Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 30, 2004
Clifford S. Ackley, Ronni Baer, and Thomas E. Rassieur Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2003. 344 pp.; 80 color ills.; 160 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0878466770)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, October 26, 2003–January 18, 2004; Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, February 14–May 9, 2004
Thumbnail

See Susan Dackerman’s review of this catalogue.

In this beautifully produced catalogue, the primary theme of gesture and expressiveness in Rembrandt’s storytelling is set forth in the introduction by Clifford Ackley. A secondary theme is the reception of the artist’s work, examined by Ronni Baer with respect to the historical appreciation of the oil sketches and Thomas Rassieur regarding the making of prints. This catalogue accompanies the exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago. Those fortunate to attend the exhibition will have the stupendous experience of viewing a judicious selection of works nearly always separated by significant distances. The title, Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher, implies several journeys: Rembrandt’s artistic development, from youth to maturity to old age; the curators’ study of the works; and the viewer–reader’s insight that proceeds from seeing the works and studying the catalogue.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has an illustrious record of collecting and exhibiting Rembrandt prints. The 1969 exhibition Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher, curated by Eleanor Sayre, Felice Stampfle, and Ackley for that museum and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, presented twenty-eight etchings in multiple states, a rare occasion to study the Dutch master’s working process. In 1981 Ackley organized Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt as an extensive survey of the medium with an emphasis on Rembrandt, placing many of his subjects for style and theme in the context of seventeenth-century print culture. For that catalogue, William W. Robinson (who also contributed to the present one) wrote an excellent essay on collecting and connoisseurship in seventeenth-century Europe. The present book builds implicitly upon the foundation of connoisseurship in the 1969 volume, and explicitly upon the historical context of print study in the 1981 catalogue; there is very little duplication among the 1981 and 2003 publications. The curatorial team of Ackley, Baer, and Rassieur, all at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a formidable concentration in Dutch art.

Comparison of the current show and its catalogue to a number of recent exhibitions in Europe with overlapping concerns is inevitable. Four of these are: Rembrandt’s Women, which appeared in 2001 at the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Royal Academy of Arts in London; Rembrandt by Himself, held at London’s National Gallery in 1999 and the Mauritshuis in The Hague in 1999–2000; Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop, staged at the Altes Museum in Berlin, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, and the National Gallery in London in 1991–92; and Rembrandt the Printmaker, displayed at the Rijksmuseum and the British Museum in London in 2000–1. The Boston team must be commended for their catalogue, which generally complements the publications for these exhibitions, and for presenting the artist’s working methods in paint, pen, and copper plate for a varied audience.

The essays and entries in the catalogue, aimed at a sophisticated yet general readership, present key aspects of Rembrandt research. The specialist may find some of the entries synthetic. Much of the text communicates the experience of close visual examination of Rembrandt’s etchings by the curators, an examination that has been a long and intense process. By following the development of a theme in drawings and prints, the viewer gains the experience of looking over Rembrandt’s shoulder. Rassieur’s essay examines the artist’s etching technique and proof prints so that the reader can share the process of etching in the studio. By making changes in the copper plate, using different papers, and varying the ink tone, Rembrandt exploited the technical capabilities of etching. Although the print medium was designed to produce multiple and uniform images, Rembrandt transformed the process to create unique impressions. He did so self-consciously, as if he was aware of how eagerly collectors would seek rare images. And he may have cultivated an unevenness of finish in many of his prints with the knowledge of the theoretical background of antiquity, through Franciscus Junius’s Painting of the Ancients (1637; 1641 Dutch edition) (57).

Baer discusses the ten roughly worked oil paintings by Rembrandt that may be defined as oil sketches. By relating Rembrandt’s interest in the oil sketch to the Venetian and Flemish traditions, she emphasizes both the style and the purpose of these works. Executed on paper, canvas, and panel, these paintings are markedly different in their degree of finish. Five may have been made for a biblical print series, a purpose that is realized only in the case of the Ecce Homo (an oil sketch in London, National Gallery, for the etching by Jan Joris van Vliet, cat. nos. 48–49). Two are portraits for etchings (of Bueno and Coppenol); two seem to have been considered finished grisailles (Baptist Preaching, Concord of the State), and one, a small head, is a character study, or tronie. Rembrandt had a systematic way of working that is not yet fully understood, but that is disguised by his cultivation of a rough, seemingly haphazard approach to his workshop. Unlike the efficiently organized studio of Peter Paul Rubens, whose oil sketches were autograph and often expressly made as guides for more finished works to be carried out by assistants, Rembrandt made few working models for others to translate into another format. Two paintings exhibited here that might be related to the oil sketches in function are Cyrus and Daniel (cat. no. 35) and Abraham and the Angels (cat. no. 141), although these two are more finely worked than the other ten. Baer builds upon the essay by Ernst van de Wetering (“Rembrandt’s Oil Sketches” in Rembrandt the Printmaker [London: British Museum Press, 2000). The material gathered by both scholars signals the need for more examination of this aspect of Rembrandt’s work.

Of the 216 exhibited works, twelve are paintings, seven are oil sketches, six are copper plates, and the rest drawings and etchings. The organization of the catalogue is both thematic and chronological, which provokes interesting comparisons. It allows, for example, three prints of the Presentation in the Temple—of 1630, ca. 1640, and 1654—to be studied together (cat. nos. 1–3). It also places the two prints of Jupiter and Antiope—of 1631 and 1659—in a visually eloquent pairing (cat. nos. 98–99). Here, the suggestion that the earlier print depicts Danaë may not be convincing; however, there are vague squiggles that might be droplets indicating the gold shower, and the print was entitled Danaë in Valerius Röver’s 1731 inventory. This discussion and those in the other recent catalogues bear a general resemblance to one another (see vol. 2 of Christopher Brown, Jan Kelch, and Pieter van Thiel, eds., Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991], cat. no. 40; Erik Hinterding, Ger Luijten, and Martin Royalton-Kisch, Rembrandt the Printmaker [London: British Museum Press, 2000], cat. no. 90; and Julia Lloyd Williams, ed., Rembrandt’s Women [New York: Prestel, 2001], cat. nos. 13 and 134). In any event, these two Antiope etchings provide an opportunity to discuss Rembrandt’s frame of reference for myths, how he may have cultivated a deliberate ambiguity, and how the earlier etching is a secular complement to the 1634 Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (B. 39; cat. no. 97).

The entry on the etching Abraham’s Sacrifice of 1655 (cat. no. 68) provides an insightful discussion of details often overlooked in this print, but fails to note that Rembrandt followed the writings of Flavius Josephus for the detail of Isaac’s unbound hands. Josephus’s account is well established in the Rembrandt literature on this print, so this omission seems to take issue with the interpretation, based on Josephus, that Isaac compliantly and willingly obeyed Abraham (see publications by Christian Tümpel in the bibliography and also cat. no. 39 in vol. 2 of Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop).

Given the theme of gesture and acting as the prime and unifying direction of this catalogue, the theatricality of several of Rembrandt’s compositions is surprisingly underplayed. For example, a reference to contemporary theatrical practice in Medea (cat. no. 138) might have strengthened the discussion (see Jan Konst, “Rembrandt maakt een ets als illustratie voor de editie van Jan Sixtreurspel Medea: de relatie tussen toneel en schilderkunst,”in Een theatergeschiedenis der Nederlanden: Tien eeuwen drama en theater in Nederland en Vlaanderen, eds. R. L. Erenstein et al. [Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1996], 226–33).

The act of listening is important in many of these works. The role of speech is central in Rembrandt’s oeuvre; indeed, it could well be considered the guiding force in his work as a whole. Julius Held’s seminal essay from 1970, “Rembrandt and the Spoken Word,” might have been cited in the notes (though its 1991 English publication appears in the bibliography). Another deserving citation is David Ross Smith’s analysis of the 1638 Adam and Eve etching (“Raphael’s Creation, Rembrandt’s Fall,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 50 (1987): 496 ff.). The observation that Rembrandt characteristically includes proleptic details, alluding to events preceding and following a central action, needs both amplification and recognition in the rhetorical training of the artist and in the general practice of playwrights and poets (20–25). Otherwise, the reader misses a broader consideration of Rembrandt’s theoretical concerns and intellectual formation. Rembrandt’s visualization of narratives as unfolding action in time and space is a constant aspect of his art (see my Rembrandt’s Reading: The Artist’s Bookshelf of Ancient Poetry and History [Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2003], passim and p. 110, for one example, the painting Abduction of Europa of 1632).

The bibliography of Rembrandt’s Journey is extensive, with an emphasis on the etchings. The listings are somewhat inconsistent: some exhibition catalogues are listed by authors, others by place. It would have more helpful to reproduce the comparative illustrations in a larger format. In conclusion, we are grateful for the privilege of entering Rembrandt’s studio.

Amy Golahny
Richmond Professor Emerita, Lycoming College

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.