About Rembrandt Etchings

The print above, made by the French artist Abraham Bosse in the 1640s, describes the process by which engravings and etchings were printed. A worker, placed at the rear, dabs ink on a metal plate bearing the design. The man besides him wipes off all of the ink, except the one in the design's grooves. As the man at right turns the handles of a press, a sheet of damp paper is pressed against the metal plate to pick up an inked impression. Finally, the finished prints are strung on a "clothesline" to dry. Rembrandt may have tackled the entire process singlehanded, using a press similar to the one shown here to pull proofs of his etchings.

Many people are surprised to learn that Rembrandt's etchings, not his paintings, were responsible for the international reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime. When in 1660 the great Italian painter Guercino remarked, „I frankly consider him to be a great virtuoso”, he was referring to the Dutchman's prints. The extraordinarily high regard of Rembrandt's contemporaries for his etchings was understandable, for in less than four decades he had pushed the relatively new medium to its expressive limits. While later printmakers tried to coax more from their etchings by altering the process, attacking the plate with new tools, and printing on unexpected surfaces, no one ever achieved greater results than Rembrandt attained with a simple etching needle and copper plates.

In that time, a print, etching, engraving or woodcut met the function of a work of art or a news photograph, satisfying people’s curiosity about distant places and people; it was, other than the printed word itself, the 17th Century's major means of mass communication. Publishers - and artists themselves - produced and circulated different quantities of prints, some in the form of simple broadsheets, others of illustrated books or as reproductions of privately owned paintings, inaccessible in other means to the public view.

Thus Rembrandt's fame during his lifetime was greater as an etcher than as a painter. He turned etching technique into a wondrously flexible instrument of his art: biblical themes, genre, landscapes, portraits, nudes, all these he found suitable for etching. As much in command of tools as of technique, Rembrandt sometimes employed even the V-shaped engraver's burin in his etchings, combining it with the fine etching needle and thicker dry point needle, as in the work opposite, for richer pictorial effects. Above all, Rembrandt's great gift as an etcher lay in preserving a sense of spontaneity while scrupulously attending to close detail.

In time, 17th Century connoisseurs came to prize his etchings even more than his work in oil, these works having a much greater demand that his oil paintings. As late as 1669, the year of his death, when according to myth he was languishing in impoverished obscurity, a Sicilian nobleman brought 189 etchings from him. Before Rembrandt's time, the technique of engraving was more frequently used by printmakers than etching. In the former process, the artist works directly on a metal plate, usually copper; to create his design he laboriously cuts lines into its surface with a thin, diagonally sharpened steel rod called a burin. The excess metal thrown up beside the furrow cut by the burin is carefully scraped away before the plate is inked and prints are pulled from it. The visual effect of an engraving is one of neat, regular lines.

Self Portrait with Loose Hair, c. 1631, 145 x 117 mm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In etching, the plate is covered with a protective coat of resin. The artist then scratches his design through the resin with a needle and immerses the plate in a bath of acid, which "bites" the metal wherever the resin has been removed. The action of the acid produces lines of a slightly irregular, vibrating quality; Rembrandt did not regard this as a drawback, but more as of a challenge.

A copper plate lends itself fairly readily to change and correction. Lines may be removed by pounding and burnishing, and added at will; the etcher simply re-covers his plate with a fresh coat of resin and makes new scratches through it. Rembrandt sometimes took several years to finish a plate to his satisfaction, and he sold prints from the various states of his work. It is not uncommon to find as many as four or five different states of the same etching. Houbraken noted that the demand was "so great that people were not considered as true amateurs who did not possess the Juno with and without the crown, the Joseph with the light and the dark head and so on. Indeed, every one wanted to have The Woman by the Stove (see below) - for that matter, one of his least important etchings - both with and without the stove-key."

In engraving or etching the image is of course reversed-right, on the plate, becomes left on the sheet printed from it. Most printmakers take this into consideration by reversing their designs at the point when they transfer their preparatory drawings to their plates. Rembrandt, however, seems not to have cared much about this; his concern was with the quality rather than the pedantic accuracy of his work. Thus some of his etched self-portraits show him using his left hand, although he was in fact right-handed, and some of his signatures appear in backward mirror script (in reality, Rembrandt signing his etching just like an oil painting).

A Woman Seated Before a Dutch Stove, 1658, 227 x 185 mm.

He was such a superb etcher that critics were persuaded that he had discovered a secret process. "He had also a method all his own of gradually treating and finishing his etched plates," wrote Houbraken, "a method which he did not communicate to his pupils... Thus the invention has been buried with the inventor." Indeed, etching has always been regarded as a mysterious proceeding, and there are "secrets" involving the ingredients in the protective coat, the strength of the acid bath and the time allowed for the acid to bite into the plate. Occasionally, the physical or mental health of etchers has been impaired by excessive inhalation of acid fumes, and this, too, contributes to the aura of strangeness and mystery. But Rembrandt had no secret beyond his genius. He was the greatest etcher in the history of art, matched only by van Dyck in certain of his portrait etchings, by Whistler and by Degas in his rare ventures in the field.

Rembrandt's earliest etchings may be dated around 1626, when he was 20, and the very few surviving impressions of such a work as the “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” exhibit both his inexperience and his lively response to the medium. He had no thought of making his print look like an engraving, but used a free, scribbling stroke; the protective covering on his plates was soft, permitting him to move his needle with the fluidity of chalk or pen on paper. The “Rest on the Flight to Egypt” looks unfinished and experimental. Even so, the etching does nothing but to emphasize what is yet to come. As in almost all his work, Rembrandt approached his subject with great sensitivity, conceiving the “Holy Family” not in the traditional way but quite literally as a family: Mary feeds her Son while Joseph, placed by the artist in the background, holds the dish.

Rembrandt's sense of humanity is even more evident in a group of small etchings of beggars and outcasts made in the late 1620s. In these, he was considerably influenced in subject matter and even in pose by the works of the great contemporary French etcher, Jacques Callot. Having seen at first hand the horrors as a result of the Thirty Years' War, Callot produced a series of works representing mutilated people from war. The prints were widely circulated, and there can be little doubt that Rembrandt was familiar with them. PowerfuI as Callot's prints may be, however, they still contain a faintly satirical quality, as though the artist were asking the viewer "Are they not interesting?" Rembrandt's beggars and cripples are not "interesting," but full of suffering. They arouse a feeling of wrath at the plight of man, being plain that the artist identifies himself with his subjects.

The Little Polander, 1631, 759 x 21 mm.

Within two or three years after his first efforts Rembrandt had become a master of etching. The portrait of his mother, dated 1628, is an extraordinarily penetrating character study, executed by the 22-year-old artist in a network of very fine lines that capture the play of light, shadow and air with a skill far exceeding that of Callot or of any Dutch etcher. The refinement of his technique appears to even greater advantage in a later portrait of his mother, in 1631, in which countless scurrying, hair-thin strokes are used to build up his chiaroscuro and texture. However, during his Leiden years, delicacy appears side by side with boldness, even coarseness. In his oils of the period, the contrast may be seen by comparing the precision and polish of “Tobit and Anna” with the 1629 “Self-Portrait”, scored with the handle of the brush. In his etching, Rembrandt's muscular style is vividly apparent in another self-portrait of the same year, in which he experimented with the use of a blunt instrument, probably a broken or double-pointed one, exposing the copper beneath the coating with vigorous slashes like those in a spontaneous pen drawing. The twin currents of refinement and dash, of the smooth and the rough emerge in Rembrandt's work from the very beginning and are by no means contradictory, indicating instead the tremendous range of a young man who was able to accomplish more in a few years than many other artists in a lifetime.

Rembrandt’s mother, cca. 1628

In the course of his career Rembrandt made hundreds of impressions of his approximately 350 plates. None of the etchings is larger than 53 x 45 cm, many being the size of a postcard or even smaller. “The Little Polander”, for example, measures only 75 x 21 mm. Rembrandt's income from the sale of his prints is impossible to determine, although his work, the Hundred Guilder Print was apparently called so because of an early collector, who was willing to pay that sum for an impression of it. Today, when a particularly fine impression of a rare Rembrandt etching changes hands, the price may be as high as $84,000, or even higher.

Hundred Guilder Print , 1647-1649

Rembrandt's Technique of Etching

The chemical technique of etching was developed in the Middle Ages by Arabic armories as a means of applying decoration to weapons. It flourished in the fifteenth century in south Germany, where the first etched prints on paper were made towards the end of the century.

During the first decades of the seventeenth century Dutch artists like Esaias van de Velde, Jan van de Velde II and Willem Buytewech experimented with the technique of etching, looking for greater tonality and an atmospheric effect in their landscape prints and trying to achieve this by breaking up the long contour lines into short strokes and dots.

Rembrandt must have taken more than a little interest in this development; in his hands etching became a fully fledged medium which occupied him for the rest of his life. This resulted in an oeuvre of some 290 etchings, all intended as substantive works of art. Rembrandt's masterly use of the dry point and the unique deep black of many of his etchings were famous even in his own day and his work was much sought after by the many print collectors of the time.

Prints are impressions, usually on paper, of designs fixed by the artist on some kind of medium, by drawing, painting or cutting. The medium may be a wooden block, a plate of metal, or a silk screen. In etching technique, the medium is a thin copper plate, covered with an acid-resistant mixture known as the etching ground, composed of resin and wax. Into this thin covering the design is drawn using an etching needle, so that where the needle penetrates the etching ground the copper is exposed.

Rembrandt used a fairly soft, pasty etching ground of his own devising, allowing him to draw the design in a free, loose manner. An example for his ability to approach the sketch-like effect of a pencil or crayon drawing in his etchings is the work named “The Bathers”. Rembrandt almost always drew his design straight onto the plate, often using a preliminary study on paper, but this was used only as a guideline.

The Bathers, 1651

The plate is then laid in a bath of dilute acid. The exposed parts, which are no longer protected from the acid by the etching ground - that is, the lines of the design -are etched away, producing grooves in the surface of the metal. The longer the plate is left in the acid bath, the deeper these grooves become. If particular lines have to be deeper than others, the plate is removed from the bath, the lines that have been bitten deeply enough are covered with acid-resistant stop-out varnish and the plate is replaced in the bath.

Rembrandt used a dilute solution of hydrochloric acid. This worked slowly and did not make thin lines coarser.

Now the etching ground is removed and the clean plate inked with an ink-pad or roller. It is then wiped clean by hand so that the whole plate is clear of ink except for the grooves. The next step is to lay a damp sheet of paper on the plate. Then plate and paper are passed through the rollers of the press. The paper absorbs the ink from the grooves, producing a reversed impression of the design on the plate. The lines that have been bitten the deepest, which therefore contain the most ink, come out darkest in the print.

This process is etching proper. Gradations in the lines can be achieved only by etching the plate more than once. However, there are also other ways of producing variation in the density of lines. The most common are working up with the dry point and burin, drawing directly onto the copper plate. The dry point is an etching needle with a sharp point strong enough to carve lines in the copper. Another tool used for etching is the burin. An engraving tool - hence its other name, graver -has a V-shaped point which cuts a sharp-edged line starting and ending in a point.

Rembrandt's first plates were pure etchings, using the dry point only occasionally, for small additions or corrections. From about 1640 he became increasingly interested in the painterly effects of the velvety dry point line. As a result he started using the dry point more and more often, sometimes in combination with the burin. Some of his prints, indeed, are executed exclusively with the dry point, being drawn straight onto the copper.

If the artist is dissatisfied with the result he can alter the etched plate in a variety of ways. He can add or deepen lines by etching the plate again or by using the dry point, but etched lines can also be erased: shallow ones by rubbing them so that the burr and the sides are pushed into the groove, deep ones by scraping with a scraper. Each change or addition to the plate that can be seen in a print is referred to as a new 'state' of the print.

Three Crosses, 1653

Almost all Rembrandt's etchings exist in more than one state, sometimes as many as ten or even more. Often the changes are slight, amounting to little more than minor additions or corrections. Sometimes they are so drastic that the result is virtually a new composition.

Woman with arrow, 1661

Only a limited number of impressions can be 'pulled' from an etching plate. The maximum is probably around a hundred; only about fifteen in the case of a dry point plate. By the same token, prints of the same state may vary considerably as the plate and the burr become worn.

By controlling the amount of ink used, the artist can create a number of deliberate engraving variations. In The Three Crosses etching, Rembrandt obtained a very dark effect by using a great amount of ink, and thus creating surface tones. He used this kind of effects for obtaining darker shadows, like we see in another of his etching, Woman with arrow, or for reproducing the atmospheric landscape in his works.

Different types of paper (e.g. European, Japanese and 'Chinese') and vellum (made from animal skins) vary in color and surface structure. The same plate printed on different papers could produce totally different impressions.

From about 1650 Rembrandt sought increasingly to introduce variation into his prints by using different sorts of paper. Japanese paper, which was actually imported from Japan, attracted him with its warm, yellowish color, which was particularly effective in prints of Italianate landscapes such as Saint Gerome Reading in an Italianate Landscape. Moreover with its fine, smooth surface Japanese paper does full justice to the dry point work. Many of Rembrandt's prints were done on Japanese paper.

Saint Gerome Reading in an Italianate Landscape

A counterproof is a reversed print made by taking a freshly made print when it is still damp, laying a sheet of paper on it, and passing both sheets through the press. This produces a print of a print -the counterproof- which naturally, being reversed twice, corresponds exactly to the original design on the plate. Useful to the artist wishing to make minor adjustments to the plate. Such an example of a counterproof is Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses.

Using Rembrandt’s original plates, etchings were made by the end of the XVII-th century and even the beginning of the 18th century, the plates, some in badly shape, being restored. Relatively few of Rembrandt's plates survived until today. There are 79 original metal plates, the thinnest measuring 6.53 mm, most being worn or partially destroyed because of subsequent usage. French engraver Pierre Francois Basan (1723-1797) owned a number of 78 plates, later bought, in 1938 in Paris, by Robert Lee Humber Greenville, an USA retired lawyer from North Carolina. These works have not been displayed for 20 years, until 1956, when the owner agreed to organize an exhibition at the Museum of Art in North Carolina. After the collector’s death, the collection was sold on the art market in London (spring of 1993), four of which were purchased by RembrandtHuis (Rembrandt House) in Amsterdam (including B 365).

Study with Saskia and five heads, 1636

from: Ed de Heer, Techniques of Etching in Nel Segno de Rembrandt, Venice 1999, G. Veneiuseppe Bergamini, Bert W. Meijer (eds.), pp. 46-51.