This will be my final blog for Te Papa after a Rembrandt-filled summer. Spending this much time with a relatively small group of works (just under a hundred prints all up) means noticing details that might have escaped you at first glance, like the little upside-down face on the Virgin Mary’s knee in the print below – the surrealistic trace of an earlier composition.
Rembrandt’s etchings reward close looking. He seems to have delighted in hiding significant details in the undergrowth or in the far background of his prints, as if playing a game of ‘I spy’. But often what we notice is as much determined by the collection that a print forms part of, as it is by the print itself. For this post, I thought I’d situate some of Te Papa’s Rembrandts alongside works from outside the collection, enabling us to get a better picture of how this amazing artist ticked.
It seems odd at first that in The Virgin and Child in the clouds, Rembrandt didn’t bother to burnish out his abandoned sketch before etching over it with the new image; instead, he left the little face for all to see, a discordant note in a devotional image. He did the same thing with Peasant family on the tramp, in which an earlier version of the peasant man’s head floats off to the side at a 90 degree angle. To make sense of these two disembodied sketches, it helps to look at them in the context of The artist drawing from the model (not in Te Papa’s collection, below).
Rembrandt started work on this print in about 1639. He sketched out the entire composition in drypoint, making changes as he went along – the model, for instance, has two pairs of feet, one above the other, from where Rembrandt has shortened her legs. Then, starting with the background so that any slips with the etching needle wouldn’t ruin any carefully completed main figures, he began to ‘finish’ the print. But he never finished it. As the National Galleries of Scotland website states: ‘It has been suggested that Rembrandt died before he managed to finish the etching, or that he deliberately left it unfinished as a means of illustrating his technique for the instruction of his pupils.’ Rembrandt’s reasons for stopping work on the plate are unclear. At any rate, its unfinished state didn’t deter him from publishing it, and more than a decade later he was still issuing prints from it (the impression above wasn’t printed until 1652).
The fact that Rembrandt was happy to put his name to such a patently unfinished work sheds light on both The Virgin and Child in the clouds and Peasant family on the tramp: the undisguised presence of the two ‘mystery faces’ begins to look less like an anomaly and much more like a deliberate decision. Clearly Rembrandt saw that print collectors hungered not only for rare and beautiful images, but also for a sense of insight into the inner workings of genius. He capitalised on this hunger by leaving occasional visible traces of his own artistic methods, granting buyers the behind-the-scenes glimpses they desired.
Even in the earliest years of his career, Rembrandt was already presenting himself as an untamed genius in his paintings and etchings. Before he moved from Leiden to Amsterdam, the youthful Rembrandt etched about ten tiny, expressive self-portraits, two of which are in Te Papa’s collection: the Self-portrait, frowning: bust (above) and the Self-portrait in a fur cap: bust, both 1630. Though barely larger than postage stamps, these self-portraits ‘are radically different from any that had been done before’ according to Arthur Wheelock, curator at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
What sets Rembrandt’s self-portraits apart is his deliberately bohemian appearance in them. Most seventeenth-century artists’ portraits show them as gentleman painters, dressed in fine clothes in order to promote the intellectual status of their profession. But Rembrandt showed himself scruffy, wild-eyed and brooding, using his own face as a very recognisable backdrop for the whole parade of human emotions. The extreme expressiveness and individuality of his self-portraits helped foster Rembrandt’s reputation as an artist in a league of his own.
He crafted his own myth with such success that people have always sought to find Rembrandt’s personal life in his works. Te Papa’s Bearded man, in a furred oriental cap and robe (below), is traditionally said to be a portrait of the artist’s father, despite no real evidence to support the claim. The print was possibly intended as a companion piece to The artist’s mother seated, in an oriental headdress (not in Te Papa’s collection, below). Again, the identification of the sitter as Rembrandt’s mother is traditional and postdates the print by well over a century: it first appears in 1792, inscribed on the back of a copy by the artist Francesco Novelli, by which time the Rembrandt cult was thriving.
Whether or not they depict Rembrandt’s parents, the two prints are exquisitely etched and minutely individualised. The old woman, with her fine wrinkles, drooping lids and pursed lips, has all the formidable dignity of the matriarchs in contemporary Dutch portraiture – though in her exotic headdress and furs she has none of their starch-ruffed stiffness.
Rembrandt’s interest in human expressions extends not just to portraits and figure studies, but also to his grandest religious subjects. Even his harshest critics valued the genuineness and immediacy of the emotions expressed by his figures. The death of the Virgin at Te Papa (1639, below) is a beautiful example of how he depicted sublime religiosity with complete humanity.
The angel appearing to the shepherds (not at Te Papa, below) is an even more striking instance of this. It is perhaps the most ambitious print of Rembrandt’s early career, and far and away the most baroque of all his etched religious subjects. He pictures the very instant after the arrival of the angel, who has not yet had time to utter the words ‘Fear not’; one of the shepherds, mid-fall, has yet to hit the ground, and the next shepherd stands dazed by the sudden blaze of light flooding the dark landscape. The animals’ emotions are just as vividly portrayed as the humans’: the panicking livestock are scattering in all directions. Rembrandt obviously enjoyed the subject, as he returned to it a year later in Christ driving the money changers from the Temple.
The flocks of cows and sheep, tumbling wildly, are a humorous sight. It can be all too easy to forget, when thinking of Geniuses and Great Art, that even Great Artists have their lighter side. Rembrandt in particular has a mischievous sense of humour – after all, this is the man who drew the famous Satire on art criticism and who painted the young Ganymede wetting himself.
In 1630, he painted the biblical story of the good Samaritan (London: Wallace Collection). The composition was complex and experimental, but there was nothing out of the ordinary about his subject. This changed in 1633, when he reproduced the painting in print – and added a prominently pooing dog in the foreground (not in Te Papa’s collection, below). The inclusion of such a figure in a large-scale religious work is testament to the young Rembrandt’s very Dutch sense of scatological (and sacrilegious) humour (cf. Jan and Andries Both’s equally scatological print Smell, featured in my previous blog post).
All it takes is a work like The good Samaritan to make prints with a subtler humour reveal their irreverent side. Take, for example, Te Papa’s Baptism of the eunuch (1641, below). At first sight it appears to be a straightforward biblical scene (though the animals, with their hefty dose of personality, can threaten to steal the show). But then – with a good magnifying glass – you might notice the two naked female bathers, reduced to a few tiny, sketchlike strokes in the background. It’s got to be the slyest union of the sacred and the profane that I’ve ever spotted in an artwork (typical Rembrandt). Of course, there’ll be more details that I haven’t noticed: it’s a perfect illustration of what there is to see if you look carefully not just at what’s in an artwork, but also at the artworks around it.
And if any fairy godmothers out there are feeling particularly generous, Te Papa would be delighted to receive fine impressions of one or more of the above works for its collection!
VUW Summer Scholar, Collections