Rembrandt in America: William Valentiner

William Valentiner / Met Museum

Young William ValentinerWilliam Valentiner was an art historian responsible for the development of many major American Art collections. A force in American museums, Valentiner advised private collectors, wrote extensively and founded art journals. He was well known as a Rembrandt scholar and achieved success and recognition early in his career as the curator of a major Old Dutch Masters exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
William Valentiner was originally born in Karlsruhe, in Germany. He studied art history and he became a personal assistant to the great general director of the Prussian State Museums, Wilhelm von Bode. And Bode was recognized as the leading Rembrandt authority of his age, and in fact, was hired by the Parisian firm of Charles Sedelmeyer to produce a multi-volumed catalogue raisonne of Rembrandt's paintings. And he needed assistance in which to do this, which is how Hofstede de Groot became involved in the project. But he also had Valentiner as kind of a sidekick, who was a personal assistant.

Relatively at the beginning of his career, Valentiner did what was to become quite an important pattern. He decided to try to really further advance his career by coming to America, and he was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as their curator of European decorative arts, which is interesting because he had quite a good eye for sculpture, as a matter of fact.

And while he was at the Met, he did this major exhibition of 1909, the Hudson-Fulton exhibition, which would have been the 300th anniversary of the discovery of New York by the great English navigator-explorer Henry Hudson, and also celebrating Robert Fulton because of his creation of the Erie Canal.

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
Valentiner focused on the Dutch school and, therefore, went around and
borrowed paintings from all of these major Gilded Age collectors and put together a huge exhibition of Dutch paintings. And it really kind of demonstrated the capacity of these Americans to collect a staggering amount of really great European old master art, and it certainly launched Valentiner's career as an expert in the field of Dutch paintings.

Dennis Weller, Curator, North Carolina Museum of Art:
I would say that was the first great blockbuster in America because in five weeks it drew over 200,000 people. And basically, they were mostly old paintings drawn from American collections and Valentiner at the time included thirty-six of what he thought were Rembrandts as part of that show.

Rembrandt But you go down that list today, less than half are really Rembrandts. So that kind of sets the tone. And Valentiner would then go on to publish catalogue raisonnes or oeuvre catalogues on Rembrandt, and he just kept upping the number.

After serving in the German army during World War I, Valentiner returned to America where he received his first museum directorship at The Detroit Institute of Art in 1924.

George Keyes, Retired Chief Curator, Detroit Institute of Arts:
Detroit was really coming into its own after World War I, with the spectacular growth of the automotive industry, and one of the people who was a major cultural player in Detroit was a man by the name of Ralph Harmon Booth. And Booth was the owner of one of the great newspaper dynasties in America, but he and his family were Germanophiles, and so they would spend their summers in Germany, and he came into contact with Bode, came into contact with Valentiner, and liked what he saw. He wanted a great new museum for Detroit. Now, there had been a museum in Detroit, but he wanted a grand, new Beaux Arts building. As he basically engineered the fund raising for this building, he brought Valentiner back to America initially as an advisor, and then as the director of the new museum.

Valentiner really used Detroit as a launch pad for his second great career in America. He was able to put together a pretty remarkable museum collection with a huge emphasis on European old master paintings. It's one of the strongest collections of its kind in the country.