PRINT September 2003


“Rembrandt’s Journey”

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 in 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. Etching was not a medium that Rembrandt shared with others. His assistants painted in his manner, but by and large they did not etch. With the exception of some large works made when he was young, he kept the medium to himself. What is more, as Rembrandt worked at it, a medium intended for replication became instead one devoted to unique, nonrepeatable images. Rembrandt took endless pleasure in experimenting with different marking, inking, and paper. His was a restless pursuit. He reworked his plates (“sculpting” was the term), occasionally even trimming off some metal. The practice was a serial one.

This had implications for the market. While Rembrandt was alive, collectors already sought to possess every version or state of a particular etching. But the implications were also aesthetic, and one of the pleasures of the exhibition will be the opportunity to observe the process of making itself. Rembrandt’s skill in etching, the extraordinary detail and the subtlety of worked lines darkly set against the white or off-white of paper, is hardly to be believed.

Rembrandt presided over a theatrical studio. A contemporary tells us that one way he got his assistants to consider the expressive gestures of figures was to have them draw scenes that they enacted for each other. The account fits the vivid realization of narrative groups in drawings that also find their way into the etchings. Of course, such play could, in time, take place in the artist’s mind, but gesture and body language appear rooted in the observation of life rather than derived from art.

Many doubts have been raised about Rembrandt of late: Did he really paint this? Did he paint his wife, Saskia, here, or his mistress, Hendrickje, there? Do his self-portraits register an interest in himself or simply the wish to show his skill as a painter? Boston will, instead, get down to certainties. Here is Rembrandt: Enjoy a long, slow, close look.

“Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Oct. 26–Jan. 18, 2004; travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, Feb. 14–May 9, 2004.

Svetlana Alpers, Professor Emerita of the History of Art, University of California, Berkeley, is the author of The Art of Describing and Rembrandt’s Enterprise, among other books. Her Vexations of Art is forthcoming.