Magazine article Artforum International

Indelibly Etched: Svetlana Alpers on "Rembrandt's Journey"

Magazine article Artforum International

Indelibly Etched: Svetlana Alpers on "Rembrandt's Journey"

Article excerpt

THIS OCTOBER, THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, Boston, will present an exhibition of some one hundred fifty of the finest examples of Rembrandt's etchings together with about twenty paintings and thirty drawings which are similar to etchings ill craftsmanship and scale. The idea for "Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher" originated with Clifford S. Ackley, chair of the MFA's Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs and a leading connoisseur of Rembrandt etchings. The list of loans promised by public and private collections from around the world is astonishing. All manner of subjects are included--biblical stories, landscape, the nude, self-portraits. There will be etchings in multiple impressions and states, and six of the surviving copper plates. Most of the paintings are small panels never seen together before. They include the mysterious Rest on the Flight into Egypt, 1647, from Dublin, and an even smaller Winter Landscape, 1646, from Kassel; and the J. Paul Getty Museum is lending the diminutive Daniel and Cyrus Before the Idol Bel, 1633, an unusual biblical narrative bought not long ago from a private collection in England. In addition, we will see six of the oil sketches--or drawings in oil--Rembrandt used uniquely in the process of creating etchings.

The result is a large show of (mostly) small works. Some of the etchings achieve the size of paintings, while some of the paintings are smaller than the largest etchings. They will encourage close looking. Images such as these which must be dwelled on over time interrupt our normal pace. They literally give us reason to pause.

Like Degas, Rembrandt has been displayed often and under different rubrics in recent years. A series of major exhibits have focused on his paintings. They began early in the 1990s by addressing the loaded question, Rembrandt: true or false? The Rembrandt Research Project team, at work in the Netherlands since 1968, set out to distinguish his "real" paintings from similar works produced by others in and out of the artist's studio. "The Master and His Workshop" (London/Amsterdam/London, 1991) was followed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art's "Rembrandt/Not Rembrandt" (New York, 1995-96), dealing with the paintings in its own collection. The self-portraits were brought together in "Rembrandt by Himself" (The Hague/London, 1999), and "Rembrandt's Women" (Edinburgh/ London, 2001) was the slightly coarse title given a fine selection of his depictions of women in paintings, drawings, and etchings. In addition, there was a small show of his youthful works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston, 2000).

Today we think of Rembrandt first as a painter. The telling human confrontation with Amsterdam burghers and their wives, with biblical figures and Aristotle, and with the artist's images of himself is the Rembrandt of the art museum. But during his lifetime, it was etchings that made for Rembrandt's fame in Europe. And these, we should remember, were mostly not hanging on walls but mounted in albums. Rather like some photographs in the early days, the etchings were looked at close up and, most likely, resting on a table.

This exhibition will turn our attention away from the master of a painting workshop to the master of his own hand. …

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