Rembrandt created some 300 etchings and drypoints from about 1626 to 1665. His career as a printmaker ran parallel to his career as a painter—he rarely treated the same themes in both media and on only occasionally did he reproduce his paintings in prints. Above all, he was a great innovator and experimenter in this medium, often handling traditional materials in unconventional ways. His impact on printmaking is still reflected in etchings produced today.
Rembrandt began etching early in his career while he was still in Leiden. His own face is a common feature in his earliest prints, which were probably meant as studies of varied expressions rather than self-portraits. He also often portrayed family and people he knew around him (The Artist’s Mother, 18.72). In later years, he still etched unconventional and beautiful introspective portraits like that of the goldsmith Jan Lutma the Elder (1656; 20.46.18), in which he evoked the shifting play of light on the sitter.
Once he had moved from Leiden to Amsterdam, Rembrandt tried his hand at creating larger, highly finished prints related to paintings like The Good Samaritan (1633; 41.1.53), but he soon turned away from such formal and polished uses of printmaking meant to publicize a painter’s work. Many of his prints are small and sketchy. In Sheet with Two Studies: A Tree and the Upper Part of a Head of Rembrandt Wearing a Velvet Cap (1970.705), he even treated the printing plate like a drawing book, compiling seemingly unrelated and half-finished images.
Rembrandt was fascinated with subjects from the Old and New Testaments and, as in Abraham and Isaac (29.107.26), enjoyed revealing the realistic human emotion and narrative detail inspired by these stories. Landscapes were another favorite print subject. The Three Trees (29.107.31), in which he evoked the typically blustery and rainy Dutch weather, is the most intensely dramatic of these works. He created landscape prints at two different moments in his career, one group in the 1640s and another in the 1650s, at which time he reprinted many of the prints from the earlier group. Many of his landscapes, for instance The Windmill (1641; 41.1.12) or Clump of Trees with a Vista (20.46.4), appear to have been created outside in nature, although in most cases he composed them in the studio from drawings that he made in the countryside around Amsterdam.
Rembrandt owned a large collection of prints by such earlier masters as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas van Leyden, and Antonio Tempesta, and he often drew inspiration from their work. For instance, the Beggar Leaning on a Stick, Facing Left (26.72.156) and other such seemingly naturalistic studies of people on the street were no doubt created on the model of the Frenchman Jacques Callot’s series of etchings of beggars (1620–23).
By the 1650s, Rembrandt began to treat the printing plate much like a canvas—leaving some ink or tone on the surface of the printing plate in order to create “painted” impressions of prints in which each impression would look different depending on the way he had inked the plate. For example, The Entombment (ca. 1654; 20.46.17) was printed in the first state without plate tone so that only the etched lines are visible. In the second state, however, he produced subtle, moody impressions of the same image by leaving a good deal of ink on the surface of the printing plate and then wiping it away in certain areas to create highlights, as he did on the body of Christ and a few of the figures around him in the Metropolitan Museum’s impression (23.51.7). The “Negress” Lying Down (1658; 29.107.28) received its title due to the rich, dark tone that Rembrandt achieved by combining layers of etching and drypoint lines with plate tone. He also experimented with the differing effects that could be obtained by printing on various types of papers and other supports. He printed the impression of the second state of The Three Crosses on vellum (41.1.31), a surface that brings a warm overall tone to the image and emphasizes the richness of the ink Rembrandt left on the surface of the plate and the velvety burr created by his drypoint lines.
Rembrandt often dramatically reworked his late prints, creating almost entirely new visions of a subject with each state. Since he preserved so many stages of his working process, the present-day viewer can in a certain sense bear witness to it. As the plate of The Three Crosses was wearing down, Rembrandt chose to create a very different version of the scene in a fourth state by scraping and polishing away large portions of the foreground and drawing with drypoint new figures and emphatic hatching in its place. He shifted the moment in the story and created an even more dark and dramatic biblical representation. He also reworked various states of Christ Presented to the People, another large print composed entirely in drypoint. The second state, printed on warm-toned Japan paper (41.1.34), displays a lively assortment of figures in the foreground, each one reacting to the scene in a different manner. He erased the entire group in a later state so that by the eighth state, there is nothing separating the direct confrontation of Christ and the viewer. By the 1650s, Rembrandt had avid fans of his prints as far south as Italy, who collected many states and varied impressions of these remarkable works.
Orenstein, Nadine. “Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669): Prints.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/rembp/hd_rembp.htm (October 2004)
Liedtke, Walter A., and Hubertus von Sonnenburg. Rembrandt / Not Rembrandt in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: Aspects of Connoisseurship. Exhibition catalogue. 2 vols. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.
White, Christopher. Rembrandt as an Etcher: A Study of the Artist at Work. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.