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RembRandt and the human Condition

PResented by masteRwoRks Fine aRt

RembRandt Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s life was riddled with extreme highs and lows, yet he remains one of the most accomplished artists of all time. A multifaceted artist, Rembrandt was just as skilled at the art of etching as he was at painting and drawing. Renowned for his empathy for the human condition, Rembrandt captured a certain truth about the human experience. Rembrandt and the Human Condition features twelve original etchings that skillfully convey human emotion as viewed through the eyes of Rembrandt.

a GlimPse into RembRandt’s liFe 1606: Rembrandt is born in Leiden in the Netherlands. The son of a miller, Rembrandt’s family is of modest social standing but takes great care in Rembrandt’s education.

1620: Rembrandt begins his career in art studying under Jacob Isaacsz van Swanenburg in Leiden and Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam.

1626: Rembrandt shares a studio in Leiden with fellow artist Jan Lievens. It is here that Rembrandt fine tunes his etching skills. 1627: Rembrandt's talent captures the attention of Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, who assists Rembrandt in jump starting his career as a professional artist.

a GlimPse into RembRandt’s liFe 1628: Rembrandt takes on his first pupil Gerrit Dou. 1630: Rembrandt moves to Amsterdam and marries Saskia Uylenburgh, the daughter of a prominent art dealer

1634-1641: Rembrandt and Saskia have 3 children, all of whom die in infancy. In 1641, Rembrandt and Saskia's son Titus is born. He is their only child who survives to adulthood.

1642-1646: Saskia dies of tuberculosis in 1642. Following her death, Rembrandt focuses on expanding his school. 1646-1654: Rembrandt begins a relationship with his housekeeper Hendrickje Stoffels and, in 1654, she gives birth to a daughter, Cornelia.

a GlimPse into RembRandt’s liFe 1656: Rembrandt goes into debt, largely due to poor bookeeping and his knack for collecting old prints, drawing, albums, curios, and other objects. He voluntarily surrenders his effects to creditors but continues working as a productive artist.

1663: Hendrickje dies of the plague 1668: Titus dies of the plague. He leaves behind Rembrandt's only grandchild Titia.

1669: Rembrandt dies and is buried in an anonymous grave in the Westerkerk.

RembRandt as etCheR As the forefather of the Dutch printmaking Renaissance, Rembrandt's innovative use of printmaking materials and techniques greatly contributed to his ability to accurately and heart wrenchingly  convey human emotion. ETCHING: Intaglio process in which the design is worked into an acid-resistant substance (the ground) coating the metal printing plate; the plate is then exposed to acid, which etches the plate where the metal is exposed to create lines and dark areas

PRintmakinG mateRials

While most etchers at the time used either white or black ground, Rembrandt generally laid both black and white ground on top of thin copper plates to create his etchings. He favored the use of mordant acids, which bite slowly and more precisely than nitric acid.  In regards to paper, he originally used ordinary, white paper but gradually explored his use of papers, often utilizing oatmeal and oriental papers such as japan.  In addition, Rembrandt often took counter proofs (impressions printed from other impressions rather than plates) and used these to rework ideas and brainstorm improvements before applying them directly to the plate.

PRintmakinG teChniques

Rembrandt often used the etching plate as a sketch pad, which may explain why many of his original etchings have an effortless, sketch-like quality to them. In addition, he utilized dramatic lighting and was a master of chiaroscuro.  This effect was put to great use to express climactic moments and to highlight the emotions of his subjects.  His works offer psychological interpretations that evoke personal involvement or investment with the subjects.  They also tend to focus on the human soul, displaying personality through the power of expression, particularly facial expression.

what is a state?

The proofs taken while Rembrandt worked on the plate to check different stages of his progress are known as states; each proof that shows additional working constitutes a different state. An etching plate will last around 100-150 impressions before it needs to be reworked or re-etched (leading to secondary or tertiary states or more). In the case of Rembrandt, many of his plates were re-etched by different printmakers over time. As a plate is reworked, less and less of Rembrandt’s own hand is present. For this reason, earlier states of Rembrandt’s etchings are often more desirable and valuable than later states.  

what is a liFetime imPRession?

Lifetime impressions are prints that were produced during Rembrandt’s lifetime and only display work by Rembrandt’s own hand. This is in contrast to prints produced after the artist died. Printmakers of note who reworked Rembrandt’s plates after his death include the following: • C.H. Watelet c. 1785 • P.F. Basan c. 1790 • Auguste Jean c. 1810 • Michel Bernard c. 1906 • Alvin Beaumont c. 1906

what is buRR?

An etching is made by scratching a sharp object into a copper surface, or plate. When the line is scratched in, it produces raised elements of copper “shavings� that are displaced by the scraping of the line into the plate. This is known as burr. If burr is present, it means the print was made from an early impression of that state of the plate.


A watermark is an image, design, or pattern in paper that appears as varied shades of lightness or darkness when viewed against light. Watermarks can be useful in identifying a paper’s country of origin, date of manufacture, and import history.  Particularly with Rembrandt’s etchings, watermarks can narrow the time frame for an impression and assist in authenticating the work. Not all original Rembrandt etchings have a watermark.  The watermark would likely be impressed on a certain area or section of a sheet of paper.  One sheet might be cut down to produce multiple prints.  In this case, a variety of options exist: only one print produced from the sheet might show the entire watermark while other prints will not have a watermark at all or multiple prints produced  from the sheet might show different portions of the watermark.  It all depends on where the sheet of paper was divided.

oRiGinal etChinGs The original etchings included in this online exhibition exemplify Rembrandts great range as a printmaker. From portraits to biblical scenes, Rembrandt captures the triumphs and tragedies of humanity with incredibly vivid and detailed portrayals.

PoRtRaits As with many artists at the time, Rembrandt originally made a name for himself through his portraits. He is celebrated as a portraitist who paid particular attention to the physical characteristics and expressions of his subjects' faces, capturing their distinct personalities and emotions.  He first created portraits of family members but ultimately expanded to depict friends and important figures in society.  Oftentimes he conveys his subjects with downcast eyes, as if captured in a moment of private contemplation, adding an introspective and personal quality to his portraits.

The Artist’s Mother Seated in Widow’s Dress and Black Gloves, 1632 Full of dark black, intricately etched lines, this work is an intimate look at Rembrandt’s mother in a solemn moment. Seated in nearly full profile, the artist's mother appears in a state of calm reflection. This work portrays her dressed in clothes of mourning for the loss of her husband; the dark black widow’s dress and gloves are in strong contrast with the light background. Rembrandt leaves no minute detail unrealized; the small undulating ruffles and the fur-like trimming of the sleeves and collar in this figure are intricately rendered.

Abraham Francen, c. 1657 Also known as “The Apothecary”, Abraham Francen appears hard at work, studying a sheet of parchment while a large text lays open on the table before him. Small jars, figurines, and a skull litter his workspace, providing clues to his occupation. He is welldressed for a 17th century Dutchman, with elaborately designed clothing and a large traveler’s hat on the bench beside him. The background reveals a highly detailed, smallscale altarpiece, open and on display; this almost serves as another vignette within this already detailed composition.

Studies of the Heads of Saskia and Other Women, 1636 Rembrandt’s skill in rendering the likeness of his subjects, particularly those closest to him, shines through in this multiple-portrait etching. Highlighting his wife Saskia's image above all others, Rembrandt places her portrait front and center and bestows the most detail upon her image. Through delicate cross-hatched lines, Rembrandt captures Saskia in a contemplative moment, glancing to the side and donning a lovely, high-necked dress. Aside from Saskia, this remarkable study conveys four seemingly unrelated characters, as Rembrandt encourages the viewer tp ponder their identities and their potential relationships to Rembrandt and Saskia.

Jan Six, 1647 This intimate portrait conveys a personal side of the man that Rembrandt glorified in a three-quarter length oil portrait, which remains in the Six family’s possession to this day. Jan Six depicts Rembrandt’s patron and friend in a scholarly attitude, quietly reading by the light coming in through a window. A pile of reading material rests on a low chair and a sword in its sheath lays across the top of a table. Rembrandt references Jan Six’s devotion to the arts by depicting a painting, half covered by a curtain as was the custom, on the wall. As magistrate of family law, amongst other city council appointments, Jan Six was a significant figure in Amsterdam; marrying the mayor’s daughter, he later took on the same role himself late in life. Devoted to the arts, he kept company with poets and artists, and even wrote plays himself.

GenRe sCenes Rembrandt's genre works are an exension of his portraiture, as the two are often connected. He would study humans in their natural environments, often conveying their faces in more detail than their surroundings. Through these works, Rembrandt provides a clear image of those in Amsterdam during his lifetime. In particular, Rembrandt held a particular fascination for beggars - a fact evidenced in his many depictions of them.

Old Beggar with Gourd, c. 1630 Enveloped in partial darkness and clad in ragged clothes, the old beggar woman turns away from the viewer. Rembrandt's striking use of black against white denies the viewer a glimpse at the woman's face while allowing the viewer to notice the unusual gourd attached to the woman's back, providing a container for water. The viewer cannot discern where the woman is or what she is doing, but she appears alone and somewhat helpless, a subject worthy of human compassion.

The Card Player, 1641 Capturing  a sense of atmosphere, Rembrandt depicts his focused card player in a dimly lit room, his shadow cast on the wall behind him. Gazing intently at his deck of cards, we can sense the concentration of this venturesome gambler. Unlike the prior portraits, Rembrandt does not identify this subject by name. We know this subject by his trade alone, yet gather a distinct sense of both his physical features and his mental faculties.

Man in Cloak and Fur Cap, Leaning Against a Bank, c. 1630 One of a number of figural studies that Rembrandt created on his aging subjects. The weight of the old man's heavy coat and the many years weigh down upon him, as he leans against his walking stick for support. Â The bank itself is elaborately shaded and highlighted and serves as a complementary background and environment for the piece. The subject's character and sentiment are conveyed through the furrow of his brow, the slight part in his lips, and even the direction in which he faces. His unkempt beard adds a delicate touch, evening out his chin and echoing the square shape of the fur cap atop his head.

Beggar Man and Woman Conversing, 1630 Intimately composed on a small scale, this work conveys a detailed study of two figures deep in conversation. This intricate piece highlights Rembrandt's talent at transforming a common, everyday occurrence into something more extraordinary. At first glance, we witness two beggars casually conversing yet, upon closer examination, we notice a subtle sense of friction between the two figures, as their faces remain close and neither one smiles. While Rembrandt chooses to leave the background of this piece empty, we get a distinct impression of the social class of these subjects based on their ragged, draped garments and their belongings, a basket and a walking stick. Their slightly hunched forms further suggest that they are somewhat elderly individuals, past their prime and burdened by the hardships of life.

bibliCal sCenes Throughout his life Rembrandt conveyed many biblical scenes both from the Old and New Testaments.  While these works were not the most profitable, Rembrandt was fascinated by the biblical stories and their ability to capture the plight of the human spirit.  He chose to convey dramatic scenes that best expressed powerful, human emotions, as exemplified in the four works included in this exhibition.

The Presentation in the Temple, 1640 The Presentation in the Temple is of one of the four major events of the infancy-the remaining three include the Circumcision, the Visit of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt. Interestingly, the Presentation story only occurs in the book of St. Luke. In the story, Luke describes the "proper offerings" of "yearling lambs" given by prominent members of the Temple in honor of the baby Jesus; however, more compelling are the offers of turtle-doves lovingly given by the poor to celebrate baby Jesus. Rembrandt incorporates this dove imagery through a complicated doubleentendre. Appearing in the center of the work is a resplendently illuminated dove. This dove is recognized as the Trinitarian symbol of the Holy Spirit, come from Heaven to recognize the baby Jesus. However, as Jesus was later canonized for his charity and championing of the poor of means and spirit, the dove also foreshadows this symbolism, because the turtledoves were offerings from the poorer community members. This piece is filled with delicate subtleties. Rembrandt becomes artist and theologian in this piece, providing a visual lamentation and celebration of this miraculous event in Christian history.

The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds, 1643 According to the biblical tale of the annunciation, shepherds were tending their flocks in the countryside near Bethlehem when they were terrified by the appearance of an angel. The angel, here illuminated in bright light to the upper left, explains that she bears good news, stating that the Savior Christ has been born in the town of David. Following this news, the shepherds travel to Bethlehem and find Mary, Joseph, and the infant Christ lying in the manger. This dramatic piece is instilled with an incredible amount of detail and emotion. Rembrandt's use of the chiaroscuro effect creates a sharp contrast between light and dark, as we witness the angels illuminated in the upper left and the shepherds in the lower right, the two groups divided diagonally by the darkness of the shepherds' surroundings.

The Raising of Lazarus, 1632 Following the Biblical tale from the New Testament, this work dramatically captures the moment in which Lazarus rises from the grave. Rembrandt utilizes light and shadow to highlight Lazarus' resurrection, illuminating Lazarus' grave with a stream of white light. However, the centrally located Christ, shrouded partially in shadow, remains the focal point of the composition. Christ appears as a massive figure worthy of awe and admiration. He turns his back to the viewer, denying a clear view of his face, and raises his hand in a gesture of holiness as the surrounding figures draw back and open their eyes in wonderment and disbelief at the miraculous sight before them.

The Hundred Guilder Print (Christ Healing the Sick), c. 1649 Acclaimed as the apotheosis of Rembrandt's etched works, The Hundred Guilder Print, with its large size and incredibly detailed depictions of human expression, is Rembrandt's most desirable print. Rembrandt scholar Christopher White traces the origin of the title to a print seller named Mariette, who claims to have sold an impression of this print back to Rembrandt himself for 100 Guilders, while engraver Jan Meyssens of Antwerp claimed in a letter dated February 9, 1654 that it had been sold in Holland various times for 100 guilders.

The Hundred Guilder Print depicts a distinct turning point in Rembrandt's artistic style, contributing to the historical importance of this work. Rembrandt's powerful use of light and shadow to create a heightened sense of drama first became strikingly apparent in The Hundred Guilder Print, as we witness Christ illuminated at the center of the composition, standing against a dark and mysterious background.  Rembrandt's remarkable ability to capture the unique physical and emotional characteristics of his subjects is also noteworthy in this astounding work.  He uses delicate lines to convey realistic human expression as no other artist can, evoking a sense of compassion and humanity from viewers.

CRedits Nowell-Usticke, G.W. Rembrandt's Etchings, States   and Values. Narberth: Livingston Publishing Co., 1967. Partsch, Dr. Susanna. Rembrandt. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991. Victoria, Charles. Rembrandt the Engraver. Angleterre: Editions Parkstone Press, 1997.

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