Our Rembrandts: A conversation on Te Papa’s golden age prints

Our Rembrandts: A conversation on Te Papa’s golden age prints

Chance Wilson, who’s writing his University of Auckland MA thesis on Rembrandt prints in the public collections of Aotearoa New Zealand, recently visited Te Papa to examine our remarkable holdings of this iconic artist. Here are his top five favourites from our collection.

Te Papa’s collection of almost 100 prints by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is something of a miracle. Consisting largely of donations by Bishop Ditlev Monrad (1811–1887) and Sir John Ilott (1884–1973), it is certainly New Zealand’s largest. Once divided between several Wellington institutions, it was recently united in full.

An incredibly broad, eclectic mix, Te Papa’s Rembrandts can be traced back all over Europe, to reprinters, plate reworkers, and to the artist himself. Thus it was quite a challenge when Curator Historical International Art Dr Mark Stocker asked me which were my five favourites!

Master of light – The death of the Virgin

My first instinct always was to choose Death of the Virgin, a work reflecting Rembrandt’s mastery of light.

Rembrandt's 'The death of the Virgin'
Rembrandt van Rijn, The death of the Virgin, 1639. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1957. Te Papa (1957-0003-1)

Appropriately, the work depicts the moment of the Virgin Mary’s last breath, one of sublime religiosity. The lower half shows the sombre silence of death, while inaudible prayers and peering onlookers surround the Virgin’s frail body, near-consumed by her bed. Above, heaven opens and from blinding light an angel steps forward, surrounded by cherubs.

Rembrandt is renowned for capturing the nuances of light. Here it is a subtle yet dramatic affair. Below, meticulous hatching shifts seamlessly throughout from the brightest to the most shadowed depths of the room before the intense heavenly light illuminates the Virgin from above. Linking the two halves, this light intrudes upon the scene, casting her and everything else it touches in outline.

The true art of Rembrandt’s light however, lies in the minutiae. The Virgin is set deep within the work as overlapping figures and furniture build the dramatic perspective. Those behind her bed, however, are shown through the beam of holy light. While the foremost figures of this group are clearest, each receding layer is depicted with lighter shading and finer lines, seemingly blotting them out with light.

My favourite aspect here is a subtle Rembrandtian motif counterpointing light and shadow. In his prints, he sometimes placed a scene’s darkest objects in the foreground. Here an unused chair and a seated man play this role. Contrasting with the lightest passages, these elements ground the work. By showing his darkest tones, Rembrandt emphasises the true concentrated power of heaven’s light.

Master of the dark – The adoration of the shepherds: a night piece

We must equally acknowledge Rembrandt’s mastery of absent light, that is, darkness. Te Papa’s best example here is The Adoration of the Shepherds: A Night Piece.

Rembrandt's 'The adoration of the shepherds: a night piece'
Rembrandt van Rijn, The adoration of the shepherds: a night piece. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1955. Te Papa (1955-0012-12)

In this work, the shepherds arrive at the scene of Christ’s birth. Against pitch night, their lantern subtly illuminates their way. A second, stronger light emerges from just outside the far right, sculpting itself around oncoming group, defining their silhouettes amidst masses of shadow, and revealing the holy family. The only fully discernible faces are those of Christ and Mary. Scenery is virtually non-existent with only planks of wood and the silhouette of grass in the foreground visible.

Rembrandt captures the nature of darkness effortlessly. Unlike light, darkness is incredibly difficult to create in prints. As a printmaker, he only employed intaglio processes, incising his compositions into copperplates before printing. While blank copper created light, darkness required arduous, repeated hatching. Credibility depended on delicacy. Over-hatch and there would be no tonal difference; under-hatch and unnatural bright spots would ruin any illusion.

Not only masterfully nuanced, this work is also dreamlike. On first viewing, one’s eyes are initially drawn to the shepherds’ lantern, the brightest spot at the print’s centre. From here, the eye shifts, noticing other passages of white space – the manger’s wood, touches of white fabrics. As this continues, the eye decodes the darkness and the crowded figures peering towards the Madonna and Child. While it’s a crude analogy, this deciphering is like one’s eyes adjusting to the dark in real life.

Sketching in copper – Man in a coat and fur cap leaning against a bank

My third choice acknowledges the breadth of Rembrandt’s style as a printmaker. While he produced numerous highly naturalistic prints capturing a sense of reality, others like Man in a Coat and Fur Cap Leaning Against a Bank, reflect a distinctly graphic, sketch-like style.

Rembrandt's 'Man in a coat and fur cap leaning against a bank'
Rembrandt van Rijn, Man in a coat and fur cap leaning against a bank, about 1630. Gift of Bishop Monrad, 1869. Te Papa (1869-0001-421)

In this work, a man leans on a walking stick, resting on some nature excursion, contemplative but calm. A genre scene, showing everyday, ordinary events, this was one of many Rembrandt prints many depicting the elderly and peasant class.

Rembrandt was one of the first artists to give his prints a sketch-like quality. Recalling his drawn style, such works possess an immediacy, a rush to capture the scene. Here, for example, outlines are conveyed with an exact brevity and quick strokes. The beard and hat are textured by dashes and jagged lines. Passages of hatching are one swift motion.

This print also shows Rembrandt’s subtle reliance on clothing to communicate character. While this was normal in art, he not only denotes poverty here, but uses masses of fabric to overwhelm the old man, emphasising posture and frailty. In being upright but reliant on the walking stick, the man is clearly old, but not ailing or deathly: though elderly, he is active. Rembrandt does not simply make him an old man; he subtly uses clothing rather than flesh to communicate a tenuous physicality.

The finest Rembrandt – Woman Bathing Her Feet at a Brook

So far, I’ve favoured Rembrandt’s technical achievements, his virtuosic flourishes. For my next choice, however, I am considering the physical prints themselves and their quality. Here, Te Papa’s impression of Woman Bathing Her Feet at a Brook is an obvious standout.

Rembrant's 'Woman bathing her feet at a brook'
Rembrandt van Rijn, Woman bathing her feet at a brook, 1658. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1952. Te Papa (1952-0003-49)

Contrary to the title, she is neither bathing nor by a brook. An enigmatic Venus, she seems to sit on soft fabric, a tassel hanging by her legs. Her downward gaze, together with the material and her (minimal) costume hint at a real-life identity. Despite plant-like ephemera above her, she seems indoors, the seat backing visible behind her.

In prints, impression quality largely relies on paper and lines. With paper, quality depends on discolouration, deterioration, and damage. With lines, although printing errors or false biting can be misleading, quality is based on precision and strength. This is because, when printed, copperplates gradually deteriorated under the press’s pressure. Strong, black lines signify early, high-quality impressions; lighter, greyish ones later, poor-quality printings. Although Te Papa’s Rembrandts are never poor-quality, there are virtually no fine-quality impressions.

Woman Bathing is a major exception. It is not perfect, however. The paper shows foxing – yellow-brown dots on paper that unavoidably come with age. Yet its lines are like none of Te Papa’s other Rembrandts. The ink is rich and full, elevating subtle tonal modelling. Additionally, surface tone – residual ink left on a plate when printed – creates a subtle wash-like effect, reducing paper-ink contrast and making the modelling more naturalistic. Digital images do it no justice: it’s magnificent!

Our oddities – The Ship of Fortune & The Hundred Guilder Print

My last choice was a dilemma. With 314 prints attributed to him, Rembrandt’s output was vast to say the least. Yet his oddities are rarely discussed. As Te Papa owns several of them, I am choosing not one but two such works.

My first choice is The Ship of Fortune. One of only three book illustrations by Rembrandt, this print heads the third book of Elias Herckmans’ Der Zee-Vaert Lof, a narrative poem depicting notable historical sea voyages.

Rembrant's 'The ship of fortune'
Rembrandt van Rijn, The ship of fortune, 1633. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1967. Te Papa (1967-0002-26)

An amalgam of the book’s events, this print depicts Augustus after Mark Antony’s defeat in the battle of Actium, the temple of Janus’ doors closing, and the ‘resumption of mercantile sea trade’. This makes it one of Rembrandt’s few prints dealing with classical subject matter and is possibly his only symbolic or allegorical print.

Here the imagery is particularly striking. Not only employing symbolism – the nude female on the ship – Rembrandt also etches animals, the shore, ships sailing, and the sea. These are notable as he rarely if ever depicted them; to incorporate them all is surreal. This is also strange as Rembrandt’s Amsterdam was a leading European trade centre, where ships and sailing were integral to everyday life. Furthermore, Amsterdam’s city centre was largely canals. This print is an uncharacteristic anomaly.

My second choice, The Hundred Guilder Print, is controversial. Easily Rembrandt’s most famous print, this work depicts Christ healing the sick from the Book of Matthew. Purportedly made to look unfinished, it was popular among contemporary collectors. Te Papa’s impression, however, is a reworking by Captain William Baillie (1723-1792).

Rembrandt's 'Christ healing the sick'
Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ healing the sick (‘The hundred guilder print’), 1775. Gift of Sir John Ilott, 1963. Te Papa (1963-0005-10)

After Rembrandt’s death, his copperplates were reprinted and frequently reworked by subsequent owners. An amateur printmaker himself, Baillie obtained the Hundred Guilder and several other Rembrandt copperplates in the late 18th century, heavily reworking them. Largely reinforcing the more graphic left-hand side and strengthening Rembrandt’s deteriorated lines, the right-hand side was stylistically altered, giving an eerie appearance. After printing 100 copies, Baillie cut the plate into smaller compositions, destroying the original forever.

The advent of reworking and reprinting is regrettable for sure, but it’s also important. Rembrandt’s copperplates were so commodified that hundreds of reprintings have flooded the art market and countless collections since his death. The Hundred Guilder Print was one of his greatest artistic achievements and, as one of the last times it was printed in full, Te Papa’s impression is thus a swan song. Both as a symbol of Rembrandt’s immense popularity and as a remnant of his legacy, it makes the perfect final choice.

Some Rembrandt homework

See all Rembrandt prints on Te Papa’s Collections Online >

Read about Rembrandt’s printing processes >

Te Papa’s blog Taking the Rembrandts for a Walk: A Look Outside the Collection by Anna Rigg

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