The Bruce Museum Honors Rembrandt

Arts and CultureArtistsArtMuseumsAmsterdam (Netherlands)Bruce Museum of Arts and ScienceGreenwich

Drawings by Rembrandt, his Students and Circle from the Maida and George Abrams Collection

Through Jan. 8, 2012, Bruce Museum, 1 Museum Drive, Greenwich, (203) 869-0376, brucemuseum.org

 

In the history of Western art, countless figures serve as roadside attractions but only a few get carved into the Mount Rushmore-like pantheon. Among those would be Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the Dutch master Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1601-1697). In Connecticut, sightings of original Rembrandts are not as rare as, say, Caravaggio, Vermeer or the pileated woodpecker — the Wadsworth, for example, borrowed seven Rembrandt oils in 2009 for Rembrandt's People, which compared the master's work with two works from the Wadsworth collection thought to have been by Rembrandt when purchased but discovered to be by others.

The Bruce Museum in Greenwich bypasses all the confusion and pushes the scholarship forward with Drawings by Rembrandt, his Students and Circle (through Jan. 8, 2012). It is one of the few major shows this year you will not want to miss. Rembrandt was prolific in three media — oils, sketching and etching — but he didn't always sign his work, which has led to misattributions. One aspect of the master — his role as teacher and influence — may also explain some of this confusion. When seen in profusion, as they are at the Bruce's stellar installation, his students' work is easy to mistake for Rembrandt's own.

It seems this may have been what the artist wanted. Indeed, this brilliantly documented and erudite installation suggests that Rembrandt challenged his students, as part of their instructive exercises, to try to better his own example. Thankfully for posterity, one couple, George and Maida Abrams, set out many years ago to assemble work by Rembrandt's circle, which included his students.

A beaming George Abrams, whose wife Maida died in 2002, attended the opening at the Bruce recently and told visitors, "We started collecting in 1960 and got swept up in it. We never thought we would own a Rembrandt, so we collected works by people in his circle, spending many years in and around Amsterdam doing this. We also spent a lot of time thinking about Dutch drawings and tried to move the thinking about Rembrandt and his circle further along. The scholarship was for many years stuck on questions like 'Is it an original Rembrandt?,' the implication being that it was only good if it was. But there are more than 20 drawings in this show in nearly complete form by artists who went on to make names for themselves. The scholarship is moving in this direction and the artists are emerging from Rembrandt's shadow."

Among those whose reputations are rising, thanks largely to the Abrams, are Govert Flinck, Nicolaes Maes, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (said to have been Rembrandt's favorite pupil), Abraham Furnerius, Willem de Poorter and Lambert Doomer. Drawings by all of these artists are on view here, as are drawings by many others. Flinck is well represented by a series of black-and-white chalk nude sketches whose models, the van Wullen sisters, ran a brothel just down the canal in Amsterdam from the artist's studio. They were said to pose "moedeernacht," which essentially means naked as jaybirds.

Other artists worthy of more scrutiny here are Jan Lievens, among whose landscapes is the majestic "Forest Interior with Draftsman" (1664), a primeval scene straight out of a fairytale; Willem de Poorter, whose "Stoning of St. Stephen" seems to anticipate Blake's visionary paintings a century later (Stephen focuses with laser-like attention on visions of heaven as the village's male hypocrites stone him to death); Furnerius, whose "Landscape with Farmhouses" (1650) is gently pastoral; and Lambert Doomer, whose "Two Bactrian Camels in a River Landscape" turns heads for its seeming eccentricity (camels in Holland?!).

And then, of course, there are drawings by Rembrandt himself, including charming brown ink sketches he made on the fly, like "Old Man With Walking Stick" (1633) and "A Farm [on the Amsteldijk?]" It behooves visitors to get to the show early in its run because the Bruce was able to secure two extraordinary oil portraits by Rembrandt to augment the sketches and drawings, but only until Oct. 9. Through these masterpieces, one can appreciate just how far a journey the master traveled from his sketchbook to satisfy his rich clientele.

This show is another feather in the cap for Bruce Museum director (and former Wadsworth Atheneum director) Peter Sutton, who is himself an expert on Dutch masters. At the opening, Sutton explained, "Rembrandt was remarkably adept at seeing a fleeting expression and then making a quick sketch of it, then redeploying it in his art. He did all this sketching as a way to explore and test ideas and for tools of instruction for his students. So many artists were in his orbit. This is stuff he observed in the streets of Amsterdam, which was the most cosmopolitan and richest city in northern Europe at the time."

Perhaps the highlight of Drawings by Rembrandt, his Students and Circle is a sketchbook of sorts, made of 41 sheets of vellum containing the drawings of 27 different artists. Sutton, who calls it "a precious little object," explained that some of these sketches are the only known drawings by a few of the artists. It is perhaps an indication of his increased profile that the sketchbook is open to a drawing by Flinck, one that could easily be mistaken for one of Rembrandt's.


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