the state. I think the Mint Museum in Charlotte contends that they were earlier, and historically, yes, they were. Smaller museums. But this was the beginning of a world-class collection of art, because with that million dollars we began to buy important paintings. We didn't have a building to put them in until 1956, so from 1947 until 1956 we were out in the world buying some of the greatest art that was available after the Second World War.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
William Valentiner actually came out of retirement to come to Raleigh. And in his autobiography he said, "No one's ever heard of this place." So one of the first things he did was to do a show devoted to Rembrandt. In November of 1956, he opened the Rembrandt and His Pupils exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art.

Rembrandt and His Pupils Exhibit in 1956

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
Incredible, you know! Most of the Rembrandts in that show weren't Rembrandt, but nevertheless there were some major paintings that came. And I think it did very well, and it really put Raleigh on the art map.

Feast of Esther

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
When the North Carolina Museum opened its doors in 1956, probably of all the works in the collection, Valentiner was most proud of was the Feast of Esther. He thought it was a major early Rembrandt painting.

The Raleigh newspaper, The News and Observer, devoted an entire page to the promotion of the Rembrandt exhibition, and specifically featured the Feast of Esther painting.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
Unfortunately, it is no longer considered a Rembrandt, and I like to say it's a youthful masterpiece of Jan Lievens, his colleague in Leiden during the second half of the 1620s. And at the time, Jan Lievens was better known than Rembrandt.

William Valentiner remained the director of The North Carolina Museum of Art until a month before his death in 1958.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
He was great for the institution. He gave his papers to the state so they're in the state archives. He gave his library to the museum, which I continue to draw upon. Many of his friends gave work in his honor when he died. I think he gave much of his own collection to the museum. So one couldn't say enough about Valentiner.