Deeply loved for his richly emotional art, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn (1606–1669) is one of the world’s most recognized artists. Over the centuries, countless references to the Dutch master have ingrained his name and images into our lives. Today his name is synonymous with greatness and is held up as a standard of artistic excellence. While most agree Rembrandt is one of history’s most important artists, understanding what exactly it is that seductively draws us into his art—generation after generation—is a harder concept to explain. Why and how do his creations, several centuries old, still resonate so deeply with us? "Rembrandt Master Printmaker" explores several of the artist’s technical, narrative, and emotional approaches that still make a lasting impact today. While best known as a painter, Rembrandt made significant contributions to printmaking, producing nearly 300 prints throughout his career, and is considered a great master of the medium. Unlike painters who used printmaking to reproduce images of their paintings, Rembrandt treated the medium independently, and his creative experiments pushed printmaking into new directions. These works come from the Cincinnati Art Museum’s impressive collection of Rembrandt prints.
For Rembrandt, the printing from a plate was not the final act. Considered both an experimenter and a perfectionist, the artist printed impressions to check how the image on his copper etching plate was developing. With etching, it is possible to return to the plate to make changes to the composition before printing further impressions.
Rembrandt’s Faust is subject to various interpretations and may not be the legendary scholar who makes a deal with the devil. It is, however, a dynamic print filled with drama and mysticism in which the artist contrasted the closely hatched background to the sketchy foreground. At first, the two impressions may appear to be identical. Look closely to see small but important changes between the two printings. In particular, the curls of metal that hold ink and create rich drypoint lines at the left (along the shoulder and arm of the man’s cloak) have disappeared in the second state. In the later state, Rembrandt added fine shading to the stack of books at the right and vertical lines to the right pane of glass in the third row from the top. The blue collector’s stamp in the lower left margin indicates the print once belonged to Lotz-Brissonneau.
While instructional texts on representing the human figure existed in Rembrandt’s time, the artist preferred to work from live models. The same year he created this etching, he brought models into his studio so that his students would benefit from direct observation of the human form. Live models reflected Rembrandt’s preference for depicting ordinary people in his work, in contrast to the heroic, idealized figures used by his predecessors.
Rembrandt’s ability to depict the solid volume of human form is evident in this print. To highlight the subject, Rembrandt has set the young man against a darkened background composed of a combination of scribbled marks and dense parallel hatching, indicating the speed at which he moved the etching needle. While these marks may appear somewhat random, notice how Rembrandt strategically overlapped various layers of line to suggest areas of depth and shadow.
Rembrandt was deeply interested in drypoint, sometimes adding it as embellishment to his etched work. Clump of Trees with a Vista is one of two pure drypoint landscapes he executed in 1652. In drypoint, the needle is scratched directly onto the copper plate, throwing up small curls of metal to build up on each side of the line. When printed, drypoint lines display rich velvety tones with blurred edges and stand in contrast to the thin, crisp lines associated with etching.
Rembrandt skillfully employed drypoint for effect in this print. Notice how the velvety lines create a sense of windswept movement within the trees, enveloping the farmhouse below them with an animated liveliness.
In the later interpretation of Christ at Emmaus, Rembrandt’s artistic maturity and storytelling skills are clearly revealed. Here on a larger scale, Christ provides the stable focal point, and his body language reinforces his role as the main character. Christ with his outstretched hands forming a triangle is shown to be calm while his disciples react with sudden recognition. The scene is placed in a stage-like setting with a large drape used to emphasize the theatricality of the event.
For the original copper plate Rembrandt used to print this work, the artist drew into a protective wax coating; then the exposed design was “bit” into the plate with acid. After the etched image was filled with ink, the paper was placed on top of the plate and printed under pressure. The printed image is the reverse (left to right) of the plate.
Two portrayals of Jan Cornelis Sylvius (1563/4–1638) reveal Rembrandt’s versatility in the creation of portraits. A preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, Sylvius was the legal guardian to Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia. The 1633 portrait depicts a thoughtful man, his eyes downcast mediating upon the Bible beneath his clasped hands. Rembrandt creates an appropriately solemn atmosphere with a spectrum of dark tones that envelop the figure.
The etching from 1646 is a posthumous portrait of Sylvius and includes Latin verses that stress the importance of living the teachings of Jesus. Again depicted with Bible in hand, the preacher gestures as though he were delivering a lively sermon. Sylvius’ outstretched hand reaches beyond the oval format—and, metaphorically, beyond the grave—casting an illusionistic shadow upon the page of the print itself. Sylvius appears most alive in this memorial, created eight years after his death.
In 1654 Rembrandt created six etchings that explore the childhood of Christ. This subject introduces an everyday reality into a pivotal biblical event. Centrally located, the Holy Family rests within a weathered stable, realistically common in its disarray, while shepherds approach the child with a sense of awe. Artificial illumination from an oil lamp on a bracket above the Virgin is superseded by a divine illumination. Look closely at Rembrandt’s skillful use of shading—which is darker around the perimeter of the work and lighter toward the center— to discover that the source of this light is actually the Madonna and Child, both radiating brilliantly with a divine glow.
In the 1650s, Rembrandt repeatedly used etching with drypoint to create a rich emotional intensity associated with nocturnal scenes and darkened interiors. In this later interpretation of The Adoration of the Shepherds, Rembrandt again used light to dramatize the subject, but in a manner different from his earlier work. Instead of stark light and dark contrasts, the darkness of evening envelopes the entire setting, only a central oil lamp reveals soft glimpses of the Holy Family at the bottom right. For Rembrandt, the shepherds’ visit to the stable to see the Christ child was a quiet, solemn occasion filled with the silence and tenderness that accompanies watching a newborn sleep.
Breaking tradition with grandiose depictions of this subject, the Virgin and Child’s faces are barely illuminated. In the eighth state the face of Joseph has been reworked and silhouetted bring attention back to the Virgin and Child. Allow your eyes to adjust fully to the darkness of this work. You will notice how Rembrandt was remarkably skilled in creating forms and details within a limited range of near-black tones.
"Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window" shows us an older Rembrandt, whose outlook on life has been dramatically changed by significant events. After suffering two miscarriages, Saskia bore a healthy son in 1641 but died herself the following year. At the time of this print, Rembrandt was embroiled in a triangular affair with two of his son’s caregivers. Here, Rembrandt portrays himself in a darkened interior, near a window that casts a diffused light onto his features. Similar to the earlier self-portrait, Rembrandt, looking in a mirror, appears to look directly at the viewer, but this time the gaze is unforgiving. Rembrandt’s expression shows signs of emotional stress—an unfanciful, honest portrayal of himself as an aging man.
However different, these portraits are bound together by Rembrandt’s consistent identification of himself as an artist. In both, he is depicted at work, suggesting this to be the most necessary and constant force in his life.
In his most confident self-portrait etching, Rembrandt portrayed himself in the manner of a Renaissance courtier. With a tilted beret and fanciful costume, he modeled his pose from an Italian Renaissance portrait by Titian (1485–1576) and Raphael (1483–1520), symbolically identifying himself as part of a great artistic tradition. At this time, he had successfully sold several paintings to the stadholder—a provincial governor—and moved into a house large enough to accommodate his family, workshop, students, and collections.
Rembrandt’s expertise with the etching needle is clear in this illusionistic composition. The artist convincingly described spatial depth with an arm that realistically juts over a ledge. The skillful handling of textures, most admirable in the wispy hair, underscores Rembrandt’s command of the etching technique. For dramatic effect, Rembrandt silhouetted his likeness against a stark background, with no details except for a cluster of strokes in the lower right to suggest depth.
In the mid-1650s Rembrandt returned to focus on the life of Christ. In "Christ at Emmaus" and "The Descent from the Cross by Torchlight", nearly identical in size and vertical format, the artist deliberately portrayed the life of Christ with dramatic grandeur.
Note the larger size of this work and the scale of the figures to the architecture, which is accentuated by the standing priest in the background. Simeon had a revelation from the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. In the foreground Simeon presents the Christ Child to the high priest seated on a raised dais. The triangular arrangement of the principal figures focuses attention on Simeon’s revelation. This emotion is reinforced by the overall darkness of the scene with only the three main figures in the light. Christ’s parents at the left and the face of the Child are in shadows, emphasizing the glow of Christ’s halo.
In this dynamic composition, Rembrandt imagined the physical challenge posed by the dead weight of Christ’s body. Rembrandt carries our eyes across the print through the use of a strong zigzag movement, beginning with Christ’s shroud at the top left corner to the figures in the lower right and continuing to the bottom left corner through the stretcher that will carry the body. Cleverly, Rembrandt has placed our vantage point here, connecting the viewer with the scene by suggesting that it is our responsibility to pick up the unmanned end of the stretcher.
Rembrandt heightened the drama of this scene by situating it at night and lighting it by a torch. The large passages of dark are rendered with a dense web of deeply etched lines. The nocturnal setting instills a grave quietude that permeates the emotional tone of the work. Rembrandt also imbued an aura of solemnity around the figures retrieving Christ’s body.
For this biblical episode, Rembrandt effectively employed his skills for conveying forceful drama. This print depicts Christ, angered by business transactions occurring within the temple, assailing the vendors. Christ’s fury as he vigorously wields a length of rope provides the focal point for this complex composition. In a departure from the tradition of depicting rays of light around Christ’s head, Rembrandt has transferred them to Christ’s clenched fist, emphasizing the intensity of the action.
Rembrandt has choreographed the movement in this etching. Notice how Christ’s body—the pose of which is from a woodcut by Dürer—moves in an angular direction. The moneychangers at the left reiterate this diagonal line in their recoiled response. These movements not only underscore the dramatic events, but they unify this very complicated and chaotic scene, while at the upper right, temple authorities observe the scene below like spectators at an athletic event.
Within the rich darkness of this print is St. Jerome—a scholar who explored good and evil—in prayerful meditation. The subject of the print could also be viewed as a study of the interplay between light and darkness, each full of religious symbolism, as they simultaneously reveal and conceal objects in this work. Though clear light enters the window, only a limited spectrum of darkened tones describes St. Jerome and his chamber. The effect envelops this work in psychological mystery as if we are peering not only into the innards of St. Jerome’s chamber, but also into the private chambers of his soul.
Indeed, the objects that surround St. Jerome reflect his inner spiritualism. Adjust your eyes to the darkness of this work to reveal its details: a large holy book; a skull upon a ledge, reminding one of the transience of life; a crucifix before the window, recalling Christ’s sacrifice; and a spiral staircase, symbolically linking the earth with the heavens.
The Portuguese Jewish doctor Ephraim Bonus was a distinguished man who supported a printing house owned by the artist’s neighbor. Rembrandt portrayed Bonus at the base of a staircase with his hand resting on the banister.
This is Rembrandt’s only print based on an oil sketch. Rembrandt translated tonal qualities of the sketch into pictorial equivalents in etching. Except for the white collar and cuff, Bonus is dressed in black before a darkened architectural background. In the second state, the dark-on-dark treatment allowed Rembrandt to skillfully demonstrate tonal harmony, creating rich passages of saturated blacks such as the cloak, aided with drypoint lines, and mid-tone wall areas that appear gray. The darkened setting and the subject’s contemplative expression create a sober tone, suggesting Bonus’ respectful and serious character.
In his most expressive landscape print, Rembrandt portrayed a wide vista of country around Amsterdam dominated by a cluster of three sturdy trees that resolutely withstand the precipitation and unruly winds springing forth from the sky. This print, a combination of etching, drypoint, and engraving, represents Rembrandt pushing animated life and emotion into the natural world through the use of sweeping directional movements and an ominous juxtaposition of light and shadow. This is Rembrandt’s largest landscape print, and his theatrical treatment of the scene underscored the importance of drama in his work.
It is easy to be moved only by the force of this work and to overlook the smaller details of life that Rembrandt provided. Rarely did artists of this time depict landscapes without people, and Rembrandt was no exception. Tucked away, you will find a fisherman and his companion at the lower left; beyond them, a farmer watches over his cattle. Behind the trees, a horse pulls a cart while to the right an artist records the landscape. And, presented discreetly within the bushes barely visible at the lower right, two lovers enjoy their mutual affection, seemingly oblivious to the turbulent atmosphere surrounding them.
In a manner typical of his landscape etchings, Rembrandt placed the bulk of visual weight—in this case, a towering windmill and run-down cottage—to one side. In order to create an exaggerated sense of distance, Rembrandt brought these picturesque structures forward on the picture plane by etching such minute details as wooden boards and layered shingles. Notice how using light lines Rembrandt rendered the illusion of atmospheric perspective in the field stretching to the horizon at the lower right. He was well aware that our eyes detect less detail in objects that are far away, and he incorporated this optical effect into the landscape by lightly etching the plate, covering the distant landscape with a protective coating, and deeply etching the left portion.
Looking closely, you will note a subtle shading in the sky and on the structures. Rembrandt brushed a sulfur paste directly onto the printing plate; this “bit” the surface directly, adding a unique tonal element to this print.
In one of Rembrandt’s most detailed landscapes, a humble cottage and haybarn stand in the center of the landscape. Though Rembrandt probably visited this actual location, he selectively recorded its details. He most likely added the distant town resembling Amsterdam to the left and a manor house to the right to create a scene that is both quaint in its simplicity and endearing in its romantic view of rural life.
Typical of Dutch views, the low horizon in this panoramic composition and the deeply etched lines allow the rustic structures to take on greater importance. Curly loops from the etching needle delineate the mass of tree foliage and the play of light on the treetops. The landscape is enlivened by pastoral activity: children fish before the cottage, a person crosses a bridge, and a dog obediently follows. Look closely and you will also find people peering through the windows of the cottage. What appears at first glance to be a desolate landscape instead reveals itself to be a natural setting teeming with life.
In this panorama, Rembrandt shifted his attention to the representation of a deep spatial perspective. The absence of large structures in the foreground is immediately apparent. Instead, we are offered a sweeping vista, an all-encompassing look at the environs outside Haarlem, the town at the left. Accentuating this great distance is the horizontal composition, which stretches our eye across and into the landscape. Rembrandt gave equal weight to the land and the band of sky, locating the horizon line directly in the middle. Only a couple of buildings interrupt this horizontal continuity.
This print was once believed to represent the land of Jan Uytenbogaert, whom Rembrandt etched as a goldweigher. Thus, it has been commonly referred to as "The Goldweigher’s Field". More recent scholarship identifies the land as belonging to Chistoffel Thijsz., to whom Rembrandt owed many debts. He may have created this print as a token of appeasement.
In representing fellow painter, Jan Asselyn (ca.1615–1652), Rembrandt combined both a formal depiction and an indication of the sitter’s profession. Asselyn stands confidently, dressed in the attire of a successful man. Though he is not dressed to paint, Asselyn stands near the tools of his trade—a desk holding a palette and brushes—emphasizing his identification as an artist. In the first state this etching included an easel and painting in the background, which Rembrandt removed in the second state. For this impression, Rembrandt experimented with a thick absorbent piece of Japanese paper and left a transparent layer of ink across the entire palette, giving the portrait a delicate, silvery tone that softened the light and lent a luminosity to the print.
Rembrandt likely used this specific pose to conceal the sitter’s crippled hand on his hip. The foreshortened view of this arm, along with its ruffled cuff and clutched fabric, was intended to hide what many at the time considered a deformity.
Over the centuries, many artists have depicted the pivotal moment in the Old Testament story from Genesis when Abraham, in obedience to God’s command, attempts to sacrifice his favorite son, Isaac. While an angel prevented the father’s deadly blow, Abraham’s submission to God was proven with his intent.
Here, Rembrandt focused on the parent-child dialogue that precedes the narrative climax. As Abraham and Isaac ascend the mountain to the place of sacrifice, Isaac realizes they had brought no animal to sacrifice. He questioned his father about the matter, to which Abraham explains that God will provide the offering—the moment we see in this work. As Abraham replies and gestures toward heaven, Isaac, carrying the kindling wood, listens with reservation. His concern foreshadows the events that lie before him. Rembrandt’s portrayal of their relationship, in which Isaac must trust and obey his father, provides an interesting parallel for the relationship between Abraham and God.
Although this work portrays a goldsmith laboring over an inanimate sculpture, it is intended to suggest a strong dimension of human relationship. The sculpture is figural, and the metalworker embraces the work so tenderly that it could almost be viewed as a real person. In turn, the sculpture, representing the virtue of Charity, embraces the children at her waist. Both the artist’s and Charity’s heads are bowed, suggesting an emotional bond between artist and the subject of his work.
Compassion for others is the main focus of this etching as a poor family receives alms from the man on the left. Notice how Rembrandt situated the donor within a doorway, the solid architecture of his house filling the left part of the composition. The peasant family, conversely, stands before emptiness. This blank space not only underscores their poverty, but also serves to highlight the beggars themselves. Solidly rendered, the beggars occupy the central position of this work, heightening their importance. Rembrandt drew attention to the actual charitable exchange by providing a white backdrop behind the hands of the giver and the receiver.
Rembrandt returned to the subject of Christ preaching with this more tightly composed work. Again, Christ dominates the center of this etching, but the chaotic assembly found in "The Hundred Guilder Print" has been replaced by a group of rapt devotees, engrossed in the sermon being presented to them. Rembrandt cleverly separated the divine Christ from his followers by placing him on a raised ledge. But look closely—the platform is nearly blank, giving the impression that Christ is levitating.
Once again, Rembrandt depicted the congregants with fresh individualism and a spectrum of variation, making this biblical event feel part of our real world. Rembrandt was careful to add behavioral realism. Notice that the young boy at the bottom is more interested in drawing in the dirt with his finger than in listening to Christ’s sermon.
Kristin Spangenberg, Curator of Prints, Cincinnati Art Museum
Emily Holtrop, Director of Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum
Drew Yakscoe, Administrative Assistant for Learning and Interpretation, Cincinnati Art Museum