An Almost Mystical Feeling

Master painter Rembrandt was also a talented draftsman and printmaker

The three trees
Wikimedia Commons

Although best known as a painter, Rembrandt was equally gifted as a draftsman and printmaker. Because works on paper exist in far greater numbers than his paintings, a dozen museums around the world were able to build exhibitions this year from their holdings of graphic art. But none has proved more exciting or informative than "Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt's Prints and Drawings," organized by Andrew Robison, senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Robison set out to make the exhibition a lesson in connoisseurship as well as a visual delight, arranging the display of 182 works in sections that explore Rembrandt's diverse subject matter and innovative techniques.

In studies from life, like the red chalk Seated Old Man, Rembrandt observed the world around him, while in compositional sketches such as Joseph Recounting His Dreams (a scene from Genesis), he planned ideas for more finished works. Landscape drawings, such as View over the Amstel from the Rampart, record the watery terrain near his home with such accuracy that many features can still be identified.

The art of printmaking in Europe was about two centuries old when Rembrandt began his career as an etcher, and he managed to push the medium in a multitude of new ways. Long before photography, prints served an important documentary function, and most were crafted for legible content as much as aesthetic appeal. Rembrandt, however, belonged to a select group of painters who drew on the etching plate with all the expressive freedom of a sketch on paper. Etching, in which lines are drawn into a coating, or "ground," on a copperplate, then bitten into the metal by a solution of acid, is easier to master than engraving, in which lines must be carved directly into the metal. Etching thus allows a more spontaneous effect, which Rembrandt exploited thoroughly.

"What is distinctive about Rembrandt as a printmaker," says Robison, "is that he used all the available resources." He printed on papers of varying tints and textures. He combined etching with other techniques, such as engraving and drypoint. He worked and reworked his designs, adding or subtracting details and putting the plate through several printings (called states) before he was satisfied with the result. Individual impressions can even differ markedly depending on the way in which the ink is applied. These qualities make the appreciation of Rembrandt's prints a rich and complex experience, and "Strokes of Genius" lays out a series of challenges for visitors by exhibiting multiple states and differently printed impressions of the same image that vary in quality from good to excellent. The goal is to entice viewers to ask questions and look closely, preferably with a magnifying glass.

The gold standard for print collectors is Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves (The Three Crosses), opposite, which was produced in the 1650s, when Rembrandt had reached the peak of his printmaking skills. The National Gallery is showing four excellent impressions of different states. In this rare instance, Rembrandt worked primarily in drypoint, scratching his design directly into the bare metal plate. Despite the difficulty of this technique, he burnished out parts of the composition and made radical changes. In the crowd of figures surrounding Golgotha, for instance, individual characters are reimagined. Straight, sharp strokes are added to suggest rain or darkness descending over the scene. As tense as wire, these scored lines convey not only a gloomy atmosphere but also the anxiety and grief of the event.

For Robison, a scholar of theology as well as art, this is Rembrandt's most important print: a profound meditation on the central mystery of the Christian faith. It demonstrates, Robison says, that Rembrandt "strove to interpret, not just describe [his biblical subject matter], with an almost mystical feeling for the power of light." But it is also a testament to Rembrandt's inimitable artistry.

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