Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669) famously never left the Dutch Republic of his birth. Even in his lifetime, however, his work as an artist brought him international renown. His reputation rests not just on his genius as a painter, but also on his mastery of drawing and printmaking.
He made etchings throughout his career, and the 314 that survive form a much-admired body of work. A selection of 50 are showcased in Rembrandt in Print, curated by An Van Camp for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which opens at the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork this weekend. It's the most significant exhibition to be hosted in Cork for quite a while, and is a fitting way to announce the ongoing reopening of the culture sector in the wake of pandemic lockdowns.
The Ashmolean, founded in 1678, was the first public museum in Britain, and now houses more than 300,000 works on paper. Most of the etchings in Rembrandt in Print are drawn from the superlative collection donated to the museum by Chambers Hall, a prominent British art lover, in 1855.
“Rembrandt was a very popular artist, even in his lifetime,” says Van Camp. “His drawings and prints sold very well, and helped establish his reputation outside Holland. The British loved the Dutch and Flemish Masters, and collected them avidly, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. The work of Rembrandt’s contemporaries, like Rubens and Van Dyck, was marked by their Catholicism, whereas his own work doesn’t come across as very Catholic at all. So that was part of his appeal to a largely Protestant British audience.
“Chambers Hall built up a huge private collection of his work. He was very knowledgeable, and very careful about what he bought. His collection included any number of rare prints and proofs. One of the reasons he gifted it to the Ashmolean was because another collector, Clayton Cracherode, had donated a body of Rembrandt’s work to the British Museum in the 1790s, and Hall didn’t want his collection to disappear into that.”
Van Camp found Rembrandt in Print a particularly easy exhibition to curate. “I just had to choose the fifty best examples of his work in our collection,” she says. “There are domestic and religious scenes, as well as examples of his self-portraits.”
The most popular printmaking technique in Rembrandt’s day was engraving, which involves the use of a V-shaped tool to cut sharp, regular lines onto the surface of a copper plate. But he preferred to spread a soft wax ground on the plate, using a needle to etch the images into it.
“Etching allowed for a freer line; Rembrandt could almost make drawings in the wax. Uniquely, he made prints of each stage of his creations, and you can follow his process through the different impressions. He often gave prints away as gifts to friends or art collectors.”
Rembrandt’s wife Saskia and his son Titus feature in a great number of his prints, as well as in his paintings. “Often, Saskia appears as a model for a character rather than as his wife. When you become familiar with his work, it’s easy to recognise her by her round face and curly hair. In one print in the exhibition, Self-portrait with Saskia, she seems to be pushed into the background, while Rembrandt himself is out in front. It may be that the print was intended as a ‘daily life’ portrait, rather than as a portrait of Rembrandt and his wife.”
Rembrandt often used his friends as models as well. “Jan Uytenbogaert, the subject of the print The Goldweigher, was a tax collector, and he’s seen collecting coins. It’s very unusual; the clothes and the setting are very much of the 16th century rather than of Rembrandt’s day, and there’s also an old historical painting in the background. Uytenbogaert must have been a close friend of Rembrandt’s if he agreed to be dressed up like that.”
The artist liked to depict little every day dramas in his work. In The Rat Catcher, a householder appears to be refusing the title character entry to his home. “In Rembrandt’s time, the rat-catcher would have travelled around the country, selling poison. In this image, he’s got a cage full of live rats on a pole, that he would probably have used to demonstrate the effectiveness of his poison. But the man of the house seems to be turning him away, so it may be that he had the reputation of being a charlatan.”
There is often deep symbolism in Rembrandt’s work, which only reveals itself on close examination. “The Three Trees seems like a conventional landscape study to begin with, but when you look closer, you realise that the trees represent the three crosses on Calvary. You can see there’s a storm coming in from the left - it’s etched in dramatic diagonal lines – like a forewarning of the Crucifixion. And in the bottom right corner, there are a lot of dark bushes, but there’s also couple of people in among them, and a rabbit.
“It’s not always obvious what Rembrandt is trying to say in his work; everyone can come to their own conclusions about it.”
- Rembrandt in Print runs at the Crawford Art Gallery from 17th September 2021 – 22nd January 2022. The exhibition is accompanied by a special Print Studio in collaboration with Cork Printmakers
- From 11am – 12 midday on Sunday 19th and 26th September, historian Tom Spalding will present Going Dutch, a walking tour exploring the Dutch influence on Cork city in the 17th and 18th centuries. Tickets €3. Booking essential. Further information: crawfordartgallery.ie
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in the town of Leiden. In his teens, he completed an apprenticeship with a local history painter, Jacob van Swanenberg, before moving to Amsterdam, where he quickly established himself as a portraitist. The Dutch Republic was then in a Golden Age of trade and prosperity, and Rembrandt remained in Amsterdam for the rest of his life.
In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh, an orphan and heiress to a considerable fortune. Rembrandt was already commanding significant fees as an artist, and had begun to take on students. Rembrandt and Saskia collected art and antiques, and in 1639, they bought a mansion on Jodenbreestraat.
Their marriage was marked by tragedy. Their first three children died as infants. Their fourth, a boy named Titus, born in 1641, survived into adulthood, but Saskia died – most likely from tuberculosis – just one year later.
Rembrandt hired Geertje Dircx as Titus’s nurse, and they became lovers. When he broke it off, she sued him for breach of promise, and was awarded 200 guilders a year in alimony. Rembrandt’s last known relationship was with his servant, Hendrickje Stoffels, who bore him a daughter named Cornelia in 1654.
Some of Rembrandt’s best-known paintings include The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp (1632); The Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633); and The Night Watch (1642).
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp is probably the first painting the artist signed as Rembrandt, instead of the monogram RHL. It now hangs in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague.
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston by two thieves disguised as police officers, and has never been recovered.
The Night Watch has been described as the fourth most famous painting in the world, after Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa, his mural The Last Supper, and Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. It hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Always profligate with money, Rembrandt was declared bankrupt in 1656, and was obliged to sell his art collection and the mansion on Jodenbreestraat. A few years later, he was forced to sell his wife Saskia’s grave. Hendrickye Stoffels died in 1663, and his son Titus in 1668, aged twenty-seven.
When Rembrandt died in 1669, he had become so obscure a figure that he was buried in a pauper’s grave, and after twenty years, his remains were disposed of, as was the custom at that time. His home on Jodenbreestraat is now one of Amsterdam’s most popular museums.