Etchings of Rembrandt at Museum De Reede in Antwerp
Lovers of the work of Dutch painter Rembrandt should head for Antwerp. Eighty etchings from a private collection are currently on show at Museum De Reede in the northern port city. It’s a unique opportunity to familiarise yourself with an often overlooked aspect of his art.
It’s innovative paintings like the “Night Watch”, portraits and self-portraits that made the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) world famous. Rembrandt was particularly versatile painting in oils, but also a magician with the etching needle and printing press.
In all Rembrandt produced nearly 300 etchings. Over eighty, belonging to a private collection, are now on show at Museum De Reede in Antwerp. Etchings were no secondary effort for Rembrandt. All were works in their own right. It’s a technique that he worked to perfectionate all his life.
An etching is an image that is drawn on a layer of wax attached to a copper plate that is then used to create a print on paper. Several prints of most etchings are made. Once printed Rembrandt had the habit of adding a few changes to the print creating various versions.
The etchings on display in Antwerp hail from the private collection of Dutch collector Jaap Mulders. He admires what he calls Rembrandt’s “unprecedented craftsmanship”, but also his sharp eye. “For me Rembrandt was a photographer avant la lettre” says Mulders.
Take his magnificent drawing of the Biblical figure “The Good Samaritan”. The wounded man has just been taken into an inn. It’s an edifying story, but in the foreground the drawing includes dog’s mess. “That isn’t the kind of idea you come up with if you are a run of the mill artist” says Mulders.
Rembrandt’s etchings possess astonishing detail. The painter observed ordinary people in their everyday activities with a lot of humour. “The rat poison seller plies his wares from door to door carrying a basket of living rats on a long pole. To show the effectiveness of his poison dead rats are displayed hanging from the basket!
Beggars, fiddlers, poor farmers and a man passing water… With a couple of strokes of the etching needle Rembrandt depicts them in their rags carrying their instruments. In many cases the etchings are no bigger than a postage stamp of today. Rembrandt’s works also include nudes that are amazingly true to life. Marks on the woman’s legs reveal she has just removed her socks.
Was Rembrandt really a photographer avant la letter? In any case he was a genius at making selfies. He looked in the mirror and created a representation of himself a bit like a finger exercise. Some would say a doodle. Museum De Reede shows off a small collection of mini self-portraits in which the artist displays a wealth of expressions: Rembrandt frowns, grins, shouts, shows surprise. There is a Rembrandt in fine clothes and hat, Rembrandt having a bad hair day, an etching in which you can count every single hair on his head.
Larger etchings display Biblical scenes, a preaching Jesus and Christ before Pontius Pilate. Rembrandt depicts a wealth of interesting figures, with faces that speak volumes. His compositions are sheer perfection as he moves the boundaries of what you can do with light and dark. Several of his works also depict landscapes.
These are works drawn and etched four centuries ago, Rembrandt’s miniature masterpieces. They are as lively today as if they were created yesterday.
‘Rembrandt – Photographer avant la lettre’ runs at Museum De Reede in Antwerp till 22 May 2023.