Rembrandt in America: Interview with Curator Dennis Weller

Rembrandt in America: Dennis Weller Interview
Recorded July 8, 2011 At NCMA

Rembrandt Research Project: A Supreme Court for Rembrandt
In 1969, which was the three-hundredth anniversary of death, the Dutch government started the Rembrandt Research Project. And they put together a group of scholars, not just art historians, but scientists, to look at all the so-called Rembrandts in the world, and like a Supreme Court, they would come down as a decision: "Is it Rembrandt or not Rembrandt?"

And they would have Category A, "Absolute Rembrandt," Category B, they're on the fence, Category C, "Not Rembrandt."

But not only did they have a majority opinion, but occasionally there would be a minority opinion, where they would argue, "No, that's not right." So think of a Supreme Court for Rembrandt.

How Did the Exhibition Come to Be?
I'm involved in an organization also supported by the Dutch government called Curators of Dutch and Flemish Art and we have annual meetings somewhere in Western Europe around the Netherlands. And then we do study trips.

One of my colleagues in Detroit, George Keyes, started doing a "Rembrandt in America" show and linking it to Valentiner during one of the study trips, and this was years ago. And at the time, he was the Chief Curator at Detroit, and Valentiner's first directorial post in America was in Detroit. So the idea was, it would be Detroit and Raleigh, kind of the beginning and end of his career. And we were looking at L.A. County where he was director, and other museums.

So it ended up being Raleigh, Cleveland, Minneapolis, but George is still one of the curators of the show and has written essays.

William R. Valentiner
Valentiner was of German birth, had studied in German, got his Ph.D. on Rembrandt. After finishing his degree he worked with two of the great connoisseurs of all time, Hofstede de Groot [Cornelius Hofstede de Groot] in the Hague and William Bode [Wilhelm von Bode] in Berlin who was head of the Berlin Museums, so he really cut his teeth on Rembrandt and really Rembrandt attributions.

And in a way, they sent him to America, because in the early years of the twentieth century, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was looking for a curator of Decorative Arts, and J.P. Morgan, apparently, handpicked Valentiner, since he had such strong German ties, and Bode gave him his seal of approval. So he became the Decorative Arts Curator, which seems odd because it's not an Old Master Painting Curator, but almost immediately, he put together a show called "Great Dutch Paintings in America."

And that was shown at the Met in 1909 as part of the Hudson-Fulton Exhibition.

And I would say that was the first great block-buster 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.

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.

Valentiner's Reputation and Contributions to the NCMA
I took him to task on some of his attributions, ... but he was a major director in terms of really putting American museums into the twentieth century mode. I mean, professional institutions with scholarship. He founded the Art in America and the Art Quarterly journals, so he was a major scholar published in a huge number of areas.

He was the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and he actually was even director, briefly, for the new Getty Museum. And he really came out of retirement to come to Raleigh. And in his autobiography he says, "No one's ever heard of this place." But one of the first things he did was to do a show devoted to Rembrandt and his pupils that opened the same year that the museum opened in 1956.

Incredible, you know! Again, 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, because that same year the museum opened downtown at the Transportation Building with a major collection.

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 in 1958. I think he gave much of his own collection to the museum. So one couldn't say enough about Valentiner.

How do you reconcile Valentiner's high number of misattributions?
That's definitely the downside. But you've got to remember that was a very different time and place. He didn't have the quality of photos that we have now, he didn't have all the technical information on these paintings that we have now. You know, he wasn't out of line with his colleagues. Because that was the first half of the twentieth century, when these oeuvre catalogues with very rare exception, went up in the six and low seven hundreds.

You go to exhibitions today and you'll have a much better sense of what we think of as Rembrandt today, that these are real Rembrandts you're looking at, versus say fifty years ago or a hundred years ago.

Techniques for Determining a Real Rembrandt
There was great hope that the conservation laboratory would tell us all. So they could tell us if that canvas is from the seventeenth century; if that canvas is from the same bolt of canvas that another Rembrandt painting is on. That the oak panels that he painted on mostly early in his career were felled from trees of that date.... Or that you can examine the paint -- if there are certain elements in the paint, we know those wouldn't have been introduced until 1800, which would discount anything.

Which is fine, that will allow you to throw out a few things.... But that only separated out a few things.

So you get to, "Okay, all these materials are seventeenth century," but "What about his pupils?" He had a huge workshop and that's the problem.

He had all these major artists in his workshop, some that became more famous than Rembrandt in his lifetime, like Govert Flinck and Ferdinand Bol, and others. So all these pupils, they used the same materials.

So it's not a material thing, it really boils down to quality and certain techniques that Rembrandt would have used and his students may not have, and that's the whole question of connoisseurship: "to know." [The discerning eye.]

And people relate Rembrandt paintings to the mood that is suggested in the features of the face. How he paints light and how he gives you the effects of light, you know, he's truly mastered that. How it fits into other works -- there are the odd paintings that are documented.

It really is the same question that they've been dealing with for years and years.

What's happened is that the more we get to know about the artists that were in his workshop, and we start to put together a group of paintings that can relate to them, we can see how this "Rembrandt" is so much closer to what we know are identified, documented paintings by Govert Flinck or Gerrit Dou, or Jan Lievens, who really wasn't a pupil but they worked together.

There's going to be work for art historians forever, because there is never going to be a definitive Rembrandt.

Did Rembrandt sign his paintings?
He signed most of his paintings or initialed them or dated them, but as a master in a workshop he's allowed to sign his pupil's paintings as part of the Guild rules. So that's not going to help you too much either. But there have been a lot of study of his signatures, genuine or not. And unscrupulous art dealers over the years have put Rembrandt signatures on paintings thought to be Rembrandt. He changes his signature style over the years so if you have a painting that seems to be 1650s and there's a 1630s signature on it, you know there's something wrong, people are much more sophisticated now.

How has connoisseurship evolved?
The definition of connoisseurship is basically from the Latin, "to know." And it's trying to understand -- to know -- a particular painting style of an artist in this context. And certainly the great age of connoisseurship goes back a century when you've got Valentiner, Hofstede de Groot, and Abraham Bredius, who did a major catalogue raisonne, William Bode, all those people, they were trying to modernize art history a hundred years ago. And two things they were doing: they were going into the archives and finding archival information about these artists and then they were honing their skills as connoisseurs to try to know these artists. And they would apply a litmus test of various types: the type of paint strokes, the quality of the light, the expressions on the faces. You have to see these paintings next to each other to see how this might fail in a way.

A good example is: Rembrandt often used the butt end of his brush to create curls in the hair. But when he did it, it actually was to create curls -- it has that physical sense to it. Where we have a painting down in the gallery, "Young Man Holding a Sword," it has hair with the curls but if you look at how the artist used the butt end of the brush, it doesn't correspond to what actual curls would be, it's just to kind of indicate that they knew that Rembrandt painted with the butt end of a brush, kind of trying to suggest curls. And even though that painting may well have a legitimate Rembrandt signature on it, it seems to be workshop - the quality of the light, the curls, the sense that he doesn't really understand the bone structure, there are all these little things that you look for.

But then you have the question: what separates the best work of a pupil and the worst work of a Rembrandt on Monday? And those are the problems that are always going to exist I think.

What was the workshop?
Rembrandt, probably more than any other artist of his day, had a large number of people that came in and he served as a teacher and then as a mentor, and many of the better ones may have come to him after they already had learned how to paint. And they would assist him in his almost production, particularly of portraits.

Rembrandt came to Amsterdam in the 1630s after having trained in Leiden and started his career there. But he came to Amsterdam and he started working for a painting dealer named Hendrick van Uylenburg, his niece is actually Saskia who Rembrandt would marry. But he stayed in his house, and he was the chief painter in his studio, and his studio is noted for their portraits. So he was kind of the go-between for all these portrait commissions.

And Rembrandt being the new kid on the block with the hot new style, and Rembrandt does have a certain genius when he painted, all these commissions rolled in, and Rembrandt could never have painted all of these himself. So that's when the studio's advanced pupils came in and started assisting him. And how much did they assist him? His counterpart Peter Paul Rubens, he had his huge workshop in Antwerp. And we've always talked about Rubens, where a painting would be entirely done by the hand of Rubens or touched up by Rubens, or Rubens did the face or the figures or whatnot, and that seemed to work fine for Rubens, kind of this collaborative effort between Rubens and his workshop.

Whereas Rembrandt, the direction that took, it was always Rembrandt or not Rembrandt. Which is the title of a big exhibition the Met did a few years ago, with just their collection.

But now I think the idea is that Rembrandt and his assistants may have collaborated on paintings. Maybe Rembrandt did the hands and faces; the assistants did the costumes. Other works, they had to have been all done by Rembrandt, the quality is just so superior.

And all these types of paintings we'll have in the show. We'll have "Rembrandt, not Rembrandt"; we have some paintings, one coming from the National Gallery, that they actually have catalogued as "Rembrandt and Workshop"; and then you start asking, "Well, 'and workshop,' who is the 'and workshop'? Is it Govert Flinck? Is it the 'x' number of other painters? Because, like I say, we're beginning to understand their collected body of work. And they have little quirks that give away their hand -- their own little stylistic quirks. So we're still sorting it out.

What is the draw for the ordinary viewer?
One, we want people to come because they're just going to see fabulous masterpieces by one of the greatest old master painters of all times. If you think of the hierarchy of old masters, Rembrandt is usually in that handful -- maybe, Leonardo and Michelangelo, Rembrandt, you know, there aren't many in that group. So if nothing else, they'll have an opportunity to see what may be the largest single group of Rembrandts ever assembled in this country at one time. Because there have been other exhibitions, the Hudson-Fulton, Valentiner did a Rembrandt show in 1930 in Detroit that he claimed, I think, 50 or 60 Rembrandts. But again, only about a third of those were Rembrandts. So in today's terms of who we think Rembrandt is, we may have the largest single group. So, that alone is worth the price of admission.

And for the North Carolina visitors, there is a history of Rembrandts here in North Carolina through Valentiner, through that 1956 exhibition, and there are ample paintings that were in that show that are coming back for this show. And there are paintings that were in the Hudson-Fulton show and in the Detroit show and in the L.A. County show he did in 1947, I think, that are here. So I think it's something for North Carolinians to be proud of and Americans to be proud because it's amazing what has come to America in the last hundred and thirty years of Rembrandts. And we point that out, because we got great portraits, we were much less successful in bringing in his religious or history paintings, because most of his major religious or history paintings were already in public collections in Europe long before Americans started collecting.

Pride in the success we've had in collecting and then the Valentiner link here, which people don't know so much about.

Do we possess any real Rembrandts in North Carolina?

No, we don't. We thought at one time we had up to four, and they've all been "de-Rembrandtized," as I like to say.

Probably the most famous - or infamous - is the big "Feast of Esther." Valentiner thought that was a major early Rembrandt when it was bought for this museum by the state with state funds. But almost immediately people said, "No, no way." And it's really the masterpiece of Jan Lievens, his contemporary in Leiden, who at the time was much more famous and much more advanced than Rembrandt. But who knows a Jan Lievens' today versus Rembrandt?

It's a major work in the collection, and will be in the show as a painting that came here thought to be a Rembrandt.

Why is it infamous?
It was such a major purchase for us and it seems so wrong to have ever consider that to be a Rembrandt. It's almost a textbook case of what Jan Lievens was doing in the mid-1620s, and diametrically opposed to what Rembrandt was doing. It's large scale, it's colorful, it's garish, which is how Lievens' paintings were literally described in 1628 by Constantine Huygens. Whereas, he talked of Rembrandt's paintings being smaller, more intimate, more expressive in terms of light. They couldn't have been more opposite. Anyone in the field of 17th century Dutch art knows Raleigh because of the Jan Lievens' purchase if nothing else.

But our understanding of Rembrandt in his youthful mode is a recent phenomenon. And that's why Valentiner in the 1950s could think "The Feast of Esther" was a Rembrandt because they just literally didn't know that much about early Rembrandt.
Amsterdam Portraiture

This is where American collectors were most successful. Rembrandt produced more portraits by far in Amsterdam in the early and mid-1630s than in any other time in his life. The quality was high. But just because of the numbers a lot were available to collectors over the last hundred and fifty years and Americans bought fabulous stuff.

He basically did a lot of portraits in the 1630s, in the '40s and '50s not so many, and then in the '60s he picked it up again, in a very different style -- much more emotional, expressive, painterly style, more dramatic lighting, versus the much more controlled application of paints in his early Amsterdam paintings.

What makes Rembrandt's portraits so significant?
I think it's the personality that he gave his sitters, because the traditional Dutch portrait style up to about Rembrandt was basically stiff, static, and they didn't have any life to them. And Rembrandt gave life to his sitters, gave them an energy, the quality of light was just -- in seeing the paintings you'll see there's just something going on there that wasn't there before.

He basically worked this all out in his self-portraits and portraits of family members. So that was his genius. Frans Hals in Haarlem was doing a similar thing but in a different manner, much more impressionistic manner. It's someone doing something new and different and people flocked to him. And probably by the end of the '30s there was another style that was becoming popular, so people were going less to Rembrandt -- he was getting more history picture commissions -- and going to someone called Van der Helst -- so Rembrandt became almost a secondary portraitist in the '40s and '50s when he had been the fresh new face on the block in the '30s.

What made his later pictures different?
A much stronger emotional response to the sitter. Just the energy that he brings to the creative process. The energy of the brushwork, and the stronger light and dark contrasts, they're more dramatic. You know you talk about looking into the soul of the sitter through his eyes. Rembrandt was able to do that. And you'll see that -- fortunately we've got a handful of really great late portraits to show.

Take the "Portrait of Marten Looten", for instance. Fabulous work. The intensity of the features of the face, it's so beautifully painted and modulated, and the lighting just seems to work so well. When you stand in front of these paintings you're just in awe.

Self-Portrait with Shaded Eyes, 1634
This is an interesting painting because this had so much over-paint on it, that this was seen as a minor work by a pupil, Govert Flinck. Then over the years they did all this cleaning on these and now everyone accepts it as a self-portrait from 1634. And the before and after is quite dramatic, he had kind of a pork-pie hat on and it was a mess, facial hair.

Why would someone do that?
The theory was that when Rembrandt left the Uylenburgh studio in the mid-1630s, he worked there for three or four years, doing commissions, there were some portraits left over -- they became property of the gallery, because he was working for the gallery, they were not Rembrandt's personal property. As times would change and styles would change, people tried to update them. And they updated them by having people like Govert Flinck do it, and so that is one theory. We never know for sure.

How do you clean up these paintings to remove the over-painting?
It's a mulit-step project. You have varnish to protect the paint. The varnish tends to discolor over the years, particularly natural resin varnish. Then you just get grime and years of being exposed to the public and the air. So they basically use types of solvents that will interact with the varnish and they are able to remove the varnish without damaging the paint. The paint is very hard so it doesn't impact the paint. So they take the varnish off, and its like warts and all, because under that varnish they've probably have done some in-painting. Or they've in-painted on top of the varnish. But that comes off and it gets down to what's original to whatever was first executed. Or there may be various levels of in-painting. So they try to remove all that and in-paint to match up with what's around it. And usually they in-paint in a way that -- visually it looks the same but under various infrared techniques you see where it's different. So it allows them to remove it if they need be the next thirty years down the road. So basically, better living through chemicals.

Rembrandt's personal life after Saskia's death
He had two mistresses. After Saskia died, Geertje Dircks, came in as sort of an au pair with benefits, took care of the child. They had an affair. It ended badly, and Rembrandt actually had her committed to some sort of asylum. Because by that time Hendrickje had come into the scene, and I think outside of Saskia, they seemed to have had a strong relationship, although she suffered for it because the church called her in, they said she was a whore because she was living without benefit of marriage with Rembrandt. But Rembrandt couldn't marry because the will, Saskia, if he remarried meant a lot of the money that he got he would have had to pay back and he didn't have it. I mean, he spent money left and right. And it had to do with Titus's inheritance. Anyway she was on the scene, and as late as 1969, this was seen as a major Rembrandt, because in 1969, the 300th anniversary of Rembrandt's death, they did a big show in Chicago and this is on the inside cover of the catalogue. So it's seen as a major Rembrandt. But shortly thereafter, the Rembrandt Research Team removed it from Rembrandt. We don't know who may have done that because his workshop was not nearly as large or as active later in his career as earlier, so there are only a handful of artists that could've done this, but we don't know for sure.

History Paintings
Now the other section of the show is history paintings. Now we'll be basically looking at portraits except for these first three.

American collectors were pretty successful in getting major portraits, and they got a lot of bad portraits as well, but in history paintings, they haven't been so successful, particularly large narrative paintings.

And this is something I've been interested in because we have the Feast of Esther here and it kind of got me intrigued in the whole process.

History paintings can be broken into two categories: large narrative paintings with multiple figures and single-figure history paintings -- images of saints, mythological goddesses, Roman heroines. So we're kind of dividing those up in our History Gallery.