Remarkable Rembrandt

It’s not the usual thing these days in 21st Century America to attend an exhibit that requires either very good eyesight or a magnifying plate to view the works of art.

Great art, however, as Provost John Bramley pointed out, has become almost commonplace in Burlington, the Andy Warhol exhibit this summer at the Fleming having been followed in close succession by the Alice Neel show downtown at the Firehouse Gallery.

The most recent exhibit at the Fleming, which officially opened Sunday 28 September, is a happy coincidence of both. In Rembrandt and the Art of Etching, etchings by the 17th-Century Master, his influential contemporaries, and those following in his legacy (notably Picasso) prove the power of these diminutive works.

The Fleming East and Wolcott Galleries provide the only North American venue for the show, which makes internationally available some of Rembrandt’s most celebrated prints from the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

Few people know that these prints were what people best knew Rembrandt for in his time. In 17th Century Europe, books were rare and few people had access to painted works; thus it was through the prints of etchings, widely disseminated through the public, that artists first gained their fame. Judging from the preview reception hosted by Bramley on Thursday, the etchings have retained their popularity. I observed such reactions ranging from one woman’s lament, “I haven’t etched in months,” by an early self-portrait, to the hushed and precious tones of art historians talking academic politics by the hors d’oeuvres.

Escaping from the usual pretense of a gallery opening, I began to look. Further into the exhibit, things quieted down, and Rembrandt’s images, reflecting an impressive cross-section of seventeenth-century life, provided a compelling counterpoint to the live company. From his portraits and scenes comes a sense of truth and authentic feeling that spoils the viewer for real life.

Arranged thematically, the show includes some of Rembrandt’s most celebrated etchings on a variety of subjects, with portraits, landscapes, Biblical and mythological scenes, and genre works. The best engravings reveal in finely modulated lines and careful composition the artistic tenants that guided this master in his painting.

Far from mere studies, the etchings are works of art in themselves. They provide the viewer with a sense of intimacy uncommon in paintings, and demand attention to appreciate their subtler qualities, the varying width and intensity of a line, the gradation of cross-hatching, the placement of a mark so perfect it at once captures the entire sense of the subject. Rembrandt’s etchings are worlds unto themselves that require interaction between the viewer and the subject, a dynamic intimacy in which the picture frame gives into and incorporates its observer, combining spaces and merging dimensions.

I looked at the landscapes first. One in particular, depicting a windmill on a hillside and a cottage, drew me in. Strong diagonals and light, lively marks invigorate the composition. The character of each little line suits the subject it describes, and lines run together to form the rhythmic line of foliage in the background, the rough shingles on the roof, the slender grasses waving down to the sea. In this image, subtle tonal variation allows the character of lines to shine, and the study of form and texture captures the feeling of the place, its windblown nostalgia. I felt I had been to Holland at last.

Rembrandt’s etchings based on Biblical scenes are among his most passionate. The Three Crosses dates from 1653 and with dimensions of roughly 18″ by 36″, probably surpasses in size all other works in the exhibit. But it is the stark and vigorous lines, which intersect in rage and pathos, which lend this work its monumentality. The subject is as harsh and raw as its treatment; in the foreground, horses and armed men charge in chaos. Behind them, a crucifix looms, illuminated harshly and delineated in rough haggard forms. A spare silhouette suggests a hanged man to the right; chiaroscuro darkness obscures the one to the left. The image seems less to depict Christ’s redeeming sacrifice than the ruthless slaughter of three men, their suffering poignantly immediate on the page.

The primitive violence of The Three Crosses feels modern in a way unique to this work, but the delicate pathos of Rembrandt’s best portraits rival it in power. These numerous portraits vary widely in character, but I always sensed a relationship between the artist and his subject that transcends the images 350 years and predicts the penetrating photography of such modern portraitists as Richard Avedon. The subject’s vivid personality engages the viewer: the cock-eyed confrontation of a man in a broad-brimmed hat (in an etching by that name) challenges, the sadness of an old man near death, thought to be Rembrandt’s father, brings unexpected sorrow. In a moment, their expressions cut across the centuries and made me stop and look.

Most tender is Rembrandt’s 1634 look at his wife, called Saskia with Pearls in Her Hair. A young woman in profile stares straight ahead, her full pretty face shaded in the crosshatched velvet characteristic of these works. A single line gently describes the edge of her face. The soft crosshatched darkness envelopes the bust up to the jaw line. Saskia’s eyes intensely gaze into the space ahead, infusing the image with an aura of tranquility. Perhaps the single line that describes the center of her eye and the sitter’s whole character betrays the artist’s affection for his subject; his lavish depiction of details, Saskia’s delicate pearl earring, the beads at her throat and in her hair, and the loosely described lace at her breast make for a moving portrait.

The official opening of Rembrandt and the Art of Etching took place on Sunday 28 September, with 17th century chamber music and refreshments to accompany the works.

The exhibit will be on view through 14 December in the East and Wolcott galleries. A lecture series sponsored and held in the museum includes lunchtime talks on various topics pertaining to Rembrandt’s etchings; from 24 September, they will take place every other Wednesday, beginning at 12:15. An evening talk with the Curator of the Rembrandt House Museum will be held on 16 October at 7:00 p.m. Details on these and other educational programs offered by the Fleming can be found in the pamphlet “Viewâ” available in the museum lobby.