Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Rembrandt: The Embrace of Darkness and Light Tour Blueprint

Exhibition Dates: November 7-January 18, 2010

Rembrandt: The Embrace of Darkness and Light consists of over one hundred prints made by Rembrandt van Rijn between the years 1627 and 1660, roughly. It is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Major sponsorship of the exhibition is provided by Goldcorp. Additional educational programming support is provided by AT&T Nevada. Additional funding provided by Heidi Loeb, the Nevada Arts Council, a state agency, and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Text Panels
In the world of art, the name of Rembrandt (1606–1669) has unparalleled power and appeal. As a painter, he stood at the pinnacle of seventeenth-century European art and dominated the Dutch Golden Age. With a rare genius for psychological insight, he revealed, as had few painters before him, the complexity of the human spirit and the triumph and tragedy of the human condition. But Rembrandt achieved comparable renown in his lifetime for his artistry in an altogether different medium, that of printmaking. Indeed, he numbers among the few great artists to devote nearly equal energy to painting and printmaking. In his thirty-five years of printmaking activity, he worked almost 290 copper plates. Made by means of etching, drypoint, and, to a lesser degree, engraving, his prints brought him international fame and sometimes wealth—and he is hailed by many today as the greatest etcher of all time.

Rembrandt: The Embrace of Darkness and Light features nearly 120 of the artist’s etchings from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The exhibition charts the entire course of Rembrandt’s printmaking career, from the drama and technical prowess of his impatient youth and the unrivaled mastery of his maturity, to the quiet mystery and poetry of his old age. Blessed with an incomparable technical genius and a deep empathy for his fellow men, Rembrandt changed forever the look and feel of the graphic arts. As this exhibition reveals, Rembrandt was an artist who saw himself and his world clearly and directly and conveyed all of it, eloquently, in the dramatic dialogue of darkness and light.

The Young, Ambitious Artist
Rembrandt’s early artistic career unfolded in his hometown of Leiden, Holland, where in about 1626, he produced his first prints. Beginning in 1631, he spent increasing amounts of time in Amsterdam, Europe’s most vibrant commercial center. He went into business there with the art dealer Hendrick Uylenburgh, who provided him with a studio, lodgings, and introductions to patrons. He soon became Amsterdam’s most popular portrait painter, receiving royal commissions from the governor, or Stadhouder, of the Netherlands, Frederik Hendrik. Meanwhile, he entered into collaborative printmaking projects with the Leiden printmaker Johannes van Vliet. In 1634, Rembrandt married Uylenburgh’s cousin Saskia and established his own studio. In both his early paintings and prints, he perfected a High Baroque style marked by heightened emotion and the dramatic use of chiaroscuro (the juxtaposition of intensely lighted and deeply shadowed forms).

Already in his first years as a printmaker, Rembrandt embraced a wide range of subjects, from lofty biblical and mythological themes to portraits and earthy images of everyday life. (In 1641, he added landscapes to his repertoire.) He suffused all of these images with a deep respect and empathy for the human condition.

Young and ambitious, Rembrandt knew that making prints was his means of entry into collections all over Europe. By printing etchings in quantity, he could widely disseminate his artistic inventions, and his prints rapidly found an international following, including markets in France and Italy. Prints also provided Rembrandt with income. Once he had etched a plate, impressions could be printed and sold for many years.

The Artist Obsessed with Fame
By the end of the 1630s, Rembrandt was famous, wealthy, and living like a gentleman. In 1639, he received a major commission for a group portrait of a militia troop, now known as The Night Watch. That same year he bought a large house in Amsterdam with space for his many students. He set up a printmaking studio in it and—avid collector that he was—arranged his own growing collection of art, natural specimens, and curiosities from cultures the world over. In 1641 Saskia gave birth to their beloved son Titus. Despite his successes, sorrow entered Rembrandt’s life in 1642, when Saskia died after a long illness. Thereafter his personal life became increasingly problematic and out-of-step with conventional Dutch society. After Saskia’s death, a widow, Geertje Dircx, arrived to serve as Titus’s nurse and soon became Rembrandt’s mistress. In time, Rembrandt redirected his affections toward a young maid, Hendrickje Stoffels, resulting in lawsuits that led him to have Geertje institutionalized. Rembrandt’s financial situation also worsened. During the 1640s he spent ruinous sums of money on his house and collections. At the same time, his income declined as important patrons, troubled by his lifestyle, started to avoid him. Shifts in the art market also took their toll. Rembrandt’s students became his competitors, some working in his somber style, others adopting the lighter courtly manner popularized by the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck. In the face of his many troubles, Rembrandt’s prints only became more masterful, as his technical achievements deepened and his comprehension of the human heart and spirit became ever more profound.

The Mature Artist
For Rembrandt the 1650s were years of unrelenting personal and financial crisis. In 1649, he stopped paying his mortgage. In 1654, the Dutch Reformed Church excommunicated Rembrandt’s mistress Hendrickje Stoffels for being pregnant and unmarried. Two years later, on the day before his fiftieth birthday, Rembrandt filed for bankruptcy. His goods were sold in a series of auctions lasting three years. Among his personal items inventoried at the time were albums, folders, and baskets of prints by other artists, which he had lovingly collected at great cost over the preceding decades. In 1658 he stopped producing prints in quantity. Perhaps lacking a printing press, he would etch only four more plates before his death in 1669 at age sixty-three.

Despite the gloom of his final period, Rembrandt continued to produce masterpieces. Indeed, his troubles seemed only to deepen the emotional resonance of his later prints, culminating in a series of etchings that serve as intense reveries on life’s most vital forces. Rembrandt’s technical experiments and achievements also heightened the poetry of his later work. Through the special inking of individual impressions from his copper plates and his use of different papers, the artist attained a new range of atmospheric subtlety and emotional nuance as he explored the many possibilities inherent in a single image. One need only compare the two impressions of The Entombment and of Christ Preaching, on view in this gallery, to sense the extraordinary variety of tone and mood that the artist teased out of mere ink and paper.

Rembrandt and the Art of Printmaking
Rembrandt approached etching with an extraordinary freedom and spontaneity, treating varnished copper plates like sheets of paper on which he rapidly sketched his designs. He quickly discovered he could make finer lines than he could with a pen and explored darkness with inks blacker than any painting.

To produce an etching, an artist first coats a copper plate with an acid-resistant coating such as wax or varnish. This layer is called a ground, and the artist uses a needle to scratch through it, exposing the copper as he draws the lines of his design. The plate is then exposed to acid, which eats away or “bites” at the copper where the needle has exposed it. Through biting, the lines become actual grooves in the surface of the plate. The ground is then removed and the copper plate inked and wiped clean, leaving ink only in the grooves.

To print the plate’s design, a press forces dampened paper down into the grooves of the plate to pick up the ink. When peeled away from the plate, the paper reveals a print in mirror image of the inked design. The plate can then be inked and printed again.

About 1640, Rembrandt explored a new dimension in his printmaking as he made expanded use of the drypoint technique to enhance the shading of his etchings and add even richer atmospheric and tonal effects. Rembrandt quickly became a master of the drypoint technique, achieving a visual range and level of optical nuance and subtlety that few artists have come close to rivaling.

With drypoint the artist scratches directly into the copper plate. As his needle incises the plate, it raises up ridges of fine metal fragments, called “burr,” along the edges of the furrows. The ink caught in the burr creates a blurred and velvety effect when printed.

Rembrandt’s Studio: A Cabinet of Curiosities
Throughout his artistic career, Rembrandt established and worked in many different studios. This loosely-interpreted re-creation of Rembrandt’s studio is from a period in the artist’s life during which he had achieved great wealth from his wife Saskia’s dowry and the sale of his artwork.

Along with the tools needed for making art, Rembrandt’s studio was filled with an astonishing collection of objects, including antiquities, stuffed animals, armor, marble busts, coins, shells, and coral. The variety of objects in his kunstcaemer—also known as a cabinet of curiosities—is testimony to the significance of the Age of Exploration and to Rembrandt’s inquisitive nature and success as an artist.

The Dutch Gable
The design of the faux architectural structure in the gallery is loosely based on seventeenth-century Dutch architecture that incorporated a feature known as a Dutch Gable. Typically a decorative convention, a Dutch Gable is one whose sides have a shape made from two curves with a pediment at the top. Use of Dutch Gables first emerged during the Renaissance, and were eventually absorbed into the Baroque Style.

Tour Framework
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. RvR was born on or about July 15, 1606. However, several public records indicate discrepancies in Rembrandt’s own hand that suggest he may have been born in 1605 or 1607. Rembrandt’s parents were the miller Harmen Gerritsz. Van Rijn (1567-1630) and the baker’s daughter Deeltgen Willemsdr. Van Zuytbrouck (c. 1568-1640). He was the ninth of ten children, three of whom died in infancy. While his elder brothers entered the family trades, Rembrandt was given an education that would have enabled him to work outside of these constraints—he chose, however, to leave his education behind and apprentice to Jacob Isaacsz. van Swanenburg in Leiden and later (c. 1625) to Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam.

The Netherlands
In 1600 the Dutch Republic was an opaque, complex system of local and regional governing bodies, which Rembrandt both carefully and at times carelessly navigated.
RvR’s hometown of Leiden was proud of its history (bloody, in relation to independence from Spanish rule); its University and its textile manufacturing. Leiden was associated with perseverance, bravery, and victory (following the 1574 battle of the 80 Years’ War).

The Work
Rembrandt scholars are an argumentative bunch: they agree, generally, however, on the attribution to Rembrandt of 285 etchings, 875 (of 1,595) drawings, and 250 (of 400) paintings. RvR, like Caravaggio, was said “to respect no master but Nature”—but he had extensive collections of Italian art and some of his own countrymen as well, including as many as 9,000 works on paper in his studio by the time of his bankruptcy in 1656. In an inventory of his studio created that year, Rembrandt listed eight paintings by or after six different sixteenth-century Italian painters. RvR’s highly conscious use of dark and light in constructing compositions was inspired by Caravaggio’s (1571-1610) Madonna of the Rosary, even though he hadn’t studied Caravaggio except through his contemporaries’ distillations of Caravaggio’s style.

Antwerp Master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) would have been the only other impressor besides Lucas van Leyden and Maarten van Heemskerck. RvR identifid with Peter Paul Rubens, but also competed with him. RvR was also, interestingly, fascinated by miniature paintings of Mughal court of India—and as it turns out, it was in the Mughal Courts of India that the Hooka or Hookah was invented, and why one is included in Colin’s recreation of Rembrandt’s studio.

Art and Faith
When Rembrandt’s grandparents were born in the 1530s, the art world of Leiden was by and large an adjunct to church life. Workshops of stained-glass artists, weavers of textiles and tapestries, sculptors in wood and stone, gold- and silversmiths, cabinetmakers and of course painters found the largest market for their skills in the church and its donors. Art itself was sacred, finding its meaning in Catholic dogma, ritual and spirituality. Artists were hired explicators of these values. On August 26, 1566, however, all changed--a day of iconoclasm in Leiden, changed the art market in the city (and throughout the country) overnight.

As far as is known, not a single painting or print by Rembrandt was painted for a church or placed in one in his lifetime. In the era of the Reformation, then, the Catholic church and liturgy had claimed a position of intermediary between people and the Bible (because of Latin’s prominence in the liturgy), direct connection to the Bible became increasingly important to Protestants—and the narratives of its contents were represented in art, which Protestants still collected widely, perhaps even more so than in the pre-Reformation era, as did Catholics and Jews.

In addition to faith, the theme of people and God is omnipresent in Rembrandt’s work, as it is in the work of many Renaissance artists. For example, in many of the biblical prints, including one of the most important, The Descent from the Cross, is a figure that is based on Rembrandt’s own image (see the man on the ladder). RvR could have ben a relative if not a member of the Holy Family. In his imagination he lived with Mary, Joseph, and Jesus all his life, from his first etchings to his final paintings. Although he painted one group family portrait, but repeatedly created images of families from scripture. Themes of the nativity, the adoration of the shepherds, the adoration of the Magi,, the circumcision, the presentation in the Temple, the angel appearing to Joseph in a dream, the fight into Egypt, Christ’s many ministries, and many more are very common. The Hundred Guilder print, or Christ among the sick, allowing the children to come to him, is based on Chapter 19 of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

Family, Loved Ones, Households
Saskia Uylenburgh shared Rembrandt’s life for nearly ten—wonderfully happy and bitterly sad—years. She and RvR lost three children before the age of 2 months before their fourth child, Titus, survived to adulthood. However, Saskia herself died after Titus was barely nine months old. Female figures resembling Saskia in RvR’s work are prominent in this period of 1634-1642. Rembrandt was 36 years old, Saskia 30, when she died.

In 1649, Hendrickje Stoffels, a 23-year-old maid, moved into Rembrandt’s home, where he, aged 43, was already engaged in an affair with another household servant, Geertge Dircx, who eventually was locked in a penal institution.

Hendrickje was RvR’s common-law wife, as he would have had to pay a large party of what he was worth to Saskia’s family, and to his own, upon remarriage.

Hendrickje gave RvR everything, had a daughter named Cornelia, and then she too died, from an outbreak of plague, in 1663, aged 37.

RvR made thousands of drawings using Quill pens; Reed pens; Ink and ink wash (applied with brushes, as opposed to pens) of two kinds: bistre (made from chimney root) and iron gall ink (made with iron sulfate and the insect-derived galls of oak, oak-apple and pistachio trees). He rarely used black, or India ink, except in replicating the Mughal drawings he acquired. He occasionally used white opaque watercolor, but frequently relied on black chalk, charcoal, red chalk, and occasionally a medium known as silverpoint. NOTE THAT RvR DID NOT USE lead pencil, white chalk, crayon or watercolor.

All the prints attributed to Rembrandt are intaglio prints printed from a metal plate.
81 of Rembrandt’s copperplates have survived. He used hammers and burnishers to re-work areas he had already incised but found unsatisfactory. Primarily he used copper plates. Artists, including RvR, would frequently print multiple plates at the same time, cutting the full sheets into their individual prints to get more money out of each pull of the press, which is why many of the prints in this exhibition are so small, and without much paper border.

Rembrandt used his own recipe for the ground he applied to the plate: “half an ounce of Expoltum [asphaltum] burnt of Amber, one ounce of Virgins’ wax, [and] half an once of Mastick,” to be mashed, heated and mixed with water into a ball, then to be melted onto the (not too hot) plate. This would have been known as a soft ground. He used a different ground if he was working the plate multiple times as in the case of Angel Appearing to the shepherds. He needed a transparent ground, called stopping out varnish, for which he had another recipe: “white turpentine oil, add half as much turpentine, put together in a glass bottle, bottle in pure water, boil water for half an hour.” By 1655, he was rarely using a ground at all…ever, and instead working more directly on the plate using the technique of drypoint. RvR utilized the additional intaglio printmaking medium of engraving, but only as an addendum to etching and drypoint.

This method of creating strong contrasts between light and dark grew out of the Renaissance, technically, but had important roots in ancient Greek and Byzantine art. For RvR, it was said, “…so broad was his palette of light and dark, which covers the entire spectrum…Rembrandt does not draw surface compositions in light and dark; he molds them spatially. He was practically a sculptor in light and dark.” In his work, in particular, note the implementation of dark foreground figures against lighter backgrounds, as well as figurative shadows that help to convey a sense of movement or motion, and which help to heighten the illusion of depth. RvR’s play with darkness and light is an application of chiaroscuro as a device for composing in dark and light. This principle, turned into a trademark in early seventeenth-century Italy by Elsheimer and Caravaggio, was available to all seventeenth-century artists and was applied in one form or another by most. Rembrandt practiced a pronouncedly spatial variety of chiaroscuro. He uses it as an organizational device less on the picture plan than in the picture space.

Rembrandt’s Studio
Rembrandt’s studios were in his home. He had an “art room” that would have been for entertaining customers. Upstairs in his home were two studios, one smaller and one larger, as well as a “studio storage space” on the upper floor.

The Studio was a working studio—he taught fairly large numbers of apprentices there, as well as using it for the creation of his own work and storage of his enormous collections. (See notes about the Cabinet of Curiosities.)

Non Finito
Rembrandt was able to project what looked like completely detailed representations with mixed and sometimes minimal means. Regularly, however, he stopped short of that point, leaving the viewer with a work of art that is not a convincing image of reality. In doing so, he goes beyond the ideal of illusion as the ultimate aim of art…Rembrandt printed such impressions of many of his etchings while working, but rather than throw them away when he had used them to move on to the next stage, he created a saleable group of prints, turning them into a “state.” In other words, he assigned artistic and commercial value to these images as they appear, in all their apparent incompleteness. For this reason, they must be regarded as full-fledged creations by Rembrandt and not simply as unfinished works. Were it not for the actual images, this is a practice that might seem considerably more modern than we might associate with RvR’s time.

Rembrandt’s Livelihood
As a member of the Amsterdam guild of St. Luke, Rembrandt was bound by certain non-competition stipulations. In his early years in the city, this will not have bothered him. In his good years, Rembrandt’s high-priced sales and purchases had a buoyant effect on the art market. When the tide turned, his insolvency depressed it. He began to lose everything in the 1650s as a result of many factors.

Over his career, RvR earned an average of 270 guilders for paintings, with a median of 90 guilders…the average income at the time for professional workers might have been 500 guilders (maybe $12,000 of today’s American money). RvR averaged about 2,000 guilders income annually through his lifetime—but this was not evenly distributed, remember.

Prints were less expensive—one to eight stuivers (and there were 20 stuivers to the guilder). Christ Among the Sick, however, is colloquially called “The Hundred-Guilder Print.” It may or may not have actually sold for such a sum—as RvR, like many artists, was good at spinning tales of his own successes. Of interest with the etched portraits that were commissioned—sometimes the price included the plate in the sale to the commissioner.

Rembrandt also made considerable income from tuition fees paid by students apprenticing in his studio. His contemporaries event complained because in good years he made as much as 2,000 guilders in tuition expenses alone.

RvR had some investments as well, but not many. Those he had were in the stocks of the imperial powers of the Dutch West India Company and other Dutch trading companies. All began to change, however, with the downturn resulting from the First English War of 1651-54. In fact, Dutch art would never really recover completely from the effects of this.

Rembrandt, Reading and Writing
Classical texts of all kinds were widely available in Dutch in the 1600s. After his major commissioned paintings of the late 1630s, Rembrandt had written to the commissioner of the works: “The greatest and the most natural (e)motion has been expressed.”: consternation has existed for centuries over the meaning—is it physical movement or the power to move the viewer’s emotions that he means? Rembrandt was, like many in the Renaissance, familiar with a great deal of ancient Greek and Roman writing. Of particular interest was the work of the rhetorician QUINTILIAN, who formulates the rhetorical conviction that the orator who wants to move his public should first be moved himself. Of interest: REMBRANDT INCLUDES HIMSELF IN THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS TO APPEAL TO THIS RHETORICAL STRATEGY: HE”S THERE, SO ARE WE.

Reading and writing, and their affiliated instruments—namely books, pens, and paper—figure prominently in RvR’s work. He was praised and discussed by more poets and playwrights than any other Dutch artist of his day. His closest personal friend was probably the poet Jeremias de Decker, who wrote about Rembrandt’s ability to bring the words of the Bible to life through his art.

Two-thirds of all of Rembrandt’s landscapes were made in just seven years, between 1649 and 1655. Rembrandt’s style of landscape, however, changed the course of Dutch landscape art for centuries: picturesque decay, dilapidation, ruins, and farmhouses in disrepair, to name a few elements. Rembrandt’s landscapes are not frequently natural scenes alone, either—they are almost always inhabited landscapes, with evidence of peoples’ use of the land almost always present.

Medea: Or the Marriage of Jason and Creusa
Inscription reads: “Creus’ and Iason here plight their toth to one another:
Medea, Iason’s wife, unworthily shunted off to the side, is infuriated by sorrow; she is driven by vengeance. Alas! Infidelity, how dearly are you paid!"

Rembrandt’s and his contemporary Jan Six, who wrote a play about Medea, altered the representation of Medea from the standard negative ones of the myth involving her.
RvR found street merchants of significant interest in the 1630s: rat poison and pancake peddling that appear to be lively scenes of daily life; they are carefully composed scenes, however, based on preceding imagery.

Beggars become an important precursor to his Christian imagery later in his career, and change the nature of Dutch art’s representations and treatment of the dispossessed.
The Flight into Egypt (1627) also represents the most deeply dispossessed: Joseph, Mary and the baby Christ.

RvR created images of himself in the guise of or closely related to the artist Lucas van Leyden (a close friend); Peter Paul Rubens; the poet Ludovico Ariosto; military men; cavaliers; burghers; officials; industrialists; as a participant in a martyrdom; as Christ himself in a scene of the Crucifixion; to exotic personages; to character types and beggars. He seems to look into the mirror repeatedly and see not just himself but also reflections of others.

RvR is one of the seminal figures in the history of art. He changed the course of Dutch art, particularly in his landscapes, and employed the techniques of chiaroscuro in ways that affected artists’ use of the technique for generations after him. He brought its use into the realm of the creation of space in the picture, not just compositional elements of light and dark—that is, his use of chiaroscuro, largely through the printmaking techniques of drypoint, etching, and surface wiping create the illusion of space and in many cases movement in his pictures, whereas before his perfection of these techniques, the effects of chiaroscuro were more limited to the composition of the image and the surface treatment of the image.
RvR had an extraordinary life, and he also suffered greatly. His work and life represent the apex of the Dutch Age of Exploration and Dutch art, but the end of his career and life also signify a shift in the prominence of Dutch art and empire after the 1650s.