After geeking out on Dutch Masters at the Getty when I went to LA this Summer, I figured I should go see the Rembrandt exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. After all, I might catch a glipse of Gerrit Dou, he who is the painter of one of my absolute favorite paintings, Astronomer by Candlelight.
There wasn't any Dou (although there was a mention of him), but there was a lot of both Rembrandt and the rest of his studio. The idea behind the exhibit was a holistic this-is-by-Rembrandt, this-isn't show. There were a lot of paintings here that were shown in the context of "This used to be thought a Rembrandt, but now it isn't anymore" or vice versa, or even unconfirmed one way or the other.
We now have a different understanding of what it means to be a Rembrandt. After all, when he was alive, most anything that came out of his studio was marked with his name and sold as one of his paintings, even if his involvement was slim. Rembrandt was more of a style, and less of an attribution to the specific artist. Of course, being individualist Americans, this is not something that we are okay with, and so there is this whole frenzy around the art world of trying to judge and mark officially X is a Rembrandt, Y is not.
Most troubling is probably the qualitative arguments for being a Rembrandt. Many of the arguments about the paintings seem to be not in scholarly work or digging through sales records and the like, but rather an aesthetic judgement about the quality of the work. Many of the justifications for being a Rembrandt were qualitative judgements: this painting must be a Rembrandt because it's really good, while this other one can't be because it's got a few awkward parts about it. Perhaps this was a curation issue, but it does beg the question: Did Rembrandt ever do anything that wasn't perfect? It seems a little bit too simple to just divide the paintings along skill lines. Even Michael Jordan misses a shot every once in a while.