It is a surprise to most that Rembrandt’s international fame was first made by his etchings and engravings, not his paintings. During just four decades in the 1600s, Rembrandt pushed the possibilities of printmaking to extraordinary new heights. No one before or since has managed to attain anywhere near the same expressive results with just a needle and copper plate.

What singles out his work is the astonishing truth conveyed by his mark-making. He never fabricated what he saw to make it more appealing, he only ever depicted what was in front of him in total honesty. Quite simply Rembrandt had an “extraordinary fidelity” for what his eyes’ perceived, according to Alastair Sooke writing in the Telegraph Newspaper.

On the left Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Self-portrait Leaning on a Stone-sill (II/II), and on the right he Pancake Woman (II/ VII), 1635, Etching on paper

The etching Naked Woman Sitting on Mound, 1631, is an utterly humane and frank betrayal of a naked sitting woman. Totally at home in her imperfections, he captures the folds of flesh and sagging tummy. He does not turn her into a grotesque figure, nor flatter her in any way. He presents her in all her wondrous and raw reality—he knew that was all he needed to make her strangely alluring.

This etching and many more besides can be viewed at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery in Norfolk, England. This is the first time all 93 of the Rembrandt etchings and engravings bequeathed to the gallery by the collector Percy Moore Turner can be seen together. 

The Dutch master was renowned for his ability to make contrasting surfaces, such as hair, cloth and fur come to life with his assured mark-making. In his hands the monochrome medium of printing becomes something utterly bewitching to behold. The joint curator of the exhibition, Dr Francesca Vanke, is not the first expert to point out that Rembrandt’s “handling of light and darkness, expressed through the medium of black lines and the white space around them, was unsurpassed.”

Many of the works are tiny, and have to be scrutinized up close. The intense detail of these works reveals more than anything, that Rembrandt—unlike many artists of his day—treated printmaking as an artistic medium in its own right, as opposed to being a means to mass produce existing works.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Three Trees, 1643

It is believed that 10 percent of Rembrandt’s etchings, engravings, drawings, and paintings are comprised of self-portraits. An extraordinary figure considering that Rubens, for instance, produced just seven self-portraits in his lifetime. Rembrandt’s etching Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, represents the high art of self-fashioning. Dressing himself up in opulent costume, and striking the same pose of Raphael’s famous portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, Rembrandt is elevating himself into that same pantheon of artists—as well as revelling in his own success when his career was truly thriving.

 

Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness can be viewed at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from the 21st of October through to the 7th of January 2018.