Rembrandt at the Norton Simon Museum
Norton Simon’s wide-ranging tastes and discerning attention to quality are evident in the Old Master galleries, where the art of 17th-century Holland is represented with particular strength. Among the Dutch artists whose work Mr. Simon acquired—including Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Frans Hals and Jacob van Ruisdael—Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), the greatest Dutch painter-printmaker of the Golden Age, was his favorite. Indeed, Mr. Simon’s first acquisition by any Dutch artist, in 1956, was a portrait by Rembrandt. Three major examples of Rembrandt’s work in this genre anchor the collection at the Norton Simon Museum today. The beloved Portrait of a Boy, 1655–60, entered Mr. Simon’s collection in 1965. A much publicized acquisition, it made the cover of Time as much for its tender depiction of childhood as for the fervor with which he pursued it.
Rembrandt, by recording his own life in many self-portraits, established the importance and viability of this subject for generations of artists to follow. In his probing and beautifully painted Self-Portrait, c. 1636–38, he portrays himself as an artist of status and accomplishment by virtue of his velvet beret, his rich gown and the gold chain around his neck. A rich layering of oil paint and glazing lends a luminous aspect to his face and offers a fascinating comparison with the broader handling of his bust, which retains the impression of a rapidly drawn sketch. In Portrait of a Bearded Man in a Wide-Brimmed Hat possibly Pieter Sijen, 1633, Rembrandt depicts his sitter with warmth and insight. The strong, directional light gives a palpable sense of the figure in space, and the deft brushwork around the man’s eyes imparts an impression of animation. The work vividly demonstrates why the artist enjoyed a reputation as the most sought-after portraitist in Holland during the 1630s.
Though Rembrandt is celebrated as one of the great painters in the history of Western art, the same is true of his innovative work with the print, a medium devoted to the play of light and dark. His renown as a master etcher was proclaimed during his lifetime and spread throughout Europe, thanks to his prints, which collectors eagerly acquired. Mr. Simon appreciated and sought etchings by Rembrandt with the same zeal that inspired him to collect the artist’s paintings. In 1977, Mr. Simon acquired one of the finest Rembrandt print collections in private hands—118 etchings owned by Charles C. Cunningham, who made the work of this great artist his focus during the early 1960s and 1970s. Additional important and rare impressions by the artist were added over time, and today the Norton Simon Museum’s Rembrandt collection totals more than three hundred prints, including portraiture, genre, stories from the Bible and landscape. Due to the fragile nature of works on paper and their sensitivity to light, Rembrandt’s etchings are shown on a rotating basis in special exhibitions.