Rembrandt: A Master across Three Media

Article excerpt

REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606-69) possessed a gift for visual invention that marked him as one of the greatest storytellers among artists. A master across three media, he radically redefined the technique of etching by bringing to it the freedom of spontaneity of painting and drawing--a rarity of his time, he drew primarily to capture life and stimulate his imagination, not just to make sketches preparatory to painting. "Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher" explores the dynamic evolution of the artist's extensive and richly varied work in printmaking within the context of his paintings and drawings. Rembrandt repeatedly returned to biblical illustration, portraiture and self-portraiture, the nude, and landscape with fresh insights and interpretations.

The Rembrandt of the 1630s--with his emphasis on robust physical action, calligraphic line, and undulating Baroque rhythms--was a wholly different artist from the Rembrandt of the 1650s, with his more serene and meditative moods, controlled and economical use of line, and stable, almost architectural structures. Regardless, the artist remained a master narrator whose literary inventiveness equaled his visual talent.

"Rembrandt's Journey" involves "close looking" on the part of viewers, especially at the expressive details of the etchings. It includes approximately 20 paintings, 33 drawings, 153 prints, and seven original copper etching plates. These masterpieces explore the artist's emergence as a great storyteller and dramatist, focusing on his Shakespearean range of subject and mood, documenting how he conceived the same subject at different stages of his career.

For instance, Rembrandt had a deeper commitment to expressive printmaking than any other 17th-century painter. An extraordinarily rich impression on golden Japanese paper is the rare first state of "Christ Preaching (The Hundred-Guilder Print)" (c. 1648). One of Rembrandt's best-known images in any medium, this etching illustrates in visual terms various aspects of Christ's teaching as related in the 19th chapter of the gospel of Matthew. Its subtitle comes from the amazing amount the work sold for during the artist's lifetime.

Rembrandt's drawings, meanwhile, reveal his bold expression of touch and gesture, his acute perception of the visible world, and his insight into the richness of human experience. This can he seen in one of his most deeply expressive narrative efforts, "Christ Carrying the Cross" (1635); an early "Self-Portrait, Bust" (c. 1628-29); his amusing record of an old man's lively encounter with a rambunctious child, "Two Studies of a Child Pulling Off the Cap of an Old Man" (1639-40); and his portrait-like study of two weathered farmhouses, "Two Thatched Cottages with Figures at a Window" (c. late 1630s).

Rembrandt had an ability to reimagine biblical subjects in deeply human terms and give them a unique universality. Close study of the expressions, gestures, and body language of the figures provides detailed insight into the inventive, subtle, and complex way he brought new life to traditional inspirational themes and how he projected himself into them.

The cycle of Christ's passion--from the Last Supper with His apostles, through His arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial, and resurrection--is central to the Christian story. Rembrandt's commitment to freshly imagining these often-depicted events occurs in two drawings, "Calvary" (c. mid 1630s) and "Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross" (1634-35) and one oil sketch, a modified "Lamentation at the Fool of the Cross" (1634-35), evidencing Rembrandt's habit of tearing or cutting up the page in collage-fashion in order to make changes in his compositions.

In certain drawings of the 1630s, such as "Christ Carrying the Cross," the speed and curved rhythms of the urgent marks made with the quill pen and brush are precise equivalents for the intensity of movement and emotion expressed. …