Insider's view: Curator tells what to look for

October 30, 2011 

As the curator of northern European collections at the N.C. Museum of Art, Dennis Weller oversees more than 125 paintings, drawings and sculptures housed in the museum's new West Wing. But for the past three years, he's been "working full time" to bring 48 paintings by Rembrandt and his followers to Raleigh. Correspondent Rebecca J. Ritzel talked to Weller about the show and what people should look for in the Dutch master's work.

Q: How is the exhibit laid out, and in what order will visitors see the paintings?

We used a mixture of subject matter and chronology. The first gallery is the life of Rembrandt. We have a timeline, and the National Gallery of Art's self-portrait, painted in 1659. That gives you a sense of the artist and the power of his work. Then there's a gallery of paintings he did earlier in his career.

The next gallery really focuses on Rembrandt as a portrait painter, and that's just jaw-dropping and fascinating, with great works from all across the country. We have two sets of paired portraits, including the only full-length set in the country (of an Amsterdam minister and his wife, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston). Then we have kind of a library, and then you come into a gallery we call the "Rembrandt? Not Rembrandt?" gallery. People will have fun here. There are portraits, and some character studies, known as tronies. Our visitors can hone their own skills, and see if they accept what we are saying about some of these paintings being by Rembrandt, some by (students in) his workshop, and some by other artists. All of the works were, at one time or another, thought to be by Rembrandt.

After that we move from portraiture to history paintings. There are two directions: single-figure history paintings that Americans were very successful in collecting, like "Minerva in Her Study" and "Lucretia," and large-scale narrative history paintings. Americans were not as successful collecting those. But there are some important paintings in here, including "The Feast of Esther," from our museum's collection, which was thought to be an early Rembrandt but is now known to be an early masterpiece by Rembrandt's colleague, Jan Lievens.

The next room is portraits of Rembrandt family members. That's a lot of fun for viewers too. We have an image of his wife, Saskia; one of his son, Titus; one of his mistress; his common-law wife Hendrickje; an autographed self-portrait and his two sisters.

Q: Can you go back to the "tronies"? They're almost like 17th-century Glamour Shots. He was dressing people up.

The simplest translation from Dutch is "face," but they are really character studies. For example, we have "Study of a Woman in White Cap." Sometimes in tronies, the sitters have fanciful hats on or gold chains or whatever. In many ways, his self-portraits are tronies, because he was exploring emotions and light and things.

Q: And you don't need a background in art history to notice Rembrandt's use of light, right?

He was so sophisticated in his use of light. His figures seem to pop from the background. You get a suggestion of blood flowing through the veins of these sitters. He used shade in some areas and shadows in others. It's just spectacular. His pupils approximated that, but it's just not the same. They couldn't match the master.

Q: What's the most valuable takeaway for someone who is going to the exhibit and already knows a little bit about art?

The fact that we were able to bring so many Rembrandt paintings into one exhibition, and how great a painter he can be. These are such fabulous pictures. I think, at this show, I'll be seeing a lot of people walking back and forth between paintings, and getting into this issue of what's Rembrandt and what's not Rembrandt, trying to train their eyes. And you have some of his great masterworks as a baseline.

Q: And the takeaway for the casual observer or first-time visitor to your museum?

This is an opportunity to see great art. This is someone whose name you've probably heard of. His paintings have a certain immediacy to them. How did he capture the faces of these people? He puts the viewer into their time and place. That's what spectacular about Rembrandt.


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