Rembrandt EtchingsMay 13 2021
Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606 to a prosperous middle class family in the city of Leiden. He began training to become an artist at age 14, and after apprenticing with three different masters, he opened his own studio in Leiden at age 19. Rembrandt worked as an artist in Leiden for seven years, patiently developing his skills as a painter, draughtsman and printmaker. In 1632, Rembrandt moved to Amsterdam, where he quickly gained fame for his portraits, biblical and mythological scenes, and scenes of everyday life. In 1634, Rembrandt married Saskia van Uylenburgh, a young woman from a prominent local family. Rembrandt and Saskia had three children together between 1635 and 1640, all of whom tragically died in infancy. Their fourth child, born in 1641, survived, but complications from his birth led to Saskia’s premature death in 1642. Rembrandt was an excellent artist but a poor manager of money. Although his artwork sold for high prices, Rembrandt routinely made unwise investments and spent more money than he earned. His financial woes mounted in the decade after Saskia’s death, and in 1656 he declared bankruptcy and was forced to sell of most of his possessions. Rembrandt lived for another thirteen years after the bankruptcy, subsisting on minor commissions and fees from students, but when he died in 1669, he was buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave.
Printmaking was an important part of Rembrandt’s artistic practice throughout his career. Prints allowed Rembrandt to express himself creatively in ways different from drawing or painting, and because he could sell multiple impressions of the prints to a wider range of clients, they offered Rembrandt an attractive way to advertise himself and increase his income. Rembrandt was an innovative printmaker who regularly experimented with different techniques and materials. He often re-worked and re-printed his plates numerous times as he explored different visual effects, with the result that many of his prints exist in multiple states. The number of different print states continued to grow after Rembrandt’s death, as his original plates were re-worked and re-printed by other artists and publishers. Consequently, Rembrandt’s prints are typically identified both by the date of the original composition and by the date a particular impression was pulled.
Rembrandt created approximately 290 prints between 1626 and 1669, all of them etchings. About one quarter of Rembrandt’s etchings depict stories from the Bible. Rembrandt was raised in a multi-denominational household: his father was Dutch Reformed and his mother was Roman Catholic. Although Rembrandt did not formally belong to either church as an adult, he was a man of strong faith and he clearly took inspiration from the Bible as he navigated the challenges of his life. Most of the Rembrandt prints in the KAM collection depict Biblical subjects, reflecting both the interests of the donors who gave the prints and the Christian identity and educational mission of Hope College.
What is an Etching?
To make an etching, an artist first covers a metal plate with a waxy, acid-resistant ground and uses a sharp etching needle to scratch a design through the ground onto the metal surface. The plate is then dipped in acid, which dissolves the exposed metal leaving shallow grooves recessed into the plate. Next, the waxy ground is removed, ink is applied with a roller to fill the shallow grooves, and the flat areas of the plate are wiped clean. When paper is placed on the plate and run through a press, the pressure transfers the ink from the plate to the paper and a print is created.
Each print taken from a plate is called an impression, and a single plate can produce anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred impressions before the lines on the plate lose their depth and clarity. When that happens, the artist can refresh the lines by repeating the original etching process. The re-etching process often results in changes to certain areas of the plate, so that the next batch of prints pulled from the plate is not exactly the same as the previous batch. The different batches of prints taken from the same plate are called states, and many etchings exist in multiple states.
Sometimes printmakers modify the etched lines on their plates with engraving chisels, drypoint needles and other tools that give certain lines greater depth and modulation. The hand-worked lines hold the ink differently and allow the artists to produce a wider range of visual effects than can be achieved from etched lines alone. References in the labels to etching, engraving and drypoint identify the various techniques that were used to produce the prints on display.