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Is Rembrandt a SoCal kind of guy?

February 17, 2010 |  7:14 am

The answer seems to be yes, as a successful exhibition, "Rembrandt and His Pupils," wraps up this month at the J. Paul Getty Museum while the blog LA County Museum on Fire reports the discovery of Rembrandt’s role in another painting also at that museum.

And then there’s the book "Rembrandt in Southern California," whose title at first seems absurdly incongruous. (Imagine a book called "Caravaggio in Vegas.") Yet Southern California is indeed a kind of home to Rembrandt: Fourteen of his paintings reside here -- including significant works from his early career in Amsterdam -- and are split among five museums: the Getty, the Hammer, the L.A. County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon Museum and the Timkin Museum of Art.

Author Anne Woollett, associate curator in the paintings department of the Getty, relates a few of the dramatic stories behind these acquisitions, beautifully reproduced in this five-by-six-inch book. Its miniature size is key: The book can serve as a pocket-sized guide for readers wishing to go on a Rembrandt tour of all five museums. (A virtual exhibition is also available.) Woollett hopes viewers will use the book and website as resources "to look at the paintings closely and perhaps think inquisitively and comparatively."

Most of the works, which show off the 17th century artist’s extraordinary range, were acquired by private collectors in the 1960s and '70s -- notably the industrialists Jean Paul Getty and Norton Simon, and the physician Armand Hammer.

"In a way, the region was a relative late-comer to the pursuit of Rembrandt paintings," Woollett explained in a recent phone interview. "Some of the earliest works acquired by local collectors as Rembrandts are no longer accepted as such; Mr. Getty’s purchase of the 'Portrait of Marten Looten’ in 1938 was the first autograph painting. Thereafter, there were relatively few great paintings on the market and more competition for them."

Each painting in Woollett's book is accompanied by an intriguing mini-narrative. Woollett, who has worked at the Getty for 11 years and, before that, was at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, also offers fascinating descriptions of Rembrandt’s materials, techniques and singular vision -- which even in his final years, she writes, continued "pushing the expressive possibilities of paint to its most evocative ends."

--Carmela Ciuraru

Ciuraru is a critic and the editor of poetry anthologies, including, most recently, "Poems About Horses."

Photo: Employess display the Rembrandt painting "Portrait of a man, half-length, with his arms akimbo" at a December 2009 auction at Christies. Credit: Shaun Curry / AFP / Getty Images