[Image: Rembrandt, Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656), etching]
To mark the 350th anniversary of the death of Rembrandt (1606-1669), the Holburne Museum, Bath is hosting an exhibition of Rembrandt etchings (4 October 2019-5 January 2020). All 50 of the exhibited prints are from the Ashmolean Museum collection, Oxford. The turquoise walls and spotlighting create an air of drama within the single gallery housing this exhibition. The impressions are good and not disfigured by collector stamps. The range is also representative, though the more earthy subjects are largely omitted from the Ashmolean collection. Alongside his Biblical and mythological scenes, self-portraits, portraits and landscapes, it has oddities such as an impression of the 1650 etching of a sea shell, Rembrandt’s only still-life in print form.
Rembrandt was an unusually experimental printmaker. He stands alongside Callot, Seghers, Degas and Picasso in his drive to reshape the parameters of his field’s possibilities in order to accommodate his artistic ambitions. Rembrandt began his career as an artist at a time when certain eras were ending and others beginning. He used silverpoint just as it became an anachronistic material and fell into disuse. He became a printmaker as a time when engraving was being supplanted by etching for artists, while engraving continued to be favoured for copyist print cutters for reproduction prints. Rembrandt favouring etching, using its flexible and correctable form as a kind of drawing with the looseness of sketching but the potential to be built up in elaborations that generate chiaroscuro similar to wash-drawings. This search for darkness was aided by the use of drypoint, which could be periodically reworked as it got worn down through repeated passes through the press. He used etching as a form of drawing not due to ignorance of the medium’s capacities but with the intention of expanding what was done with the medium. In Rembrandt’s prints we find use of hatching, crosshatching, contour shading and silhouette and contre-jour effects. In pursuit of these effects, the artists pushed printmaking to its limits by combining etching, drypoint and engraving. In prints we find dense blackness that is effectively a mezzotint avant la lettre. In pursuit of the effect and the evocation of emotion, Rembrandt reaches for any tool, any method.
The grandeur of Rembrandt’s expanses of darkness – his shadowy rooms, billowing thunderclouds at dusk and stygian night – is matched by daintiness of needle lines and minute details. The latter remind us directly of why full-time print cutters had short careers, curtailed by damaged eyesight. The museum has provided several looking glasses to aid visitors in appreciating the fine work.
One innovation of Rembrandt was the use of multiple sketches on single plates. Among sketches of peasants is an unrelated view of Rembrandt’s wife ill in bed, perhaps with the tuberculosis that killed her a few later. It is possible to describe Rembrandt as a point of origin for autobiographical art, that is, when the private life of the artist intrudes into the public art (as opposed to the private sketching). It inaugurated the aesthetics of incompleteness – something that we can find Rops fetishising in his own printed sketches.
The portrait of Jan Cornelius Sylvius, preacher (1646) has the subject reaching through his framing oval towards the viewer. It is typical of the painting style of the time, with its play of verisimilitude and deception. So universal is Rembrandt’s art, it is possible to overlook how much of an artist of his time he was. The illusionism and trompe-l’oeil tricks were very current in Dutch Seventeenth Century painting. When we encounter them in Rembrandt’s art, we might wonder why such a master of narration and emotional nuance was engaging in trite or ignoble attention-grabbing eye-deceiving viewer-impressing strategies.
The realistic nudes and one erotic mythological scene are placed on a pink-beige wall. (A symbolic choice?) The realistic nudes break new ground by showing models with few or no attributes as characters. Thus we have the advent of the nude as nude in art for consumption by the public – albeit a rarefied, discreet public of print connoisseurs. No longer does the nude have to be a character from history or the Bible. Caravaggio had previously painted nudes that were realistic but grounded in canon and artists had drawn for reference unsparing nudes but these were not public. Rembrandt’s nudes have canon set aside and assume their places as subjects of human interest.
The frankness of the nudes is verisimilitude and humane – recognising the weaknesses and imperfections of the body. It is also related to carnality. The erotic scenes (Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, Monk in a Cornfield, Lit à la française and two plates of Jupiter and Antiope) are as honest about the artist and viewer’s sexual curiosity as it is about the physical impulses of characters in the pictures. The desire and abandon we see depicted is also a reflection of our own weaknesses. Rembrandt’s nudes and erotic scenes are carnal mirrors. The exhibition includes Jupiter and Antiope, larger plate (1659) is an etching with engraving for emphasis and drypoint for shading. Jupiter gazes as Antiope’s crotch with undisguised fascination.
There are a few of Rembrandt’s many self-portraits, an uncommon genre in printmaking at that period. Rembrandt plays the role of Rembrandt-as: Rembrandt-as-gentleman-of-yesteryear, Rembrandt-as-actor, Rembrandt-as-businessman, Rembrandt-as-brooding-prophet, Rembrandt-as-husband, Rembrandt-as-artist, Rembrandt-as-everyman. A wall of portraits shows the market impetus behind the making of prints. Some are of notable figures who would have bought copies and of whom people could have been expected to buy portraits. The print of Jan Lutma, goldsmith (1656) is typical of Rembrandt’s male portraits: detailed, atmospheric, grand yet also reflective. Some portraits, like The Great Jewish Bride (1635), seem to have been of emblematic archetypes which would have been of interest to scholars, collectors and educated men with historical, literary and ethnographical curiosity. This is true of the heads of Orientals (not in exhibition). Jan Uytenbogaert, the Goldweigher (1639) is more of a genre scene or interior than a portrait. The subject is wearing his finest clothing (or perhaps a selection of Rembrandt’s grandest costumes?), seated at his desk, the balance before him, gold in small cloth bags. His assistant is crouched at his feet, packing the bags into caskets.
The Flight into Egypt, altered from Seghers (c. 1653) adapts a plate already used by Hercules Seghers (c. 1653). The landscape has been retained but the figures by Seghers were burnished away and new figures added. (Rembrandt also did this with an oil painting by Seghers.) Another Flight into Egypt (1651) is as dark as a mezzotint with its drypoint tonal scratching. (The blur of drypoint ink is like the bled quality of wetted water-soluble ink. This is most apparent in the lightly worked topographic views around Amsterdam.) The iconic landscape Three Trees (1643) is the most powerful, tonally dramatic and pictorially deep composition. It embodies the greatness of Dutch landscape painting of the Seventeenth Century in a small etching of only black and white.
[Image: Rembrandt, Three Trees (1643), etching]
The first state of Christ presented to the people, oblong plate (1655) is the version with the figures in the foreground. Masterfully presented as the crowd is, Rembrandt realised that it detracted from the focus upon Christ, so he removed it in the second state. It is one of his few drypoint-only prints. St. Jerome reading an Italian landscape (c. 1654) shows Rembrandt’s familiarity with Italian art. It remains unfinished but we must come to understand this as a stylistic and conceptual step in the artist’s thinking. As the sketch montages were a demonstration of the fragmentary as an aesthetic proposition, so prints such as St Jerome are an assertion of the unfinished aesthetic. Whereas Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi was appreciated for its unfinished quality, it was understood at the time as an incomplete picture. In the Rembrandt etchings, the premature halting of a picture is the preservation of the open quality that an unfinished picture has.
The exhibition is a good survey of Rembrandt’s prints. It does not include alternate proofs or proofs of different states of plates, so one could call this a layman’s display rather than an art-historical display. There is no dedicated exhibition catalogue but a catalogue of Ashmolean’s Rembrandt’s prints is available at the venue.
Henri Matisse: Master of Line (4 October 2019-5 January 2020) is the accompanying exhibition of a collection of prints of the 1920s and 1930s, mainly from the collection of London dealer Paul Kasmin. Most of the etchings are of female figures and portraits. Matisse does not consistently hit the target with his etchings in the way he does with his paintings. Unable to significantly revise the etchings the way he habitually did with the paintings, the etchings have the precariousness of ink drawings – linear, spare, fast and uncorrectable. There are some fine prints here and it is well worth spending time with this complementary exhibition.
© 2019 Alexander Adams
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