“Christ with Folded Arms,” Rembrandt

One of my earliest memories of a museum was with Rembrandt. Not the man, of course, but his beautiful work hanging in San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum: an echoing marble hall with columns and a wall given in honor to a few portraits glowing under dark umber depths. One in particular, with his eyes following me about the room, intrigued me. I tried to walk away, yet something made me turn repeatedly to see what it was about that painting, a Rembrandt.

A dark field with a simple bust of a man, calm and at ease, it was similar to others from the Dutch Golden Age. But something else, a kind of quickening, moved through the flesh of its subject. It was an energy implied, but its source not easily perceived. No big brush strokes, jarring contrasts or other artist’s inventions. Then his eyes: One followed me while the other, slightly off, seemed to ponder something far beyond his viewers. It made quite an impression on me, and apparently I’m not the only one who remembers him after all this time.

Now, 342 years after his death, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn is still one of the world’s best-loved painters with several current exhibits in Europe and the U.S. Two touring at this moment are especially ambitious: “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and “Rembrandt in America,” originating from the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“The Face of Jesus” first organized at the Louvre before landing this side of the Atlantic. It includes one of their stellar paintings, “Supper at Emmaus” (1648), and is congregated along with 64 of Rembrandt’s works from 30 collections in Europe and the United States. Some of these are rarely, if ever shown in public.

The Philadelphia exhibit is focused on interpretations of Jesus by Rembrandt and his studio. All of the seven “Heads of Christ” alluded to from the artist’s own inventory are still extant and presented together for the first time in 350 years. Artists often keep pieces of special significance for their personal collection, and Rembrandt was no exception. Rembrandt hung two of these “Heads of Christ” in the most intimate of places, his study and bedroom, suggesting their importance to him

Three studies of “Head of Christ,” by Rembrandt

The description “done from life” used in the title of various versions of his “Christs” has inspired discussion and scholarship over centuries. What could he mean? Jesus certainly didn’t agree to a personal sitting, and Rembrandt didn’t use the term for other paintings he did with live models.

The gradual change of Jesus’ appearance in Rembrandt’s work is a clue. He begins with the standard received European version and gradually morphs into a very Semitic young man. This would be easy, considering the painter lived amongst many Jewish and even Muslim neighbors in Amsterdam at the time.

Just how friendly he and his neighbors were has been a source of contention since the 1880s. Some even theorized that he had secretly converted to Judaism due to his numerous Old Testament subjects such as “Portrait of a Young Jew” and his friendship with Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel. According to Amsterdam’s Jewish Historic Museum in their 2007 exhibit, “The ‘Jewish’ Rembrandt,” this is no longer seriously considered. However, global conferences still investigate Rembrandt and his beliefs, such as a major event in Tokyo in 2003, where subjects such as “Rembrandt and Netherlandish ‘Printbibles'” were studied.

Although Rembrandt’s Savior seems strikingly Jewish, he avoids the sorrowful, iconic Jesus descended from the Byzantine shroud and from which the Italians took their cue. His Jesus is youthful, simple and unthreatening. The painter knew his Scriptures and painted what he saw in them, someone pure in heart, action and motive – dangerously pure for a dark world.

“Raising of the Cross” by Rembrandt

Many other paintings reveal Rembrandt’s great love and respect for biblical themes and characters in general. In his time, successful Dutch painters kept to portraits, landscapes and still-lifes if they wanted sales (dead animals were popular, Bathsheba and Calvary, out). Although Rembrandt did these types of things, particularly portraits, he was singular in his enormous range and number of works taken from the Bible.

This had to be a purely, personal desire since the church was not commissioning art in Amsterdam at that time.

In “The Prodigal Son,” Rembrandt presents himself as the model, after falling in debt from high living. Strangely enough, he also used his wife as a model for a prostitute in this confessional painting.

Another allusion to his personal penitence and faith shows up in “The Raising of the Cross.” Here the artist makes his presence plainly seen in the very center of the painting, wearing his normal street clothes and his artist’s cap.

Down the coast, “Rembrandt in America” opens at the North Carolina Museum of Art Oct. 30, 2011, from whence it travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2012. This exhibition attempts to assemble almost all authentic Rembrandt paintings in America and is the largest group put together in the U.S., consisting of nearly four dozen paintings at a cost of more than $1 million.

“Lucretia,” by Rembrandt

The Museums came up with 30 verified Rembrandt paintings, including some of his most famous pieces, such as “Young Man in a Black Beret”(1666). This follows a few decades of disappointment as many owners of “Rembrandts” found they were not by the master himself but a student or follower. Their purpose goes far beyond exhibiting alone, explaining why so many Rembrandts reside here and the craze for collecting them in the late 19 century.

Research and science behind proving authenticity of paintings is also offered in “Rembrandt in America.” The exhibit reveals works misattributed to Rembrandt in the past, as well as art that is currently being debated or recently cleared. An example from their collection, “Young Man with a Sword” (c. 1633-1645), was originally purchased as a Rembrandt but subsequently found not to be. They plan to display another 15 to 20 Dutch paintings attributed to Rembrandt at some point in American collections, but have since been ascribed to his pupils or contemporaries.

Interestingly, a curator at Cleveland Museum of Art, Jon Seydl, claims that “questions of authenticity have plagued Rembrandts for centuries, even during the artist’s own lifetime.” To help them, the exhibitors employ professionals such as X-ray technicians, chemists and even tree specialists who determine the age of wood panels. “Rembrandt in America” promises to be highly educational for both art students and history buffs.

Both exhibits will require very high security, as Rembrandts are amongst the most highly sought artworks on earth and most frequently stolen. Author Anthony Amore told the Los Angeles Times that he knows of 81 documented thefts of Rembrandt’s work in the last 100 years. Recently a Rembrandt drawing was stolen just a few feet from a curator in a Marina del Ray hotel lobby. Oddly enough it was soon found on the wall of an Encino church and recovered intact.

The extreme costs of insurance, travel and installation mean both exhibits require massive turn outs all along the way to break even. Here’s to hoping Americans still find Rembrandts fascinating and worth viewing for a variety of reasons – even those who aren’t attempting to steal them.

Schedule for “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus”

Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art exhibit ends October 30, 2011.

Detroit Institute of Arts exhibit runs from Nov. 20 to Feb. 12.

Schedule for “Rembrandt in America”

North Carolina Museum of Art exhibit runs from Oct 30, 2011 – Jan. 22, 2012.

Cleveland Museum of Art exhibit runs from Feb. 19 – May 28, 2012.

Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibit runs from June 24 – Sept. 16, 2012.

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