One of These Things is Not Like the Other…

Minneapolis Institute of Arts curator Tom Rassieur knows that, right now, his museum is in custody of the largest collection of Rembrandts ever assembled in the United States. He’s just not sure how many there actually are.

“It’s at least 22,” he told me, when I visited him a few months back. “How far we go above that number…well, it’s hard to be certain.”

Rassieur was referring to the authenticity bugaboo. One hundred years ago, 700 works were attributed to the Dutch Old Master. Today, that number has dropped by more than half, and there are at least 25 existing paintings whose legitimacy hangs contentiously in limbo—and has for decades. The problem is that ol’ van Rijn spent years managing a commercial portrait studio, and his pupils imitated his style—and sometimes signed his name to their work, to boost the sale price. That’s why you’ll see so many odd parentheticals—”(imitator of),” “(workshop of)”—in Rembrandt museum didactics.  

Anyway, the MIA must have grown a lot more confident. In press materials, they’re claiming 30. Thirty true-blue Rembrandts. It’s a coup. And a lot to take in. So, beyond the obvious—there will be crowds gathered around Lucretia, one of the MIA’s crown jewels—here are three paintings not to miss: 

1. “Portrait of the Reverend Johannes Elison” and “Portrait of Maria” (wife of Johannnes Elison)


The only pair of full-length Rembrandt portraits in America. The Mennonite couple dressed in prudish black cassocks for their sittings, but Rembrandt still got wild with the color, teasing out a prism of black-on-back tonality and light play. And, thanks to a recent cleaning at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they’re gleaming onyx-like for the first time in decades.

2. “Old Man with a Gold Chain”

One of the Art Institute of Chicago’s proudest pieces, a portrait of a grizzled, beak-nosed old soldier with a gold medallion. Formally, it’s vintage Rembrandt—spiral pose, wildly varied brushwork, a halo of varied light. Oh and that chain. As blinged out as oil paint gets.

3. “Portrait of Marten Looten” 

Rembrandt’s calling card. This portrait of Amsterdam merchant Marten Looten illustrates the breathtaking realism that Rembrandt could offer his thriving middle-class patrons. It’s believed that this particular painting won Rembrandt a ton of portrait work, simply on the strength of its remarkable human likeness.

“Rembrandt in America”
Sunday, June 24-Sunday, September 16
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 Third Ave. S., Mpls.