Rembrandt’s power in capturing human emotions, individual traits

Eugene Delacroix apparently once suggested that Rembrandt’s artistic grandeur would one day be rated higher than that of Raphael. For this painter of the Romantic period, Rembrandt’s penetrating glance into human emotions and skill in capturing individual character traits must have seemed far more significant than the ordered, composed classicism of Raphael. Indeed, Rembrandt’s power in expressing human emotions – a trait that bestows upon his art a rather esoteric, personal character – is one of the most striking aspects of an exhibition of the artist’s prints currently on show at the Benaki Museum. Held on the occasion of the Dutch presidency of the European Union, the exhibition includes 91 prints in total (a third of Rembrandt’s total graphic arts output documented up to now), as well as three original copper plates. They are all holdings of the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam, a museum which owns the most comprehensive public collection of Rembrandt’s etchings and was founded in 1911 at a domicile that served as Rembrandt’s for more than 20 years. Structured thematically, «Rembrandt, Etchings from the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam,» which is the full title of the exhibition, reveals the broad thematic repertoire of the great Dutch master. Portraits and religious themes, which were the genres that Rembrandt mostly practiced, make up the bulk of the exhibition. However, there is also a substantial number of nudes, still lifes, and genre and allegorical scenes. Rembrandt was a prodigious etcher as well as innovator in combining different techniques together. Etching helped expand his fame to a broad audience and it was not until late in his life, in 1661, that Rembrandt stopped producing them. However, reproductions of his works continued to be made and greatly sought after by esteemed collectors. Just as with his paintings, the first etchings revolve around scenes from the Old and New testaments and portraiture, the two themes that comprise the bulk of his output. The first prints that are dated by Rembrandt himself are from 1628. Mostly self-portraits, they are striking in that they contain such expressive power within a tiny format (40×44 mm is a typical size). In these portraits, Rembrandt looks straight out to the viewer (he actually made the portraits by observing himself in the mirror). This immediate and forceful eye contact between the sitter and the viewer suggests the artist’s confidence and indicates the high status that an accomplished artist occupied in the society of the time. Emotions and shadows The range of emotions that Rembrandt’s self-portraits capture is probably their most impressive aspect. He is caught in laughter, in bewilderment and in introspection. In each case, the emotional power is all focused in the sitter’s eyes. Besides their skill in capturing human emotions, another impressive aspect of Rembrandt’s prints is their use of shadow and light and their mastery of chiaroscuro. The tonal gradations, ranging from the very light to the nearly black, are often encompassed in a single image and produce a dramatic effect and, seen with contemporary eyes, an almost modern aesthetic effect. Rembrandt’s scenes from the Old and New testaments are exemplary of the artist’s skillful use of light and dark. In the «Anunciation of the Shepards» from 1634, for instance, a dark forest is lit by the apparition of an angel. The dramatic tonal contrast captures the antithesis between the secular and the metaphysical. The care for detail, the free handling of lines and the almost airy quality of the compositions are other characteristics that set Rembrandt’s prints apart. Indeed, his images have nothing of the structured, rigid feeling of some prints, but resemble paintings and resonate with the same spontaneity as drawings do. Rembrandt’s etchings of nudes are probably among the most «spontaneous.» Dating mostly from the mid-1640s, these images were held to be too realistic for the tastes of the time, their unconventionality inviting admiration but also a controversial reception as well. Also in the 1640s, Rembrandt began a series of Amsterdam landscapes. In his later works from the early 1650s, Rembrandt often combined real views with fictional elements. Again, the freedom and ease with which Rembrandt handles lines is striking. It is yet one indication of the imagination and genius of this great Dutch master that the Benaki Museum exhibition helps unravel. «Rembrandt, Etchings from the Rembrandthuis Museum in Amsterdam,» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, tel 210.367.1000) to December 12. Throughout the exhibition’s duration the Benaki has organized programs for students and prepared a kit to be loaned to schools. There are also weekly lectures on the graphic arts and a Greek collection of prints.