I wanted to make sure we had our share of the European heavyweights in the exhibition, and at the top of my list was Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the greatest masters of all time.
—Stephen Borys, curator of "100 Masters: Only in Canada"
100 Masters: Only in Canada is really about the Canadian museum world rallying together to throw a huge birthday party for the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
30 art institutions from across the country have lent some of their finest artwork to the WAG in honour of its Centennial. Traveling to 30 art museums in 20 cities over the last year and a half, I was able to see a lot - a lot of the country, the people, the museums, and, most of all, the art, which was the whole point of the 100 Masters journey.
I was looking for some outstanding art to bring to Winnipeg to mark the WAG's anniversary as Canada's oldest civic art gallery. In the end, I selected 100 amazing American, European, and Canadian masterworks spanning five centuries- and convinced our colleagues to lend them to the Gallery for our centennial blockbuster.
Selecting the art for the exhibition wasn't easy, especially when my colleagues across the country were ready to send their very best, and I had to keep it to 100 works. Firstly, I wanted to make sure we had our share of the European heavyweights in the exhibition, and at the top of my list was Rembrandt van Rijn, one of the greatest masters of all time.
Rembrandt's A Woman at her Toilet (Heroine from the Old Testament) is one of the works included in the 100 Masters exhibit.
I had my heart set on the artist's painting in the National Gallery of Canada (NGC), entitled A Woman at her Toilet (Heroine from the Old Testament)
and painted around 1632. This is one of the 12 Old Master paintings that the NGC acquired from the Princes of Liechtenstein in the 1950s, and it remains the most important work by Rembrandt in Canada.
It was on my wish list so I was thrilled when Marc Mayer, the director of the NGC, approved the loan, along with five other stunning paintings from the national collection. Of course the Rembrandt also set the bar very high for the rest of the loans for the 100 Masters
In the NGC work, Rembrandt has depicted an elegantly attired woman, found in the privacy of her dressing room as she prepares for a special event with the help of her maid. Looking at this portrait, we are immediately aware of the artist's remarkable skill at capturing the personality of his sitters. Her look is both demure and penetrating; and her poise is relaxed but commanding. We may have interrupted her toilette, but she is hardly perturbed. Barely visible is the attendant standing behind her, seen combing the woman's hair.
Rembrandt's mastery of light and shadow, and the subtle way it plays with the surfaces of flesh and various textures is felt throughout the interior scene. Scholars are still not sure who this woman is. Rembrandt often painted portraits of his contemporaries, including friends and colleagues, and this work was originally called The Jewish Bride
. She was also thought to be a heroine from the Old Testament of the Bible, possibly Esther or Bathsheba. Others have suggested she may be a member of the artist's family, perhaps his sister or wife, Saskia. One thing for sure - aside from the figuring out who the sitter is, we know we are seeing Rembrandt at one of his finest moments.
The painting by Rembrandt sums up what 100 Masters
is all about - an artwork of the highest quality executed by a celebrated artist, and representing one of the finest art museums in the country. Standing in front of this masterwork at the WAG, I still get goosebumps - and have to pinch myself: it's here in Winnipeg, and we all get to enjoy it for over three months!100 Masters: Only in Canada runs at the Winnipeg Art Gallery May 11-August 18, 2013.