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Traveling Treasures
Paintings by the Dutch Masters make a stopover in Milwaukee. Among them, the most bewitching Rembrandt self-portrait.

Aelbert Cuyp’s View of Dordrecht ca. 1655
Photo courtesy of American Federation of Arts

Rembrandt van Rijn painted more than 40 self-portraits and executed an additional 40 to 50 such etchings and drawings. But one, the mysterious self-portrait of 1665, has never made it to the United States. Until now. 
Four American cities, Milwaukee included, will host the 45-by-37-inch masterpiece, along with 47 other works. The “Rembrandt, van Dyck, Gainsborough: the Treasures of Kenwood House, London” exhibit opens Oct. 12 at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and it’s a bit like a great dignitary arriving in a small town.

It’s a big deal. 

Across the pond in North London sits Kenwood House, a 17th-century neoclassical villa. Once it was owned by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh and the grandson of the famed brewery’s founder. As he amassed racing yachts, hunting grounds and his art collection, so, too, did other industry giants, such as Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon, all in an effort to boost social rank and anchor their legacies during the Gilded Age. When Guinness died in 1927, he was the second wealthiest man in England. He bequeathed both Kenwood House and his collection to the state. 

But even mansions get leaky roofs. As $8 million worth of improvements take place in London, the gems of the collection have been packed for a road trip. The New York Times reported $2 million of the renovation costs will be offset by earnings from the traveling show. The collection’s strength is its 17th- and 18th-century portraits by Frans Hals, Ferdinand Bol, Anthony van Dyck, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. But these works can’t avoid being overshadowed by their traveling companion, often called the Kenwood House Rembrandt.

Guinness paid about $42,500 more for this painting than any other work, and it came with a companion portrait of a lady painted by Bol (which, at the time, was thought to be a Rembrandt).

Although the Milwaukee Art Museum has no Rembrandt works on view, it has hosted works by the master a few times, including its inaugural show in 1957 (when it was known as the Milwaukee Art Center), which sported no less than 32 Rembrandt paintings and etchings. A local collector and dealer, Alfred Bader, has also owned several Rembrandts. 

But this is not just any Rembrandt. It is one of his most debated endeavors. A large piece, it shows the painter in work clothes with the tools of his trade – brushes, palette and maulstick. Two large partial circles hover behind him, and art historians have argued their meaning for hundreds of years. It’s an anomaly because the circles are not part of the painted scene, but rather abstract renderings, atypical in the Baroque period. 

Rembrandt is 59 years old in this portrait, four years shy of his 1669 death. It’s a far cry from earlier images where Rembrandt presented himself in finery, elaborate costume or theatrical expression, a man at the top of his game. 

By now, he’s fallen from grandeur. He has endured the decline of his career, the death of three children and wife Saskia, bankruptcy, lawsuits and an errant love affair with his seemingly unstable housekeeper.

And whether he intended it to be revealing or not, this portrait carries the weight of that turbulent life, as if the thick, loose, sometimes scratched pigments have sealed in the pain and disappointment. As if the coat of varnish has petrified Rembrandt’s stubborn insistence that only art (specifically painting) can adequately 
embrace the human condition.

Rembrandt’s fleshy face, lumpy nose, jowls, and soft and sad eyes are well known to us. He never attempted to embellish himself like the dashing van Dyck or the dandified Peter Paul Rubens. There is no idealization, only somber earth tones that suggest the immanency of the grave. 

Rectangles, triangles and circles build a hidden compositional staircase that locks in structural tensions and oppositions. Perhaps this formal rigor was the necessary hanger for Rembrandt’s active surface of loose brushwork. He renders his left hand in this painting with a few barely decipherable dashed marks. The energy of the marks balances the composition’s immobilized, weighty shapes. 

Where true subtlety appears, however, is in the handling of the light. This separates Rembrandt from his peers. A golden, creamy background glows luminously and darkens as it descends to where the artist’s robe becomes inky black. 

His face features a truly stunning and elaborate play of shifting shadows, highlights and graceful transitions met with high-contrast collisions of dark and light (chiaroscuro). All of this finesse makes legible the imprint of emotion on flesh. Sad, intelligent, pernicious humanity finds formal expression. Rembrandt shows it in the treatment of the two eyes: one mushy and distant, pressed toward erasure and exit; the other present, articulated, engaged and looking outward at us. 

As if this isn’t enough to hold our attention, Rembrandt throws in the mystery of those odd, stark circles. Some say the circles suggest unfinished maps. The best explanation, however, is in the exhibition catalog essay by Walter Liedtke. He says the circles might refer to the story of the early Renaissance Italian painter Giotto, who drew perfect freehand circles as evidence of his magnificent gifts. Rembrandt gives a nod to the history of modern painting and places himself in the lineage, just as Edward Guinness wrote himself into artistic history by surrounding himself with greatness.

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