Several hundred years after he lived and worked, Rembrandt remains a “celebrity” of single-name status; chances are that several hundred years from now his work will endure while that of, say, Yanni might not. Of Rembrandt van Rijn’s 290 etchings, 85 are currently on view, along with additional prints of the era, at UVM’s Fleming Museum. The touring exhibition, “Rembrandt and the Art of Etching,” has already been seen by perhaps a million viewers in South America, but Burlington is its only North American stop. Afterwards the works will return to the place where most were created: Rembrandt’s own home, now the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The exhibition offers Vermonters an exclusive opportunity to see many of the 17th-century Dutch master’s most important works.
Reached by phone in Boston last week, Rembrandt House curator Dr. Bob van den Boogert was asked, “Why Burlington?” his answer was simple: Janie Cohen. The Fleming Museum director is the co-author of Etched on the Memory — The Presence of Rembrandt in the Prints of Goya and Picasso, and much of her research was done in Amsterdam. Cohen has also contributed writings to the Rembrandt House. So bringing this historic collection of etchings to Burlington was a natural choice for her Dutch colleague. Van den Boogert will give a talk on Rembrandt at the Fleming this Thursday.
The exhibition comprises a wide range of subjects, including at least eight self-portraits. In the earliest, Rembrandt was in his twenties. The best-known is probably “Self Portrait, Leaning on a Stone Sill” from 1639. At 33, Rembrandt appears an almost foppish young man, as cocky as D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers. But that’s an external view. The artist’s inner world is what makes the show so intriguing, and the medium of etching provides the perfect platform for viewing it.
Rembrandt sold thousands of copies of etchings in his lifetime, and was probably better known for those works than for his paintings. His technical bag of tricks was second to none, and that virtuosity enabled him to exercise the full range of his expressive powers.
Insight into Rembrandt’s creative process can been seen in the two states of “The Three Crosses” presented in this exhibition. Figures have been added and removed between the two states, both created on the same copper plate. He also altered his composition by manipulating light and shadow. Another religious print, “Christ Healing the Sick” from about 1649, illustrates two technical steps in the etching process. A slick ground was applied to the plate, and that ground was drawn through in a very direct way. When etched, the exposed metal created relatively soft lines to be inked. Then Rembrandt cleaned and dried the plate before scratching contrasting lines directly into the metal to add finer details to areas such as hands, toes and clothing.
“Christ Healing the Sick” is arguably Rembrandt’s most famous etching, and it figures prominently in the artist’s lore. It is also known as “the Hundred Guilder Print,” and several explanations have been proffered for that curious moniker. In 1755 a French art dealer said that Rembrandt traded an impression of it for an Italian print worth 100 guilders. Another unlikely story is that Rembrandt repurchased a copy of the print for that exorbitant sum. Recent scholarship has unearthed a 1654 letter to the bishop of Bruges from a contemporary artist that Rembrandt’s prints had sold for 100 guilders on several occasions. That kind of popularity made him a wealthy man, at least for awhile.
“The Shell (Cornus Marmoreus)” of 1650 suggests one reason Rembrandt went bankrupt in 1658. Van den Boogert explains that something as exotic as a Cornus Marmoreus shell would have cost “the price of a house” in Amsterdam. It was practically a 17th-century moon rock, and “The Shell” — Rembrandt’s only etching still life — was drawn from a specimen in his extensive collection of baubles and fine art. He had also gotten into the almost-unheard-of habit of creating prints for his own enjoyment rather than specifically for sale. “The Shell” and “The Hundred Guilder Print” may have been such works.
Every piece in this exhibition is notable, but one of the most fascinating is the 1652 print called “Faust” in most sources. Goethe popularized the story of Dr. Faustus 150 years after Rembrandt’s death, so, as van den Boogert suggests, that identification is “not undisputed.” The alternative title, “Practicing Alchemist,” is probably more accurate. Either way, the print may indicate that Rembrandt had an interest in Jewish mysticism. His opulent “Great Jewish Bride” print of 1635 appeared one year after his own marriage, and many of his closest friends and patrons were Jews. Rembrandt and his wife Saskia also lived in Amsterdam’s vibrant Jewish quarter.
Only one print, a commissioned portrait, is known to have been produced between 1660 and the artist’s death in October 1669. Like many of his late works, the self-portraits of his final years were moody and introspective. This can be seen in his self-portrait from age 42, in which the artist holds an etching needle to assiduously trace his own aging features. He is wearing plainer clothes than in younger years, and sits in a dark room with only one light source — an open window to his right. That Rembrandt is the man who became immortal.