"It may come as a surprise to most people that Southern California -- Los Angeles in particular -- has the largest collection of Rembrandt paintings in the United States with the exception of New York and Washington," says Scott Schaefer, senior curator of paintings at the J. Paul Getty Museum.
That's the message in his recorded welcome to "Rembrandt in Southern California," a virtual exhibition on the Getty's website (www.rembrandtinsocal.org) that makes a strong point: Although the East Coast cities got a 100-year head start in collecting the 17th century Dutch master's work, SoCal has made up for lost time.
J. Paul Getty started it all in 1938 with his purchase of "Portrait of Marten Looten." He gave the painting to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before establishing his showcase. But the museum that bears his name has acquired Rembrandt portraits such as "An Old Man in Military Costume"; a portrayal of a biblical theme, "Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel"; and a history painting, "The Abduction of Europa."
Schaefer has been talking about the little-known wealth of locally owned Old Masters for years. No single Southern California museum's collection of Old Masters can measure up to those at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or Washington's National Gallery of Art. But the collective richness of what the curator has dubbed "the greater museum of Southern California" gives the region plenty of bragging rights, he says.
In the virtual exhibition, Schaefer's colleagues -- at the Getty, the Hammer Museum and LACMA, all in Los Angeles; the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena; and the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego -- offer an audio tour of 14 Rembrandts in Southern California museums. Curator Gloria Williams Sander likens the Simon's Rembrandt "Self-Portrait" to a contemporary calling card, with the 32-year-old artist sporting a traditional beret and a gold chain probably received as an award.
Deputy Director of Collections Cynthia Burlingham explains that the Hammer's "Juno" depicts the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods. In Rembrandt's time, Juno was also known as the goddess of wealth, Burlingham says, so it's probably no coincidence that the painting was commissioned by a prosperous merchant in Amsterdam -- or that it landed in the collection of Armand Hammer, the oilman who founded the museum now operated by UCLA.
Along with the virtual art show, the website also offers a crash course in "Rembrandt at Work," including information about the artist's portraits, materials and painting style. And for those who prefer to read the old-fashioned way, there's a printable exhibition guide.