Collaboration and planning key to Rembrandt exhibit
Exhibit has special appeal to local community
By Jen Kulju
It takes a village and a lot of planning to create a "high-impact exhibit" like "Rembrandt and the Mennonite Community." According to Dr. Kate Stevens, director of the Madison Art Collection, a high-impact exhibit showcases the work of an artist who most people recognize, and it is the goal of the MAC to hold one of these exhibits per year.
Carrying out such an exhibit, however, is no small undertaking. "Rembrandt and the Mennonite Community" has been in the works since spring of 2012 due in large part to the efforts of Dr. Kay Arthur, professor emerita of art history and associate curator of Medieval and Italian Renaissance art. Arthur did something that Stevens wants other guest curators to do. "Instead of trying to do it in a semester, she decided to take the time to do it for two years," explains Stevens.
It all began when Arthur collaborated with a student on research for a Rembrandt painting three to four years ago. After taking another look at the portrait of Rembrandt's first wife Saskia, it was determined that the painting was a mid-18th-century copy of a Rembrandt portrait now in Dresden, Germany. Further investigation would reveal three more Rembrandt etchings in the MAC and enough for the nucleus of a show.
A faculty committee gathered to discuss a detailed direction for the exhibit, where "Rembrandt and the Mennonite Community" was born. "Saskia was a Mennonite, and there are Mennonites living in the Shenandoah Valley," says Stevens. In addition, according to Arthur, "there was an early history of Dutch art that said Rembrandt was a Mennonite. Other information indicates Rembrandt had friendships with the Mennonites and that his art dealer was Mennonite. These connections would allow us to create an exhibit that would appeal to the local community and have scholarly value."
Arthur wanted to add to the exhibit, so she reached out to Eastern Mennonite University and the National Gallery of Art. Much to Arthur's surprise, EMU historical library had a rather unusual collection of books relating to the reformation in the Netherlands and particularly to Mennonites in the Netherlands. "It was amazing to discover this treasure at EMU," exclaims Arthur. "I've lived in Harrisonburg for 37 years, and I had no idea the collection was there." Dr. Mary Sprunger, history department chair at EMU, helped Arthur find books appropriate for the exhibit: a handful of Dutch, 17th-century rare books including "Descriptions of Amsterdam" published by Caspar Commelin in 1693 and the renowned "Martyrs' Mirror" by T. Van Braght. Several books have engravings by the Mennonite painter and poet Jan Luiken. Dr. Sprunger also wrote several Gallery Guides and served as an advisor on the exhibit.
With the books in place, Arthur set her sights on loans from the National Gallery of Art. She and senior Andrea Morgan traveled to Washington, D.C. to look at some original Rembrandt etchings for the exhibit. Morgan is an art history major with a concentration in museum studies. She began as an intern at the MAC in the fall of 2012, and is now the student director. Morgan took a Gothic architecture class with Arthur in the spring of 2012; she also took an independent study where she assisted her professor in researching an 18th-century, Rembrandt print referred to by its subject: "old man" or "old man with long, curly hair and beard." The etching is in the exhibit and shows the influence of Rembrandt in 18th-century London.
'Working in the museum ... is something specific to JMU. I don't know that I would have had this opportunity at other schools.' — Andrea Morgan
Morgan's research on the "old man" resulted in her winning the Art History Forum 2013 for best paper, which morphed into her honor's thesis. She went from not knowing what she wanted to do with her life to "wanting to be an expert in 18th-century reproductions," shares Stevens. "I want to get my Ph.D., I want to study Netherlandish art, I want to study Rembrandt, and I want to study prints and paintings after Rembrandt," declares Morgan. "This experience working in the museum has definitely shaped the fact that not only do I want to work in academia, but I also want to do museum work." Morgan adds, "I think this experience is something specific to JMU. I don't know that I would have had this opportunity at other schools."
The opportunity for students to work with professionals in their field was one of the reasons Stevens supported borrowing works from the National Gallery of Art. The requested four to five works would also make the exhibit more "high profile." Arthur and Morgan worked with JMU alum Shannon Schuler, the assistant registrar for loans at the National Gallery of Art, for a year before the installation that Schuler insisted on going to herself. Loans include etchings of the Mennonite preacher Cornelis Claez Anslo, a self-portrait, a view of Amsterdam, studies of the human figure, as well as a print of "Christ Healing the Sick," nicknamed "The Hundred Guilder Print."
A former student of Arthur's, Schuler graduated with a bachelor's in art history in 1994. Schuler credits Arthur and other past professors with helping her to set up internships in Newport News and Colonial Williamsburg to guide her career path. She also participated in a semester abroad program in Paris, which "changed everything" for her. Schuler encourages students to take advantage of international opportunities, and says she's "always happy to come back to JMU."
The JMU community, as well as the Harrisonburg community and beyond, can view a number of portraits and small etchings by—and inspired by—Rembrandt in this enlightening, six-week exhibit. "Rembrandt has a universal appeal," claims Arthur. "He was a master etcher, but also had this wonderful, penetrating insight into people.
"Rembrandt and the Mennonite Community" is free and open to the public and runs through Feb. 28 (Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. with special Sunday hours on Jan. 26 and Feb. 23) at the Lisanby Museum in the Festival Conference and Student Center. Metered parking is available in lot C12. The exhibit features a "Kids Zone" with fun, educational materials created by Sarah Brown, master's student in art education and local elementary art teacher, as well as interactive iBooks in the gallery. For more information, visit the following website created by Lauren Rowson, a junior communication studies major with a public relations concentration: https://sites.jmu.edu/rembrandt.