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Rembrandt's Etching Technique: An Example   By:

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Contributions from The Museum of History and Technology: Paper 61

Rembrandt's Etching Technique: An Example

Peter Morse

[Illustration: FIGURE 1

Landscape with a hay barn and a flock of sheep. Etching by Rembrandt, shown in original size.]

By Peter Morse

Rembrandt's Etching Technique: An Example

A Rembrandt print in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution has been made the subject of a study of the artist's etching technique. The author is associate curator, division of graphic arts, in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology.

All footnotes appear at the end of this paper.

Rembrandt's print, Landscape with a hay barn and a flock of sheep ,[1] is a singularly apt example of the variety of etching treatment used by the artist in his mature period.[2] The print, in black ink, 83 × 174 mm. in size (approximately 3 1/2 × 7 inches), is signed and dated 1650.[3] It shows a peaceful Dutch landscape along the Onderdijk Road on the south side of the Saint Anthony's Dike, only a short walk from Rembrandt's home in Amsterdam. The picture is, as usual, the mirror reversal of the actual scene.[4]

The observer's attention, from his raised position, is first drawn to the center of the print, attracted by the bright highlights on the trees and barn, then is snapped abruptly to the left side by the figure of the woman outlined against the sky. Now the eye moves slowly across the bottom, noticing the flock of sheep and the shepherd, and is led further by the soft dark line of the creek bank, to pick up the distant town and then the cows on the right. Only after completely circling the composition does one notice the horse, rolling in the grass and joyfully kicking its feet in the air.

Such artistic command seldom comes spontaneously. In Rembrandt's case, it is clearly the result of careful preparation, many years of learning and experience, and hard work in the creation of each picture. Such a process has produced in this print one of nine landscapes which mark a turning point in 1650 a work of stylistic synthesis, which integrates Rembrandt's previous knowledge and leads on to his later masterpieces.

[Illustration: FIGURE 2

Mirror reversal of Landscape with a hay barn and a flock of sheep .]

In 1650 Rembrandt was evidently in a tranquil state of mind. He was 44 years old. Young Hendrickje Stoffels, who had entered his household in 1645 as a maid, was well settled as housekeeper and mistress. Geertghe Dircx who had been the nurse of Rembrandt's son, Titus, since the death of his wife, Saskia, in 1642 had just been taken to an institution after a nasty breach of promise suit.[5] Rembrandt's finances were in good shape; his insolvency was not to come until 1656, after the international economic crisis of 1653.[6] The artist certainly had the fullest confidence and experience in his working methods, having already done close to 250 prints.[7] This state of well being is reflected in the fact that of the 27 prints Rembrandt did in the three years, 1650 1652, no fewer than 14 are landscapes of a serene character.[8] This is an unusually large proportion of a single subject and surely reflects the artist's state of mind, which helped him to produce this masterpiece of serenity, humor, and technical virtuosity.

His etching technique can be clearly studied in this print. In summary, all the evidence shows that Rembrandt here laid a foundation of lines on his plate with a single etching. He then mantled the sketch with rich drypoint lines, to give a sensitive chiaroscuro to the finished work. The integration of etching and drypoint is striking. There are few areas of this print (except the sky) that do not contain both kinds of line.

Rembrandt evidently had an excellent idea of his design before he ever touched the needle to the plate. Though he is often admired for his spontaneity, particularly in his landscapes,[9] this is a misconception. Benesch lists no fewer than 78 landscape drawings by Rembrandt in the years 1648 1650,[10] and there were perhaps many more, now lost or unidentified... Continue reading book >>

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