RALEIGH — Cocking his head a bit, John Leshyn circled around the picture at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Titled "Self-Portrait" and dating to 1659, it's the very first painting you see in the museum's "Rembrandt in America" exhibit, depicting the Dutch master looking old and careworn.
Leshyn, who was visiting from Blacksburg, Va., was not the only visitor to spend a long time gazing at it.
"Amazing, isn't it?" Leshyn murmured to his wife, Elena. "No matter where you stand, it looks like his eyes are following you. It's almost like his face turns as you move. It's wonderful."
That seemed to be the majority opinion among patrons at Sunday's grand opening of "Rembrandt in America." The exhibit is open through Jan. 22.
Visitors were from as far away as Russia, sampling the works of Rembrandt van Rijn. Clusters of people gathered around each of the exhibit's nearly four dozen paintings, many listening to the accompanying audio tour on headphones as they studied brushstrokes.
Rembrandt was huge before falling out of favor and dying poor in 1669.
Along with the paintings, "Rembrandt in America" includes a timeline of Rembrandt's rock-star-like life and career and a special exhibit store. Items for sale include Rembrandt prints, paperweights, and stationary and even refrigerator magnets bearing his famous self-portraits.
The exhibit also has a collection of Rembrandt catalogs, with a table where patrons can look through the exhibition catalog for more background information. Sunday afternoon, Libby Todd from Gastonia was paging through the catalog to study up on favorite paintings.
"I came by myself so I could look," Todd said. "I made the mistake of bringing my husband to the Monet exhibit here and he wanted to rush through it. He knew I'd want to read every word about this, and that was before either of us even knew there would be books out."
Another aspect of "Rembrandt in America" is mistaken identity, and how many paintings have been mistakenly attributed to him over the years.
The exhibit includes works that have since been assigned to other painters, which did not sit well with everyone who went on opening day.
"They should have called this the 'Rembrandt Wannabe Show,' " said Richard Krawiec, a writer from Raleigh. "There are some really nice pictures, the self-portraits and 'Lucretia,' but too much second-rate stuff by his followers, students, workshop and imitators."
Still, most opening-day viewers seemed to appreciate the chance to compare and contrast paintings. Lynne Messer, a professor at Duke University, was seated on a bench in front of "Lucretia" - an authentic Rembrandt from 1666, and one of his most iconic paintings.
"I find myself drawn to this one," Messer said. "It's just so powerful. I really appreciate the contrast between Rembrandt and non-Rembrandt that they've done. It makes looking at each one like a game of sleuthing, in addition to appreciating art for its own sake."
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