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Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher
The Art Institute of Chicago
There are exhibitions which lure one back with so much to appreciate, absorb speculate on and delight that a single visit can hardly do them justice. Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, appearing at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 9, 2004, is one of them. The first American exhibition to focus on Rembrandt's mastery of engraving and etching, Rembrandt's Journey features over 200 works spanning thirty-five years of the artist's lifetime, most of them printed works, with oil paintings and sketches included to highlight artistic parallels. Taken as a body, they are the product of a lively curiosity, an indefatigable will to create, and a prodigious talent that tirelessly and continuously translated these impulses into visual imagery. They provide many levels to explore, among them a study of Rembrandt's sensitive rendering of human face and figure, his innovations in printmaking, his handling of the reverent and the profane with equal facility, and, as the exhibition's title hints, a study of his development of technique and theme over time.
The works in Rembrandt's Journey represent a general chronological progression, with earlier works in the initial galleries, and later ones toward the end; but the overriding curation is a grouping by theme, to facilitate comparison of the artist's early and later handling of similar material. Although some of the smaller thematic groupings break up the flow, overall this dual level of curation is skillfully managed and displays the maturation of Rembrandt's style in its major and minor aspects. From first to last Rembrandt displays a virtuoso mastery over his media; yet it is a living, evolving mastery. His use of line, experimental, crabbed, uneven, fitful, moves toward a superb economy; his etching style, toward a more intense usage of light and deep shadow over detail and crosshatching; and overall, the emotions he explores develop from overt, play-acting fantasy to characterizations of restrained and complex feeling. The contrast can be seen in the grouping "Abraham: Three Decades", which captures three illustrations of the Biblical tale, each done approximately ten years apart. Abraham Casting out Hagar and Ishmael (1637, cat.66) is opulently, if more traditionally, ornamental with the formal, clear-cut lines of its engraving, and though Rembrandt has very delicately engaged the balance of tensions among the characters through face and gesture, the figures have the overt posing of pantomime. Abraham and Isaac (1645, cat.67), done eight years later, draws the emotion inward, the dialogue between father and son heightened by the subtlety of disbelief on Isaac's face and the spontaneous, stormy crosshatching behind him. Ten more years; and there is only stillness in the poses, with emotion a roaring turbulence around the figures: Abraham's Sacrifice (1655, cat.68), the moment of psychological crisis, the father ready to sacrifice his son, his distress captured in very strongly etched lines and deep, disturbing passages of drypoint which heighten the power and anguish of the image.
In part, this drama is created not only by a superb handling of face and figure, but by the balance of light and dark in the image. The technique, called chiaroscuro, is perhaps more familiar from Rembrandt's oil paintings, but his prints show an even more extraordinary application of it given the near-monotone nature of the medium. The prints in Rembrandt's Journey were made with three types of printing technique, used individually or in combination on the same plate. All begin with a flat, unworked surface of smooth copper. The artist uses, variously, a v-shaped tool called a 'burin', a drypoint tool which casts up a 'burr' of soft copper, or a technique that involves coating the plate with an acid-resistant coating, scratching the image into the surface, then applying a controlled burn of acid to eat away at the exposed lines. The graven image is inked, then wiped; then sandwiched against fine paper in a press. The intense pressure applied by the press transfers ink from the grooves of the image onto the paper, creating a mirror-image of the engraving which we see as the final image.
There are, thus, really only two 'colors' the artist can work with: a single black of the ink; a single white, or white-gold, of the paper. Yet within this, Rembrandt used -- and developed -- a surprising, often experimental range of techniques to illustrate his images. The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight (1654, cat.158), from the Life of Christ series, provides dramatic contrasts of light and darkness to highlight the moment in which Christ was removed from the cross by his faithful apostles. Here, Rembrandt's imaginative conception melds with his skillful handling of areas the printing plate, some deeply worked, some entirely untouched. He depicts it as a night scene, giving him plenty of opportunity for remarkable effects and contrasts, such as the diffusion of the bright glow from the torch bringing its focus to the limp figure of the dead Christ, and the lit hand of the helping man, springing unexpectedly from the darkness.
In St. Jerome (in a dark chamber) (1642, cat. 146) the deep and velvety blacks become the entire composition, a deeply meditative, interior gloom, whose mullioned window -- untouched paper, uninked -- by comparison seems a lambent white, and aptly evoking illumination both literal, and symbolic. There is relatively little 'going on' in St. Jerome (in a dark chamber), but the gradations of darkness themselves, with the features of the household's interior and the figure of St. Jerome barely discernible in the gloom, evokes a deep, meditative drama, as well as a thorough appreciation of the artist's skill. Ephraim Bueno (Bonus), Physician (1647, cat.72) is almost a catalogue of black tones from lightly to heavily saturated. The dark cloth of his outer garment, the distinct outlines of the banister, and the recesses of the foyer in which he stands, one area dim, one in deep shadow, are all distinct, subtle in degree -- and all derived from one single color of ink and the artist's facility in preparing his plate.
There is always a value in seeing the original of a work, and this is especially heightened in the prints of Rembrandt's Journey. Printing today involves a photoreproductive process in which a drum lays the entire full-color image smoothly on paper, the paper itself usually machine-made and of a uniform gloss and weight. As noted, the printmaking through which Rembrandt exercised his mastery was a far more variable, hand-done process, more artisan than machine. The medium permits of fine lines, an intense level of detail in a very small space, and these do reproduce -- but the velvety gradations of darkness against the white or golden hue of the paper are lost in modern reproduction. The original paper and ink carry their own degrees of reflection and contrast, especially between untouched white expanses and the dark, worked, inked areas, that photographic reproduction cannot fully duplicate. To see Rembrandt's printworks up close is to see how alive the originals are: how lively and varied the medium actually is, capable of rich subtleties of both light and dark.
It is also to see how they are often done on an astonishingly small scale. It is surprising how tiny so many of these familiar images really are. Self-Portrait in a Cap (1630, cat.17) -- "the famous 'seen-a-ghost' pudding-face", in the words of Rembrandt biographer Simon Schama -- is a good example. In art books a page teems with works of varying size, a suspension of scale we willingly accept as part of the reading experience. But Self-Portrait in a Cap is a mere 2 x 1-13/16 inches, about the size of a large postage stamp, and other of the well-known self-portraits are smaller than a playing card. They are gemlike miracles of engraving at a level of detail that suggests a superb dexterity in composition-in-miniature. Not all the printworks are so small, although the medium is limited by the size of paper and printing equipment; but even the larger works teem with a detail that demands close scrutiny. Rembrandt's Journey qualifies as a 'blockbuster', but the privilege of this exhibition is an experience in which one cannot just stroll and gloss visually; one must stop, look closer, physically and mentally focusing in on these works so rife with detail, and the end result is an intimacy that draws one into a very personal examination of Rembrandt's work.
Engraving in the 17th century was most commonly employed to make reproducible, black-and-white copies of an original painting. The availability of engraved prints allowed an artist's work to travel to the attention of distant patrons, served as a source of saleable income for the artist, and provided a primitive form of copyright on the original oil painting, which itself would, naturally, go into the private collection of the patron who had commissioned it. With the ambition and energy that characterized all his work, Rembrandt pushed the medium into an art form all its own, continuing to experiment throughout his lifetime with tonal effects and techniques, such as sprinkling the plate with drops of acid for a spangled effect. Ultimately, he found the cachet in producing not merely serial prints (multiple impressions from the same plate, similar to the action of a photocopy machine), but in preparing each print as an individual work of art. Three prints of The Entombment (1654, cat.155-7) show Rembrandt's artistic choices in varying the image and its presentation. The work depicts the apostles working to lay Christ in a the tomb. Again, as in The Descent from the Cross, Rembrandt has chosen to employ a darkened scene, here a high, shadowy space given depth by the detail of two skulls in a niche in the rear wall, with a 'hidden' light source, a lantern or torch, whose presence is merely implied by the reflected illumination. An earlier state of The Entombment (cat. 155) is more conventional in its balance of light and dark, though the fitful strokes of crosshatching across the niche in the background and the loose sketchiness of the figures are Rembrandt's own. In cat. 156 Rembrandt has reworked the image with drypoint and applied additional ink during the printing process, creating a depth of shadow which closes the focus in on the men doing the burial, with even Christ's face somewhat obscured. In cat. 157, he has transformed the entire scene into a black, secretive gloom that intensifies the clandestine nature of the operation.
Rembrandt craved to be a court painter; Simon Schama's Rembrandt's Eyes maintains that he wanted to not only to be like but to be artistic contemporary Peter Paul Rubens: wealthy, lauded, a trusted diplomat as well as a celebrated Classical painter. But Rembrandt's fundamental temperament did not fit in with such an ambition. Unlike Rubens, he was not formulaic or official. Rembrandt's talent was to illustrate humanity: to infuse it into imaginative scenes, or to capture it in representations of places and figures from everyday life. His religious subjects are the most-represented category in the exhibition, with the New Testament slightly outnumbering the Old, but in each of these scenes, the sacred is presented with an element of down-to-earth human reality. Rembrandt brought character to Biblical scenes, not only with inventive rendering, but by populating them with real-life personnel. Rembrandt's Journey also features the artist's everyday, secular scenes: landscapes of austere clarity and calligraphic line, portraits of real and imaginary people, numerous images of everyday life -- the exhibition includes a touchingly personal engraving of an ill woman in bed, identified with his wife, Saskia -- even several earthily sensual works of lusty monks or sportive lovers. All are depicted with a homely, vital, human feel that is characteristically Rembrandt.
It was an informal aesthetic that presaged principles of modern art, and could, perhaps, only have arisen in the practical, mercantile society of Amsterdam, for one important reason: a wealthy middle class. Men made powerful by commerce and trade have different tastes than men made powerful by ancient and hereditary privilege, and the norms of Dutch society of the time where not the norms of lords, dukes and cardinals. The result was a comparative freedom of aesthetic in Amsterdam, a middle-class focus on the everyday rather than the ideal, and Rembrandt serves as a superb example. The Classical art fostered by Italian potentates was an art of nobles -- formal, refined, seeking to present the ideal in form and figure. It was the art of Rubens, and it was part of what made Rubens so successful as a court painter, and yet such formality can transmit an aridity that Rembrandt's more down-to-earth vision transcends. Where a Classical artist would paint a slender, graceful goddess to illustrate his Diana, Rembrandt's Diana at the Bath (about 1631, cat.196) is a real flesh-and-blood woman, saggy belly, cellulite and all; yet he captures the warm sensuality as well as the divinity within her. Rembrandt was able to use natural poses and natural interiors, and was also free to find inspiration for models and character types to fit his Biblical illustrations by roaming the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam -- something accepted in Dutch society, where Jews numbered among its important and wealthy members, that would have been unheard of in Rome.
The comparative freedom of aesthetic in Amsterdam, the middle-class focus on the everyday rather than the ideal, also permitted a looser, freer line with a modern spontaneity. Much of Rembrandt's preparatory work presents a proto-Romanticism, his sketches expressive rather than realistic: the swiftly-captured lines of The Bathers (1651, cat.184), for example, or his impromptu chalk sketches of stands of trees (cat.123-4). Taken in all, Rembrandt's art expresses an aesthetic whose homeliness calls forth an echoing response in our own experience. The world of potentates, dukes and cardinals is not ours. Classical gods and goddesses are visions of a remote and rigid formality. Rembrandt's agile, informal capturing of humanity in all its guises speaks to Everyman.
And, despite his unique mastery and his achievements, Rembrandt was in many ways Everyman. By the close of his life he had suffered severe trials. As if the deaths of his beloved Saskia and later, his young son Titus were not enough, he faced a descent into bankruptcy that robbed him of everything he had gained. House, goods, art (his choice collection of artworks, as well as his own): all were auctioned between 1656-58 to pay the debts that finally mastered him. His engraved plates also passed into the hands of the auctioneers. (Eighty-one of them survive today; six are included in the exhibition.) The exhibition closes with the oil work Self-portrait (1659, cat. 215). No more costumes or fantasies: Rembrandt faces the viewer directly, uncompromising, yet undefeated.
His legacy is the legacy of a master. One will leave with a respect for his immense, lifetime output of talent, a sensitive translation of humanity into print both as 'characters' and in daily life, his amazing power of light, darkness, and line. Rembrandt's Journey is at the Art Institute of Chicago through May 9, 2004. These are works well worth seeing, and they are numerous. Several viewers arrived very late in the afternoon, and were gently reminded that the Art Institute closes its galleries at 4:15 p.m. (4:45 p.m. Sat, Sun; 7:45 p.m. Tues). It is recommended to allow ample time for a leisurely tour. The ideal would be to see the exhibition, read the catalogue at leisure, and see it again. Barring that, purchase the catalogue in advance and take it with you into the gallery (reading copies are also available in the gallery, but must be left in the Reading Room). Your efforts, and your interest, will be superbly rewarded.
The exhibition is accompanied by a detailed 343-page color catalogue which includes a full complement of plates of the exhibited works. Filled with illuminating insights on both the art and its making, it is well worth having on its own.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Simon Schama's lyrical biography on Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt's Eyes, was reviewed by ArtScope.net in November 2002 (http://www.artscope.net/VAREVIEWS/rembrandtseyes1102.shtml) and is highly recommended. Rembrandt's Journey also appeared at the Boston Museum of Fine Art from October 26, 2003 to January 18, 2004.
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