In Tiny Solvang, California, Rembrandt Continues Teaching Valuable Lessons

What artwork will resonate with audiences in a post-COVID-19 world? The same artwork that did before.

While people had yet to experience the coronavirus, the issues and emotions it has stirred run constant through the human experience. Issues related to fear, choice, folly, community and humanity to name only a few.

The Elverhøj Museum of History and Art in Solvang, California debuted “Legacy of Decency: Rembrandt, Jews and Danes,” before COVID-19 swept across America. The exhibition’s lessons, however, as told through the Dutch master’s portrayal of the local Jewish community in Amsterdam where he lived and the Danish resistance in World War II, prove prescient now that it has.

“Our overarching theme for the show is what blends those very different threads together, we call it ‘Legacy of Decency,’” Elverhøj Executive Director and exhibit curator Esther Jacobsen Bates said. “The exhibition links the people, time and place and it’s done through artwork and action and that’s a legacy created by neighbors who cared for and about one another–that was Rembrandt with the Jewish community and then leaping ahead through the centuries, that was the Danes during the World War II rescue of the Jewish community during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.”

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn etchings on display at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, in Solvang, CA: 'Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre.' Etching on paper, 1634.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn etchings on display at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, in Solvang, CA: ‘Self-Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre.’ Etching on paper, 1634.COURTESY OF ELVERHOJ MUSEUM OF HISTORY & ART

Twenty-one Rembrandt (1606-1669) prints, drawn from the collection of Howard and Fran Berger, a gift to Westmont Ridley-Tree Museum of Art, are paired with displays about the Danish WWII rescue of their Jewish population.

Posters from the Danish Museum of Resistance in Copenhagen tell about intense weeks in 1943 when a “living wall of people” raised up and rescued over 95% of the Jewish population in Denmark from the Holocaust.

Rembrandts’ Netherlands was also protective of persecuted Jews. Thousands of Jewish migrants and refugees fled there after surviving the Inquisition and having been expelled from Spain and Portugal.

Today, anti-Semitism has conspicuously reared up as an appendage to select “reopen” protests around America. Unwittingly, “Legacy of Decency,” with its narrow message of brotherhood and humanity toward Jews, and broader message of brotherhood and humanity toward all, has taken on a “ripped from the headlines” feel.

Even before COVID-19 that was the case when a swastika was graffitied on a high school in Santa Ynez, four miles from the tiny town of Slovang, 35 miles northwest of Santa Barbara.

“It opened up a dialogue in the community that ended up being very inclusive–it was not at all political, that was not part of it–it became an all-inclusive community of people who cared for and about one another,” Bates recalls. “It is really quite amazing how that theme resonated before, but how it morphed into a whole different thing as we’ve been dealing with the coronavirus.”

“Legacy of Decency” opened on February 29 with an initial closing date of May 24. Though the museum is now closed indefinitely, officials there have been able to extend the exhibit through the end of 2020. Fortunately for the Elverhøj, the work on view had not been promised to another institution through 2020.

“It was a big deal to bring Rembrandt to our small community and they hadn’t even been on display two weeks when we shut down, so it was a little bit crushing,” Bates said.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn etchings on display at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, in Solvang, CA: 'Joseph Telling His Dreams.' Etching on laid paper, 1638.
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn etchings on display at the Elverhoj Museum of History & Art, in Solvang, CA: ‘Joseph Telling His Dreams.’ Etching on laid paper, 1638.COURTESY OF ELVERHOJ MUSEUM OF HISTORY & ART

Rembrandt is a big deal no matter how small or large the community. An innovative and prolific painter, printmaker and draughtsman, he is universally considered one of the greatest visual artists in history. German painter Max Liebermann famously said of him, “whenever I see a Frans Hals, I feel like painting, but when I see a Rembrandt I feel like giving up.”

An unsurpassed virtuoso of portraiture, Rembrandt lived among the Jewish community in Amsterdam.

“They were his neighbors and his friends,” Bates said. “By virtue of those relationships, he ended up bringing them in as models.”

And when he painted them, he did so with sensitivity.

“Jewish community members had often been shown in art as more of a caricature with physical attributes that weren’t necessarily becoming,” Bates said. “In Rembrandt’s work, they became more humanized, showing nuances of their features and not looking similar to one another.”

Rembrandt reflected his nation’s concept of caring, also found in the jantiloven–the unofficial Danish law for “no one is better than the other.” The jantiloven principle that everyone is accepted and equal plays a key part in Danish culture and mentality.

The Rembrandt etchings on view at the Elverhøj are small, matching the institution and town, population 5,300. When the museum reopens, consider that an opportunity.

“We are accustomed to seeing Rembrandt in large institutions where we can’t really get up close and personal with him,” Baties said. “When you look at the etchings and the intricacy of the work, it’s breathtaking when you think about the processes that were utilized at that time.”

Magnifying glasses had been provided visitors to examine the minute details of the works more closely and “have a personal experience with the pieces of art,” Bates added.

Solvang - during the coronavirus pandemic
SOLVANG, CA – APRIL 16, 2020 – – Pedestrians walk their dog past the iconic Hamlet Square in a deserted downtown Solvang, California on April 16, 2020. Solvang is a tiny town of 5,300 people nestled in the Santa Ynez Valley wine country, about aLOS ANGELES TIMES VIA GETTY IMAGES

The town of Solvang, founded by Danes, for Danes, in 1911, provides a fitting background for the exhibit. With the attraction of international travel diminished for the foreseeable future, a trip to Solvang may be as close to Denmark or Europe as many travelers are willing to take.

Following World War II, as the town’s Danish businessman returned from military service, they began exploring new ways to earn a living. They gradually invested more and more resources into tourism, even changing the look of the downtown area to reflect a Danish provincial style. The plan worked in attracting visitors searching for a glimpse Danish culture and today, tourism represents Solvang’s main economic driver.

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