Dr Mark Stocker, Curator Historical International Art, discusses his Collections Online summaries of Te Papa’s remarkable Rembrandt holdings.
Sharing Rembrandt with the world
Digital technology and art history scholarship/curation are a marriage made in heaven, believe me.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve written database web summaries of every Rembrandt – and wannabe Rembrandt – in Te Papa’s print collection. The next day, the latest summary magically comes up live on Collections Online for the world to read.
The aim behind each summary is to tell you what you need to know about the relevant Rembrandt print: its story, its style, and its specialness.
I link all this to the particular print (or to use the jargon ‘impression’) in the collection.
Compiling my summaries
There are a fair number of ingredients in compiling the Collections summaries. I owe much to my predecessors at Te Papa, particularly Tony Mackle and Mathew Norman, and their careful documentation of each work in question.
More recently, Victoria University summer scholar Anna Rigg did a terrific job, using the Rembrandt buff’s recently-published Bible, The New Hollstein Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts 1400-1700, Rembrandt (2013, 7 vols), to document every work in the collection, inspecting each print to see whether an original or altered copper plate was used to make it. (Art historians call this its ‘state’). Sometimes Rembrandt himself altered the plate, and sometimes they were ‘improved’ by other hands well over a century later…
I look at what has been written about the print. My first port of call is normally the excellent Collection Online database of the British Museum, and its description of the work concerned. Sometimes the entry includes a relevant excerpt from Erik Hinterding’s magisterial Rembrandt, the Printmaker (2000), which discusses what Rembrandt experts have said about it through the centuries, and relates it to other works in his oeuvre. These erudite texts are incorporated, with necessary simplifications and abbreviations, into the summary. Another excellent online source, especially for religious works, is Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver’s book, Rembrandt’s Faith (2009), which is almost as expensive to acquire as a Rembrandt print!
A summary of the summaries
But before all that, it’s important to tell you the basics. Each summary starts with an overview of the significance of Rembrandt’s etchings, and then goes on to discuss the work in question, particularly the following:
- what phase of Rembrandt’s career it dates from: when he was a rising star? Or a more tragic but to us today compelling ‘has-been’ of the Amsterdam art scene, filled with compassion for humanity?
- what is the etching of and about? Is it a self-portrait? A tronie – or character study? A Biblical scene? A genre scene of everyday people, musicians, kids, peasants and beggars? A landscape?
- what are its formal qualities in terms of drawing, hatching and inking? What about its composition, gesture and expression? What should we look for, and more often than not, admire in it? Learning to look is central to art history!
- how can we connect art and life? How does the theme depicted reflect Rembrandt’s likely thoughts and feelings at the time the work was made? This is the area that the public adore, but is full of pitfalls and needs to be handled carefully, otherwise it reveals more about the writer than the artist, which is bad art history!
- where do we place Te Papa’s ‘impression’? Is it a choice specimen, a ‘state’ where the plate was worked on by Rembrandt himself? Or has the plate become worn and been reworked in later times? Or is it even an outright copy, possibly from Rembrandt’s lifetime? Copies can be of great historical interest and are by no means unimpressive in their own right. They prove yet again that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and form part of the great Rembrandt cult.
Other than the British Museum and Hinterding, my sources are many and varied.
Some academics are still snobbish about it, but I reckon Wikipedia just gets better and better.
I’ve made use of entries on Rembrandt’s world, ranging from tronies to Protestant Remonstrants, to biographies of some of his better-known sitters. I also read my Bible.
And I’m not above using – and of course acknowledging – other museums’ web summaries. The Minneapolis Institute of Art (particularly), the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and, in a couple of instances, our good friends the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, have all provided invaluable, if briefer texts.
Finally, art dealers can often comment astutely and intelligently about the particular Rembrandt they have up for sale (yes, I have been tempted on several occasions to take this conversation further!). In utilising them, I remove any gush about ‘masterpieces’, however, and generally go easy on Rembrandt’s soppy humanity. Far more often than not, he’s a steely, telling observer. It’s there in the art.
I hope this is a user-friendly summary of each Rembrandt in Te Papa. If you have any comments or corrections to make, please send them to me. If you’re correct, they will be acted upon and will rapidly go live!