Rembrandt in America: Q&A with the Curator

We recently sat down with Jon Seydl, The Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos, Jr., Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture (1500-1800) and curator for the Cleveland presentation of Rembrandt in America, to talk about the exhibition, his appreciation for the artist, and more.







Q1: What’s your first memory of Rembrandt?
A: I grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and my sister took art classes at the Allentown Art Museum. I would hang around at the museum with my parents. Allentown has a painting in their collection that had been attributed to Rembrandt. I remembered the way they had it dramatically isolated in a sort of niche. The painting, A Young Woman, is actually in the exhibition. It’s a great example of looking closely and identifying a Rembrandt vs. one by his workshop or circle. You can clearly see that it is not a Rembrandt because of the harsh frontal lighting, the unconvincing three-dimensionality, and the wispy way that the clothing is painted. The artist painted it without varying his brushstrokes across the panel, and Rembrandt always varies the way he appl!

ies paint. It’s a very nice painting, and I am really happy to spend some more time with it in Cleveland.

Q2: What new discoveries about this artist did you make during the course of planning the exhibition?
A: It might sound really obvious, but in terms of learning to look closely – I discovered that it is not always so easy to tell the difference between an actual work by Rembrandt vs. one that has been attributed to him. Sometimes the difference is really pretty straightforward, but sometimes it’s really hard to tell – he was such a good teacher and some people in his workshop learned to paint in Rembrandt’s manner really well. I also more fully appreciated how he was constantly evolving as an artist. It is often overstated how unsuccessful he was at the end of his career. He wasn’t toiling away in obscurity. Early in his career he was defining the market and at the end of his career he was working against the market, but always thinking creatively and in new ways.

Q3: How did you select work featured in the exhibition?

When we joined the collaboration with the museums in Raleigh and Minneapolis, I was adamant including two works from Los Angeles in the exhibition. One was the St. Bartholomew from target="new">the J. Paul Getty Museum in LA. There is something about it that is so modern and so startling. When I worked at the Getty, I “lived” with this painting, and it’s one whose power only grows on you with time. The other one is Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat from the Hammer Museum. It’s a great work because of the amazing quality of the light on the collar and the way the taffeta sleeve seems to flicker right in front of us. It doesn’t travel very often is it’s seriously a must see.

Q4: What is one thing you wish you knew about Rembrandt?
A: I wish he could tell me who all of the sitters are. Some of the subject pictures are also really ambiguous – what was the story he had in mind? I want to know who painted which pictures -- We know that he had paying students, apprentices, wealthy men who showed up from time to time to learn from him – I want Rembrandt to name names!

Q5: What do you think Rembrandt would be painting now if he we alive today?
A: I’m not necessarily sure he would be painting. I think he is someone who is ultimately interested most of all in storytelling, the depth of human character, and making money, which makes me think he would be working in a medium like film or video – anyone who was that good at painting, printmaking, and drawing could have turned his attention to other media too. What makes him so interesting to me is his combination of incredible technique, innovation, and storytelling.

-- Kesha Williams

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