Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 7, 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

See Amy Golahny’s review of this catalogue.

Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher is the outcome of Clifford Ackley’s own Rembrandt odyssey. His long and intensive study of the artist’s work has resulted in three landmark exhibitions and catalogues, and through these publications the course of Rembrandt print scholarship can be charted over nearly thirty-five years. (Although this exhibition and catalogue include the artist’s work in a variety of media, etchings far outnumber paintings and drawings.) Ackley’s earliest Rembrandt endeavor, Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1969), written jointly with Felice Stampfle, Eleanor Sayre, and Sue Reed, is a demonstration of the exacting connoisseurship undertaken at the time. It was intended to enable museum professionals and print collectors to identify and assess works by the artist. The catalogue is comprised of a brief introductory essay that describes Rembrandt’s creative process and entries that illustrate each etching, accompanied by technical information such as medium, state, paper, and provenance. (The entries do not include any other text.) Ackley’s next exhibition and catalogue, Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1981), expanded the field in a number of ways. For the first time in a major American show, the artist’s prints were presented alongside the printed work of his Dutch contemporaries, allowing Ackley to explore the formal qualities of Rembrandt’s prints in the context of his artistic milieu. In the catalogue entries, he examined the development of Rembrandt’s etching style and his artistic influences, juxtaposing these with references to his biography. He also considered Rembrandt’s choice and treatment of subject matter.

It is this content-based interpretative approach that Ackley pursues most ardently in his latest work. After decades of strict connoisseurship, scholars and curators are concentrating on the subject matter of Rembrandt’s prints. In this vein, Ackley and the other authors scrutinize Rembrandt’s narrative strategies, particularly how the artist visualized the Old and New Testament stories that so fascinated him throughout his lifetime. In Rembrandt’s Journey, Ackley is most interested in Rembrandt as a storyteller, or, more precisely, as a story illustrator. The author maintains that the artist chose particular subjects for their expressive potential and then describes how Rembrandt used his artistic and technical prowess to exploit those possibilities. The crux of Ackley’s argument is that Rembrandt’s use of explicit and subtle gestures creates the appearance of myriad emotions and psychological states, while his manipulation of light effects generates dramatic atmospheric qualities that imbue his prints with a theatrical quality. It was Rembrandt’s perceptive reading of the Bible that allowed him to achieve these effects. In Ackley’s words, “Rembrandt clearly had an unusual ability to imaginatively and empathetically project himself into various roles in biblical narratives, giving familiar stories a new psychological depth and human meaning” (17). This trait made him one of the greatest storytellers of all time.

Unusual for an exhibition catalogue, the entries are grouped by subject rather than chronologically. Multiple works, related by theme, are included within the same entry, with the entry summarizing the biblical tale that is illustrated. For instance, three different depictions of The Presentation in the Temple—from 1630, 1639–41, and 1654—are presented together. In some cases, the authors identify the historical relevance of the theme. In referring to etchings of the Presentation, Ackely cites Michael Zell’s Reframing Rembrandt: Jews and the Christian Image in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), in which Zell claims that the artist’s choice of such an unconventional subject points toward his desire for reconciliation between Jews and Protestants in seventeenth-century Holland. The catalogue is at its best when it incorporates the recent work of scholars like Zell, but for the most part, the prints and their subject matter are not examined within the religious, political, or social contexts of the time. Since so much emphasis is placed on the artist’s depiction of biblical stories, it would have been interesting if the volume had included an essay on Rembrandt’s own religious views and his extremely complicated relationship to the Bible.

Rembrandt’s Journey comes on the heels of another significant Rembrandt print publication, produced by the curators of the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam and the British Museum in London (Eric Hinterding, Ger Luijten, and Martin Royalton-Kisch, Rembrandt the Printmaker [London: British Museum Press, in association with the Rijksmuseum, 2000]). Like its immediate predecessor, the Boston catalogue includes essays on Rembrandt’s prints and oil sketches, but unlike it, does not include one on the drawings. In the essay on prints, Thomas E. Rassieur surveys their aesthetic qualities through an examination of the artist’s working method and materials, from the type of etching ground he used to his selective inking and choice of paper. His rigorous examination of innumerable impressions of Rembrandt’s etchings provides intriguing insights into the artist’s creative process. Like Ernst van de Wetering in the London catalogue, Ronni Baer offers a critical assessment of the artist’s oil sketches—those modestly scaled and roughly sketched paintings often produced on paper. Baer traces the origins of the oil sketch to sixteenth-century Italy, surveys the materials and subjects of Rembrandt’s efforts in the medium, and claims that they may have been intended as models for prints. Seeing the oil sketches and the related prints side-by-side in the catalogue certainly supports this argument. The many reproductions and novel organization of the catalogue make it well worth taking a journey with Rembrandt through this beautifully illustrated book.

Susan Dackerman
Curator, Baltimore Museum of Art

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