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Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece at the Morgan: Interview with Ilona van Tuinen

As assistant curator of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC, Ilona has one of the world’s most extensive collections of these delicate artworks at her fingertips.

Fri, Jun 17 - Fri, Jun 17  2016

The Morgan Library & Museum - New York Consulate Region

It is a rare thing to meet someone who is as genuinely excited about her job as Ilona van Tuinen. And we have to admit: it seems like quite a treat. As Assistant Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, Ilona has one of the world’s most extensive collections of these delicate artworks at her fingertips.

After leaving her job at the Leiden Collection in the pursuit of new, Parisian dreams, Ilona never imagined she would become a New Yorker again. “I left two years ago, thinking this was it for New York and me. It is interesting to see how New York has a certain pull on me, or at least maintains a very prominent presence in my life.”

Through September 18, the Morgan is making history with its “Rembrandt’s First Masterpiece” exhibition, curated by Ilona’s predecessor Per Rumberg, and organized by John Marciari, Department Head of Drawings and Prints at the Morgan, together with Ilona. It is not only the first time that the “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” from a private collection in Britain is on view in the United States, but it is also the very first reunion between the painting and its preparatory drawings in roughly 400 years time.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629. Oil on panel. Private collection. © Private Collection, Photography courtesy of The National Gallery, London, 2016

In an account that sounds almost too romantic to be true, we learn that this Rembrandt was one of the main reasons Ilona decided to study art history. “When I heard upon my arrival at the Morgan in late 2015 that this was the first project I would be working on, I was very excited. I experienced a feeling of continuity, like suddenly everything fell into place.”

In 2002, Ilona visited the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam with her mother. At the time, the “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” was on loan there for an important exhibition on the young Rembrandt. Ilona ended up spending at least half an hour in front of the Judas painting. “Every time my mother came looking for me, I was still standing there, staring at the painting, and I couldn’t tear myself away. I was observing every detail, all the different textures that Rembrandt rendered so masterfully:  from the glistening metal shield hanging against the lush, green velvet curtain, to the sober wooden floorboards and bare walls. But most of all, I was trying to understand how Rembrandt managed to capture such an unsettling mood. It is almost too painful to look at. The seated priest does not even give the remorseful Judas the courtesy of a glance, and almost physically pushes him away with his hand. It is such a strong rejection – it really did something to me.”

In many ways, as Ilona tells us, this painting truly is Rembrandt’s first masterpiece; especially when it comes to the emotional layers within the work. “It marks the beginning of the Rembrandt most people know and love.” It is hard to imagine the Dutch master as a ruddy-faced 23-year-old – let alone as someone who is still discovering his craft. Ilona refers to Rembrandt’s earliest paintings, a series of five senses (one of which was discovered in New Jersey only last year, and one of which is still missing).  “Rembrandt  made the series four years earlier. While he is already interested in human interactions, postures and emotions, he still has a lot to learn. You see a Rembrandt who uses a lot of bright, contrasting colors, and a more even lighting. In the Judas painting, you see how he makes specific choices about what to illuminate, almost as if he were working with a spotlight. We call this chiaroscuro.”
Unfortunately, the drawings need to be protected from the light, and cannot be out and about on a permanent basis. So, most of the time, they are hidden away in boxes. “It is one of my very favorite things to do: going into the safe during a spare hour, opening one of the boxes, and looking at the drawings inside. I just love being in direct contact with the artwork itself. Although we have very good information and images on our website, nothing beats the real thing.  When you are in contact with the work itself, you discover new things every time: corrections, lines that indicate the drawing was copied onto another sheet… I am still in that phase of exploring the collection, which is a lot of fun.”

A very special element within the exhibition is the immense manuscript of Constantijn Huygens. He was a Dutch diplomat, poet, musician and art connoisseur extraordinaire, who wrote about “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver” when it was still on Rembrandt’s easel. “When it arrived, I thought: Huygens actually held these pages in his hands, he touched the paper with his quill… It was an exciting moment for all of us.” The Huygens manuscript is on loan from the Royal Library of the Netherlands in The Hague, and hardly ever on view.

Huygens visited the young Rembrandt and Jan Lievens in their studio – or studios, as their working situation continues to be one of the big mysteries in art history. “He clearly admired the exceptional rendering of emotions – the expression within Rembrandt’s work. Huygens’ account is a rare treasure, as it hardly ever happens that a 17th-century work is discussed by a contemporary source. The fact that the painting and the source are now in the same room, really gives me the chills. The paint was barely dry when Huygens visited Rembrandt. Huygens was practically present at the creation of this masterpiece – and he recorded it on this page.”

John Pierpont Morgan himself was primarily interested in manuscripts, creating a library of extraordinary books. Later on, he added drawings and prints to the collection. “The Morgan’s strength lies in its small exhibitions that combine a variety of objects – drawings, paintings, manuscripts, prints – to tell a story. We want visitors to dive into a whole new world, to have access to all different kinds of knowledge in order to piece together a larger story, and leave with a greater understanding of a certain period in time.”

As a collector, Morgan was fascinated by small works; a true cherry-picker. “Today’s collection reflects that spirit by all its small treasures; its high-quality gems. He collected larger works as well, paintings, but sold almost all of them or gave them away. That is what the Morgan is about: intimate, beautiful, really unique works of art.”

As a curator, Ilona feels the responsibility to not just preserve and research historical artifacts, but also to pass on this enthusiasm to generations to come. For example, Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings are almost impossible to reproduce. “It is only when you are face to face with the work itself that you realize: this is what it is all about. When working on the catalogue, we talked a lot about how best to reproduce this painting to get as close to the original colors and contrasts as possible. The image in the catalogue is close, but when the painting arrived, we were reminded that this is the reason we create exhibitions. That is why I am so happy that Americans get to share in that experience for the first time; nothing compares to the original.”

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Three Studies for a Descent from the Cross, ca. 1654. Pen and brown ink. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum. Photography by Steven H. Crossot.
We ask Ilona about her favorite work besides the centerpiece: a tough choice. With the natural reluctance of a Rembrandt enthusiast – “if my life depends on it” – Ilona picks “Three Studies for a Descent from the Cross” from the Morgan’s collection. Here, the old master is trying out different solutions for depicting the lifeless Christ being taken down from the cross by a young man, possibly St John. “It allows such a unique look into the working mind of Rembrandt, and it shows yet again that he was determined to give meaning to his work. In each sketch, the faces of the two men – one dead and one alive – are placed closer together until their foreheads are eventually touching. Rembrandt was trying to get to the emotional core of the event – I find that very moving.”

Ilona has many ideas for upcoming exhibitions, often contracting inspiration from her trips to the safe. “Then I think: what is this, and what is it doing here? And then I start looking for related articles and discussions, which will often lead to new ideas for exhibitions or publications. It just never stops, because old masters have left us with so many unanswered questions. There is always a different angle, a fresh insight, or a new discovery; it will go on, and it is so rewarding.”

Among many other projects, Ilona is currently working on another dream project: an exhibition of Flemish Old Master drawings that will open in 2018. Today, she will host a gallery talk at 6:30 PM, which will be held in the exhibition space itself.

DutchCulture USA