By Paul Richardson, Assistant Exhibitions Manager
Even a relatively small exhibition like Rembrandt & Degas: Two Young Artists has many component parts that must be organized and coordinated in order to bring the exhibition to completion.
The intellectual genesis for this exhibition was the observation of a senior staff member from Rijksmuseum Amsterdam upon visiting the Clark that the shading, or chiaroscuro, effects across the face of the Clark’s youthful 1856 Edgar Degas Self-Portrait were reminiscent of the shadows that fall across the Rembrandt’s face in two similarly small format Self-Portraits, one in the Rijksmuseum collection and one from the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
One of the Rijksmuseum curators, Jenny Reynaerts, investigated whether this was a chance occurrence, or if there was any explicit knowledge or experience that bought about the similarities of these objects. Could Jenny find out what the young Degas knew and thought about Rembrandt?
Jenny found out a great deal, as you can see from the exhibition. Next, the Clark’s senior curator, Richard Rand, suggested that bringing the Clark and Rijksmuseum paintings together with other objects created by these two artists early in their careers would make an engaging and informative show. A special draw for the show in Amsterdam was that there are no Degas paintings in public collections in Holland. For Williamstown, a visiting Rembrandt or two is always a special occasion! I was especially excited to be responsible for some of the planning with staff members from the Rijksmuseum and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Once all the basic parameters and goals of the exhibition settled, things really start to move behind the scenes in the curatorial and exhibitons departments. Owners of object identified during the research phase are contacted and loan request letters are sent out. Loan terms such as environmental conditions for display, shipping, and insurance are agreed and loan contracts are exchanged. Gallery space is designed and readied, and wall texts and labels are drafted and reviewed.
I worked with the various curators and exhibitions and registrarial staffs to make sure that everybody understood and agreed upon the objects that would be displayed in each venue and when personnel and artwork would be on the move. I also worked with the Clark’s curator, Sarah Lees, for our installation of the exhibition, as well as the communications and publications departments to help make sure that everything was progressing according to schedule, and that the object labels, wall text and checklist were accurate and complete.
Finally, in the last week or two before the opening, the art works arrive from lenders or are brought out from storage. Then they are readied and inspected before they are installed by our staff art preparators and curators, and conservators from the Williamstown Art Conservation Center.
As you can imagine, the art objects are placed in different locations, arrangements, and groupings to see what works best. The curator decides whether this or that etching looks best next to one and not another. Are we making the right comparison or contrast between images? Is painting A hung too high, or is painting B hung too low? Have the wall graphics arrived in time for installation?
Sometimes it’s slow going and sometimes it is incredibly hectic as the final details get worked out and we get ready to open. In the end though, everything falls into place, the excitement builds, the show looks great, our visitors enjoy the amazing artwork—and I’m happy, proud, and relieved.
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Self-Portrait as a Young Man, 1629. Oil on panel, 15.6 x 12.7 cm. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen-Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 11427 [© bpk, Berlin / Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany / Art Resource, NY]
Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917), Self-Portrait, c. 1857–58. Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 26 x 19.1 cm. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA, 1955.544 [Image © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA]
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Self-Portrait as a Young Man, c. 1628–29. Oil on panel, 22.6 x 18.7 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt, with additional funding from the Prins Bernhard Fonds, the Stichting tot Bevordering van de Belangen van het Rijksmuseum, and the ministerie van CRM, SK-A-4691
Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669), Young Man in a Velvet Cap (Ferdinand Bol), 1637. Etching, second state, 9.5 x 7.7 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. 29.107.10 [© The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource, NY]