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The genius of ‘Rembrandt in America’

As career paths go, the military seems like an odd pathway into the world of fine art. But that’s how BGSU alumnus Dennis Weller ’77 began down the road that has resulted in his curating “Rembrandt in America,” the largest assemblage of authentic Rembrandts ever put together in the United States.

Weller came to Bowling Green from Miamisburg, Ohio, as a pre-med major during the Vietnam War. Possessing a low draft number, he interrupted his schooling for an Army hitch and spent two years stationed in Germany, giving him the opportunity to begin visiting art museums — an experience that stayed with him after he returned to BGSU

A pivital art history survey class with Willard Misfeldt, now a professor emeritus of art, moved Weller to change from pre-med to art. Misfeldt became his adviser as he went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in art history. Weller then completed his graduate work at The Ohio State University and the University of Maryland.

“Bowling Green was great about allowing me to find my own way and change directions midstream,” Weller said. “Professor Misfeldt had an especially big impact, just in terms of encouraging me to pursue an academic or museum career.”

Another key connection at the University actually happened while Weller was still a pre-med major. One of the guest speakers in his organic chemistry class was a chemical company executive named Alfred Bader, who happened to be a major collector of Dutch master paintings.

“He even handed out mini-posters of a painting in his collection,” Weller said. “I’ve actually borrowed from his private collection since then for shows, including two for ‘Rembrandt in America.’ So he wound up being a pretty major figure for me professionally even though I met him in chemistry class, ironically enough.”

From the start, Weller found himself drawn to the work of Dutch painters, including Rembrandt and Frans Hals.

“Dutch art always seemed so approachable to me,” Weller said. “There’s a humanity to it, a down-to-earth quality I like, and it’s why I decided to study Dutch art. I fell in love with its scenes of everyday life, which really resonated with me because I came from a lower-middle-class family in Ohio.”

Weller took his current job as curator of Northern European Art at the North Carolina Museum of Art in 1994. He’s been involved in a number of notable exhibitions there, including a well-received 1998 show devoted to the Italian painter Caravaggio’s influence on Dutch and Flemish painters. But “Rembrandt in America” is Weller’s biggest and boldest yet, collecting some of the most famous and valuable paintings on earth — iconic masterpieces including 1666’s “Lucretia” and Rembrandt’s self-portraits.

Any Rembrandt exhibit is fraught with complications because so many paintings have been misidentified as works by the Dutch master. Weller showed considerable ingenuity in turning a potential problem into an intriguing angle, making misidentification and the cult of collecting two major themes of the show.

“Rembrandt in America” opened in North Carolina last fall before moving to the Cleveland Museum of Art, where it shows through May 28 (and then opens in Minneapolis on June 24). The show includes a number of paintings once thought to be Rembrandts that have since been reclassified. You can almost play a game with it: “Rembrandt or not?”

“There’s a narrative to the show, about collecting and connoisseurship,” Weller said. “The exhibition also follows the life of Rembrandt and the arc of his career. Rembrandt went to Amsterdam to find fame and fortune as a young man, and he found both very quickly, but it didn’t last. Tastes changed, but he did not change his art for the tastes of others.”

Collectively, the art of “Rembrandt in America” is worth more than $1 billion — so much that its sponsoring museums applied for and received federal indemnity, in which the U.S. government serves as the insurer. Weller’s initial curating partner was George Keyes from the Detroit Institute of Arts, which subsequently bowed out of co-presenting due to financial constraints and a competing Rembrandt exhibition.

“It was a complicated challenge because so many Rembrandts have lending restrictions,” Keyes said. “But we were able to work around that. Dennis did a tremendous job of selling the project’s importance to get loans. He’s a very dedicated, excellent curator with all the right instincts. It’s a terrific exhibit.”

For all the sleepless nights involved in pulling it together, Weller is pleased with how “Rembrandt in America” turned out. The exhibit shows impressive scholarship, and the work itself moves people.

“I think Rembrandt was a genius in terms of the depth of emotion he conveyed,” Weller said. “Eyes are windows to the soul, which he understood and translated in his paintings. He moves people, makes them consider life and death and emotions coming together.”