The end of the twentieth century, and beginning of the twenty-first, have seen no diminution of interest in the seventeenth-century artist Rembrandt van Rijn, at least as gauged by museum exhibitions. Exhibitions on Rembrandt’s self portraits (London and The Hague, 1999-2000), his depictions of women (London and Edinburgh, 2001), his early Leiden works (separate exhibitions in Boston, 2000, and Kassel and Amsterdam, 2001-2002) and his prints (Amsterdam and London, 2001-2002) all attested to the continued popularity of Rembrandt’s art with modern audiences. As themed shows, these exhibitions also reflected a desire to illuminate specific aspects of Rembrandt’s art, as opposed to the staging of a monographic retrospective of his entire career as an artist.
Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, shown at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago in 2003-04, would at first glance appear to differ from these other exhibitions in surveying the artist’s career more broadly. Yet despite its title, this most recent Rembrandt exhibition was above all devoted to a thematic presentation of Rembrandt’s prints: 160 were included in it, as compared to 35 drawings and 23 paintings. Clifford S. Ackley, whose 1980 exhibition catalogue Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt holds a place of absolute distinction in the scholarship of Dutch prints, curated the exhibition. His perspicacious choice was to define “Rembrandt’s journey” through a thematic approach that grouped works predominantly by subject matter, and only secondarily by chronology.
Unlike many contemporary exhibition catalogues, Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, is not intimidating to the general public in length or scholarship, yet it still maintains value for serious students of Dutch art. Four essays precede the catalogue entries, two by Ackley, and two by his Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, colleagues, Ronni Baer and Thomas E. Rassieur. Ackley’s first essay traces the exhibition’s theme of “Rembrandt’s Artistic Journey” and provides a general introduction to Rembrandt’s art, including a useful section on print connoisseurship. In the second essay, Ackley discusses the use of gesture and pose by Rembrandt in his biblical etchings as a primary means of achieving expressiveness. Though neither essay is particularly innovative, they stand as brief, readable surveys of their subjects. In “Rembrandt’s Oil Sketches,” Ronni Baer takes on the unenviable task of discussing a subject largely covered only a few years previously by Ernst van de Wetering in his essay in Rembrandt the Printmaker(Amsterdam-London 2000, pp. 36-63). While Van de Wetering organized his essay around discussion of the relationship between Rembrandt’s oil sketches and his prints, either executed or hypothesized, Baer treats each of the ten oil sketches independently and hence in greater detail. She also includes in her discussion one painting not treated by Van de Wetering: David with the Head of Goliath before Saul of 1627, now in the Kunstmuseum, Basel. As she admits, the painting is an ‘anomaly’ when placed among Rembrandt’s other oil sketches because of its range of color (the others are essentially monochrome sketches). However, its status as the earliest of Rembrandt’s oil sketches might well account for this difference. Baer’s other contribution is to treat the issue of the posthumous reception of the oil sketch in European art up into the twentieth century as a way of understanding current attention to Rembrandt’s oil sketches. The issue of the later reception of Rembrandt’s art is one traced in nearly all the introductory essays to the catalogue, as well as in some of the catalogue entries. This emphasis is certainly a welcome trend in museum scholarship.
Thomas Rassieur describes the evolution of Rembrandt’s techniques over the course of his career as a printmaker, and the reader’s sense of indeed “Looking over Rembrandt’s Shoulder” at “The Printmaker at Work” is testament to the writer’s skill. Rassieur’s essay conveys in short compass the same vivid level of characterization and description of Rembrandt’s printmaking art as Christopher White’s unparalleled book Rembrandt as an Etcher first did a generation ago. Rassieur, though, has the advantage of recent research on Rembrandt’s papers and their watermarks, thus providing surer ground for speculation about, for example, the reprinting of plates worked up at an earlier date. As a result, this essay is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in understanding the singularity of Rembrandt’s approach to printmaking.
The thematically arranged catalogue entries are supplemented by an exhibition list that provides the technical information and provenance for each object. This allows the authors of the catalogue entries (Ackley, Rassieur, Sue Welsh Reed, and William W. Robinson of the Fogg Art Museum) to discuss several works of art within each entry, thus building on the exhibition’s premise: to explore Rembrandt’s engagement with subjects repeatedly throughout his career. This organization worked well overall, both in the exhibition itself and in the catalogue. (This author saw the exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.) For example, the discussion of “Head Studies and Fantasy Portraits” from the 1630s (cat. nos. 28-34) helped to highlight the importance of this category in Rembrandt’s art in the earlier part of his career. The attempt to maintain some chronological organization as well, however, at times frustrates the reader. For example, Rembrandt’s earliest depictions of the artist in his studio (nos. 18-19) are separated from later renderings (nos. 85-89), while examples of the Presentation in the Temple from several decades are discussed together (nos. 1-3). To understand the changes in Rembrandt’s approach to self-portraiture over time, readers must peruse three separate catalogue entries; such an organization serves least the general audience for such a catalogue. The entries are consistently interesting, but in a number of cases the results of recent scholarship could have been incorporated for still greater effectiveness. In addition to the technical studies of papers and watermarks conducted in recent years, the other important scholarly trend has been to treat Rembrandt’s prints as fully realized works of art that deserve the same kind of contextual scholarship his paintings have long enjoyed. While some of the publications that best exemplify such scholarship are present in the bibliography, others are not, such as Shelley Perlove’s articles on Rembrandt’s biblical imagery. In other cases, the insights provided by works that are cited in the bibliography, such as Stephanie Dickey’s dissertation and articles, are referenced in the catalogue essays but not in the entries. This deprives the reader of the benefit of all the most recent scholarship, and as a result, a number of the catalogue entries, which are so strong in their discussion of technique and Rembrandt’s engagement with specific subjects, read a bit thinly in regard to the larger cultural and social contexts.
While Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher does not ultimately break new ground in its scholarship, as a permanent record of the first extensive American exhibition of Rembrandt’s prints in a generation, it is nonetheless a welcome contribution. The authors deserve praise for their achievements in so vividly characterizing Rembrandt’s accomplishments as a printmaker and painter, and the thematic relationship of his prints to his paintings and drawings throughout his career.
Case Western Reserve University