Strokes of Genius Rembrandt Exhibit Traces the Celebrated Storyteller's Contributions to Printmaking, Painting and Art History

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Byline: Lisa Friedman Miner Daily Herald Staff Writer

The current best seller's list touts two works of fiction -"The Da Vinci Code" and "The Lady and the Unicorn" - that deal, at least in part, with artists and their creations.

Artistic greats also have generated much movie fodder in recent years - from "Pollock" to "Frida" to the recent "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

But when you stand before the works of Rembrandt at the Art Institute of Chicago, when you survey his tiniest prints and his epic oils, the reason why artists and their masterpieces fascinate us comes pounding home.

"Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher" opens Saturday and runs through May 9 at the Art Institute. It features more than 200 works by the Dutch master, showing the amazing breadth of his interests and illustrating once again why his works can still pack a gallery more than three centuries after his death.

"He really stretched the envelope," says curator Suzanne Folds McCullagh. "That's what this show is all about."

A view of humanity

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) had a long and productive career.

The exhibit features about 20 paintings, 33 drawings, 153 prints and seven original copper etching plates - all arranged in telling groupings that show the growth of his style and the range of his talents. Forty-one of the pieces belong to the Art Institute; the others are on loan from public and private collections from around the globe.

The works on display show a remarkable scope of subject matter.

Rembrandt drew, painted and etched portraits, self-portraits, nudes, landscapes, scenes of everyday life and spiritual narratives from both the Old and New Testaments.

Compassion and spirituality mark many of his works, which - among other things - portray the lives of beggars, mood-soaked depictions of saints and scholars and dramatic scenes from the Passion.

Rembrandt presented, in intricate detail, Abraham's pained attempt to sacrifice Isaac and Joseph surrounded by his brothers. His works also follow the life of Christ from his birth to preaching, from the crucifixion to entombment.

"Anyone who looks at Rembrandt's work can't help but think he was one of the great humanitarians of all time," McCullagh says.

Some of the works are quite small, yet they manage to depict scenes packed with intensity.

"All of humanity is crammed into a Visa card-size piece," McCullagh says.

Rembrandt, says art historian Claudia Swan, never sold out to the trends of his times and never settled on a "formula." Thus, even now, he seems the embodiment of the renegade artist, the kind of man who lived for his work, she says.

"Rembrandt has set the standard in so many different ways," says Swan, an associate professor of art history at Northwestern University.

His life and times

Just as Jan Vermeer's painting inspired "Girl with a Pearl Earring," a novel made into a movie, Rembrandt has been the subject of numerous biographies, novels and films.

Much is known about his life, and his name evokes images of artistic genius even among those with little knowledge of Rembrandt's actual works.

He was born in 1606 to a middle-class Dutch family and trained as a painter. He married, and his wife Saskia gave birth to four children, though only one survived infancy.

After his wife's death, his son's nurse became Rembrandt's mistress. Later, she was replaced by a servant named Hendrickje Stoffels, who bore him a daughter, served as a model and inspired the novel "Rembrandt's Whore."

Historians believe Rembrandt lived beyond his means. He wound up in bankruptcy, and his possessions - his home, art, even his wife's grave - had to be sold.

In his long career, Rembrandt did about 60 self-portraits, capturing numerous facial expressions and sketching himself in beggar's garb and other costumes. …