Rembrandt in America
N.C. Museum of Art
Through Jan. 22, 2012

Rembrandt van Rijn’s first name signifies genius like Albert Einstein’s last. Incomparable in his handling of light and psychological detail, the Dutch master inhabits the pinnacle of portraiture.

Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of Art hosts Rembrandt in America, a terrific chance to see a collection of the artist’s workand to learn about the centuries-old problem of telling “real” Rembrandts from paintings purported to be from his hand but are either the work of his assistants, other contemporaries or forgers.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking this exhibition for a straight-up Rembrandt retrospective. With around 30 autograph paintings, it boasts the largest number of authentic Rembrandts that have ever been shown together in the United States. That’s worth the price of the ticket right there.

But Rembrandt in America, co-curated by NCMA’s Dennis Weller along with his counterparts at the co-sponsoring Cleveland Museum of Art and Minneapolis Institute of Arts, is not so simple. While the show focuses on work that fell into American hands, it’s also about the cult of originality, the lost tradition of apprenticeship, shifting notions of value and that vitally important commodity to Americans: money.

Don’t get me wrong: You can go just to look at the paintings, drop the word “genius” a couple times and hit the gift shop for a coffee mug. It’s when you dig into the sometimes bizarre title cards next to the paintings and compare points of craft between contemporaneous paintings that the name “Rembrandt” becomes murkier than the Dutch master’s palette and, of course, a lot more interesting.

Check out the variety of creative parenthetical modifiers placed after Rembrandt’s name on the wall text with each painting: (circle of), (studio of), (workshop of), (imitator of), (attributed to) and (follower of). Every painting in the show was once considered a Rembrandt. Now just less than half of them bear a hedging modifier or carry another artist’s name.

The NCMA itself is part and parcel of the whole fascinating mess. Its director in the 1950s was William Valentiner, the authority on Rembrandt in the mid-20th century. Valentiner acquired two paintings for the museum that he believed were Rembrandts, which curators later attributed to other artists. A dim, crypt-like room of tomes in valises acknowledges Valentiner’s optimistic but misguided scholarship.

Or maybe “misguided” is too strong a word. Rembrandt wasn’t a mere painter; he was a brand name. At the height of his Amsterdam years he received so many simultaneous portrait commissions that he ran a workshop of students and sous-painters who finished his paintings or even painted them from start to finish in order to keep up with demanda real pre-Warholian Factory. That was Rembrandt enough for people of the time. You don’t spit out the food at a five-star restaurant just because the executive chef didn’t personally prepare every bite of it.

The Amsterdam workshop years also throw light onto how so many Rembrandts found their way across the Atlantic. As wars flared and expired in parts of Europe, people needed to liquidate their assets to flee conflict zones. Wealthy American travelers were only too happy to snap up treasured portraits of European matriarchs or children for pennies on the franc, Reichsmark or guilder.

Three self-portraits form the backbone of the show. In its own alcove just inside the exhibition doors, an iconic 1659 work welcomes visitors to the gallery. Observant visitors will recognize it from the National Gallery of Art’s collection, and it’s a great get for the show. Painted a decade before Rembrandt’s death, this piece shows a proud but tired master, self-deprecatingly tolerant of his own face.

Subtitled “Study in a Mirror,” the same face from 30 years earlier hangs close enough to almost make eye contact with its older self, just as wonderfully lit but not as detailed as the old man’s. Half in shadow, mouth open with a calculated insouciance, Rembrandt looks like a college kid in a band posing for an album cover photo, trying to seem like the camera caught him in action. Whether intentionally or not, Rembrandt perfectly captures the invincible arrogance of youth and talent; perhaps today’s brooding rockers owe a debt to Rembrandt’s visions of himself.

Visually and compositionally, the third great self-portrait is the least interesting, but it hammers home the idea that these paintings are just the tip of the curatorial iceberg. A cap throws a shadow halfway down his face in the 1634 “Self-Portrait With Shaded Eyes”an image not so much bland as unobtrusive, extrapolating a state of fatigue between album-cover Rembrandt and exhausted-master Rembrandt. But the painting didn’t always look like this.

The wall text shows the massively overpainted, parodic image that X-ray imaging and an extensive conservation effort have restored to the weary “Shaded Eyes.” Before layers of paint were removed, Rembrandt wore a high, puffy cap resembling a bread loaf, sported a soul patch and shoulder-length hair and had heavy gold bands around the chest and shoulders of his coat. Perhaps the image was from that year he toured with P-Funk.

If conservators have to treat some Rembrandts like an archeological dig, others become a scavenger hunt or “what does not belong in this picture” game. In the penultimate room, two portraits of the same girl, likely Rembrandt’s sister, hang next to each other among other portraits of the artist’s family. The cherubic girl on the right, in an octagonal, ebonized-wood frame, shines with depth and lifea true Rembrandt. On the left, however, she’s flattened and dimmed, as if seen through a gummed eye. Look closer to compare the shine (or lack of it) in her eyes and the details of the curls of her hair to see the difference between mastery and apprenticeship. The lesson learned in a comparative glance between the two paintings might send you backtracking to earlier paintings with a new key into those hypothesized, tenous attributions.

From its overpainted originals to production-line worksand even rectangular paintings cut down to more fashionable ovals by their ownersthe sometimes humble, obscure pieces in Rembrandt in America remind us that the cult of the artist is much more of a 20th-century phenomenon than a 17th-century one. Blockbuster museum exhibits help fan the flames of these cults, of course, but that’s no reason to miss this Rembrandt show.