The N.C. Museum of Art has done plenty of big-time exhibits over the years, but "Rembrandt in America" stands as one of its most ambitious undertakings ever.
Consisting of nearly four dozen paintings assembled at a cost of more than $1 million (shared by the NCMA and two other museums), it opens Oct. 30.
"We hope it will do well, because we'd like to do a show of this much scope and ambition every year or so," said Dennis Weller, curator of Northern European art. "This type of show definitely takes all hands on deck."
"Rembrandt in America" will be a high-security project, featuring priceless works by the 17th-century Dutch master. Rembrandts are among the most valuable artworks in the world, and the most frequently stolen.
In California last month, police recovered a Rembrandt sketch worth $250,000 that had been stolen from a church (although the culprit remains at large). One of the Museum of Art's programs will be a lecture by Anthony M. Amore, author of the book "Stealing Rembrandts."
The exhibit is as much about art collecting and mistaken identity as it is about the art on display. The NCMA is a fitting venue for that, given its history. Back in the 1950s, the museum's first director, William Valentiner, was a major Rembrandt scholar.
"William Valentiner really upped the number of Rembrandt attributions, to over 700 paintings," Weller said. "The Rembrandt Research project has cut that down to about 320, so more than half the paintings thought to be Rembrandts have been disputed. Our idea was to look at the idea of Rembrandt collecting in America, and the parallel idea of: Is it Rembrandt or not?"
To that end, the exhibit will include genuine Rembrandts as well as paintings once thought to be Rembrandts that aren't. More than 30 of the exhibit's 47 paintings are Rembrandts (a figure touted as the most authentic Rembrandts ever assembled from American collections), including three of his renowned self-portraits.
"This show will be interesting for us to do right after '30 Americans,' which was very loud, brash, colorful and vital on this huge scale," said Maggie Gregory, the NCMA's chief registrar. "Rembrandt is very still. The paintings are more profound and personal and intimate. What I find moving about Rembrandt is that what you see in the faces of his sitters, you can see in the faces of people you know. It is transcendent."
Tour debuts in Raleigh
Raleigh is the first stop for "Rembrandt in America," which the NCMA is co-presenting with the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (two museums where it will be displayed after the NCMA run closes in January). Most of the exhibit's paintings will arrive during October, but one is already in the house - although it's not a real Rembrandt.
Titled "Bust of a Young Woman," it's a portrait of a woman thought to be Rembrandt's sister, most likely painted by his understudy Isaac de Jouderville. It's on an oval oak panel, and the painting didn't have far to travel. Its usual home is the lobby of Morehead Planetarium at UNC-Chapel Hill.
On a recent morning, NCMA conservator Noelle Ocon was comparing X-rays of "Bust" with those of a genuine Rembrandt and pointing out the differences.
"You can see the differences in paint application and how the face is modeled," Ocon said. "On the Rembrandt, there's more accomplished shading in the face that you don't see on this one, and also in how the jewelry and hair curls are detailed."
Care and secrecy
Those X-rays will be on display for compare-and-contrast purposes. As for paintings from farther away, they're being transported with great care and an unusual level of secrecy from private collections and more than two dozen art museums across the country (and, in the case of one painting, the Netherlands). The exhibit's value is so high that the NCMA applied for and received federal indemnity, in which the U.S. government covers the insurance costs.
"Transit on something like this is complicated," Gregory said. "These are high-value, fragile works with a lot of couriers accompanying them. We have 28 lenders and 21 couriers. In some cases they literally travel with the painting, but some just fly in to inspect after it's hung on the wall."
Looking for a big hit
Once "Rembrandt in America" opens, the goal will be to get as many people as possible in to see it because the show is an expensive proposition. The NCMA's gold standard remains its 2000 exhibit of Rodin sculptures, which drew more than 300,000 visitors during a 16-week run.
Another comparable target is "Monet in Normandy," an exhibit of 50 works by French impressionist painter Claude Monet that drew just over 214,000 people in 12 weeks during 2006-2007. But matching that might be a challenge.
"When we did Monet, the economy was not so bad," said exhibitions manager Tiara Paris. "I think people are thinking a little more about how to spend their money on leisure, because times are a little difficult now. But we're always optimistic about pulling big crowds."