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Rembrandt’s Prints

Take a close look at the 17th-century master's innovative etchings
July 27, 2016
Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves

Jane Glaubinger Curator of Prints


Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves 1653–55. Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). Drypoint and engraving; 38.5 x 45 cm. Acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1905


A gifted painter and superb draftsman, Rembrandt van Rijn was also an extremely experimental and original printmaker. The Morgan Library and Museum in New York holds this country’s largest and finest collection of Rembrandt prints. The nearly 500 impressions survey the artist’s career as a printmaker from about 1626 to 1661, during which time he executed some 300 plates. The Cleveland Museum of Art will exhibit 60 of these works demonstrating Rembrandt’s expertise as an etcher.

Unlike his predecessors, who sought to achieve a standardized representation of the printed image with little variation from impression to impression, Rembrandt experimented. By varying the support and how the plate was inked, he created an array of effects so that impressions from the same plate differ significantly. Rembrandt improvised as he worked on the plate, sometimes even changing the concept of the image. He added and subtracted lines, leaving traces of the previous work on the plate, printing proofs at various stages of the work’s completion. Attracted by subtle coloration, he used many different types of paper and also printed on vellum, a nonabsorbent support. Rembrandt created tone not only by controlling the amount of ink left on the plate’s surface before printing, but also by using drypoint to produce broad velvety lines. He successfully integrated drypoint with etched and engraved work in one composition.

Rembrandt redefined the expressive potential of printmaking. Using drypoint, with its blurred lines and rich shadows, he achieved the density of color and breadth of line produced in his drawings by black chalk or black ink applied with brush or broad-nib pen. Although drypoint is an inherently linear medium, Rembrandt also used it to obtain tonal qualities associated with painting. In the fourth state of Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves, the first print executed in pure drypoint on this scale, slashing strokes obscure the spectators and create a tenebrous setting to focus attention on Christ bathed in celestial light. A literal illustration of Luke’s description of this cataclysmic event, “and there was a darkness over all the earth,” darkness becomes an active force that threatens to extinguish the light of Christ.


Thomas Haaringh

Thomas Haaringh about 1655. Rembrandt van Rijn. Drypoint and engraving on Japanese paper; 19.5 x 15 cm. Acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1905


At about the same time, Rembrandt produced an expressive portrait of Thomas Haaringh, concierge of Amsterdam’s town hall and auctioneer for sales under duress of the property of insolvent citizens. A wealthy collector of antiquities and rarities, Haaringh presided over the enforced sale of Rembrandt’s possessions in the years 1656–58, and perhaps Rembrandt made his portrait as a favor in conjunction with the artist’s insolvency. Rembrandt’s portraits not only describe a physical likeness but also penetrate the sitter’s psychological state and personality. Haaringh, seated in an armchair with lion-headed finials, is an intelligent and powerful man. His head is framed and set off by the deep window embrasure and the shadowy forms visible through the barred glass. Delicate strokes of drypoint and engraving define the white clouds of the elderly man’s hair and the sensitive features of his face. In this fine early impression, touches of rich drypoint create velvety masses of tone to give the heavy draperies flanking the window and Haaringh’s fine garments their luxurious depth of texture. Rembrandt carefully inked and wiped the plate so that Haaringh’s collar and head are bathed in the soft light that enters through the window. The support, a beige Japanese paper, adds a warm glow to the sitter’s face and hands.


St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape

St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape about 1653. Rembrandt van Rijn. Etching, drypoint, and engraving on Japanese paper; 26 x 20.4 cm. Acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan, 1905


Another unusually beautiful impression is a first state of St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape, printed on a warm Japanese paper that enhances the effect of sunlight flooding the scene. St. Jerome spent a four-year period of penitence and prayer living as a hermit in isolation in the Syrian desert. Rembrandt was fascinated by St. Jerome, a favorite subject he etched seven times. In this final version, he depicts the saint as a contented old man, sunhat on his head and slipper off, totally absorbed in his reading, his watchful lion guarding his privacy. An avid landscape etcher, Rembrandt sets the scene in the wooded, hilly countryside rather than the desert, the traditional setting for St. Jerome. The churchlike structure and farm buildings in the distance resemble those in landscapes of the Venetian painter Titian and his circle from the first half of the 16th century. In the 1650s Rembrandt evidently studied the Italian master since he owned an album of prints reproducing most of Titian’s work.

In St. Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape Rembrandt exploits all the possibilities of the printmaking techniques he employs. For example, the sketchy figure of St. Jerome is drawn freely with an etching needle while other areas, like the background buildings, are more detailed and finished. Velvety areas of drypoint, which is particularly rich in this impression, describe the soft, downy lion’s mane and deep black shadows, creating a three-dimensional space.

As a printmaker, Rembrandt covered a wide range of subjects, including Old and New Testament narratives, landscapes, portraits and self-portraits, nudes, and scenes from daily life. The exhibition includes examples of all these genres as it examines his long and prolific career making etchings. Rembrandt’s prints are some of the best ever made—evidence of a genius who exploited technical means for expressive purposes. 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2012