An old master's engraved new world

Rembrandt wasn't the first artist to realise how prints could spread his fame abroad more easily than paintings. But he was the first to become fascinated by, and deeply involved in, the process, says Michael Glover
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The Independent Online

There were three quite distinct Rembrandts: the drawer, the painter and the printmaker. And there is surprisingly little overlap between one category and another. In the cases of Michelangelo and Raphael, approximately 90 per cent of the finished paintings can be related back to preparatory drawings. In Rembrandt's case, the figure is about 5 per cent.

There were three quite distinct Rembrandts: the drawer, the painter and the printmaker. And there is surprisingly little overlap between one category and another. In the cases of Michelangelo and Raphael, approximately 90 per cent of the finished paintings can be related back to preparatory drawings. In Rembrandt's case, the figure is about 5 per cent.

For Rembrandt, printmaking was an important activity in its own right, and he would often furiously attack a copper plate without making any preparatory drawings whatsoever. Such was his nature.

Of Rembrandt the painter we have heard and seen much in recent years; of the printmaker, relatively little. Indeed, the British Museum is mounting its first major survey of Rembrandt's prints since 1938. It is also the first time that the museum has collaborated on a project of this scale with the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. Collaboration was essential in this case. The British Museum regards itself as the repository of the greatest and the fullest collection of Rembrandt prints on earth. And so does the Rijksmuseum. It is therefore good that these two proud institutions should collaborate in order to settle their samenesses.

Rembrandt produced approximately 300 prints during his lifetime, and the current show gives us about one third of the best of them, dating from the early 1630s to the later 1650s, by which time Rembrandt was miserably mired in bankruptcy proceedings. What exactly happened to bring this enormously successful, universally admired - by the 1640s, he was commonly held to be the greatest painter of northern Europe - and prodigiously hard-working artist to his knees?

The facts may never be fully known. Surviving records merely tell us, gnomically enough, that he suffered "losses at sea". Perhaps these were investments in the Dutch East India Company that went badly wrong. Perhaps Rembrandt was the 17th-century equivalent of some blighted Lloyd's name.

Printmaking was important to Rembrandt for two quite separate reasons. Prints made an important contribution to his income, and, in a pre-museum age, they helped to spread his fame far and wide. As his pupil Samuel van Hoogstraten once wrote: "Get your works out as prints, and your name will the sooner be winged over the whole world.''

Prints were often produced in editions of about 50. Paintings were not. And, once commissioned, a painting might remain locked inside the citadel of the patron's great house - or its courtly equivalent - for ever. Rembrandt was by no means the first to recognise the importance of prints as emissaries of fame to come. Raphael had employed printmakers, and Rubens hired a whole team of engravers to work for him. But Rembrandt did things slightly differently. Unlike those illustrious predecessors, he made the prints himself to his own original designs. They were a facet of his own artistic production, and not pictorial reproductions of extant works.

Rembrandt's fascination with printmaking was lifelong. He not only made prints, but also collected them and learnt from them, especially ones by the likes of Dürer and Lucas van Leyden.

By the 1640s he was spending a great deal of money on prints in the auction houses of Amsterdam, the city in which he lived pretty well continuously from 1631 until his death in 1669. Rembrandt always spent lavishly. But then, generally speaking, his earnings were lavish too, and his print production helped to make them so. During his lifetime, his prints sometimes sold for more than his paintings fetched, and by the end of his life, when his style of painting was beginning to look a little old-fashioned - all that rough impasto work in the new era of high finish and gloss - his prints continued to be valued and collected as they had been during his lifetime. And they continued to be collected.

The subjects of the prints range widely: biblical, mythological and genre scenes; landscapes; studies of the human face; portraits. Time and again, he makes images of his own face, studying how to represent emotions by frowning, gaping or looking boggle-eyed.

Two of the finest at the British Museum show him in antithetical poses - one tricked out like some hero of the Renaissance from a painting by Titian, with aristocratically lengthened hair and full, richly decorated sleeves; in another, he appears as the man himself, sitting in his studio, wearing nothing more highfalutin than a plain artist's smock, his squashy, bulbous nose to the fore as if ready to be co-opted by some cheeky limerick of Lear's. Both these men were the real Rembrandt, the man who aspired to be as great as his heroes of the Renaissance, and the man who understood the dayto-day reality of working in the studio, instructing some of the "hundreds" of pupils an early biographer said he had had during his lifetime.

The etchings are printed on a variety of paper stock, from the most expensive vellum to an oat-meal paper that would have been used for the wrapping of goods. Each paper produces a slightly different atmosphere, a slightly different coloration. Many prints went through various states. Rembrandt worked with a meticulous fanaticism, dipping the copper plate into the acid bath over and over again, at the risk of ruining the plate all together, in pursuit of some finer point of detail. It was never quite good enough...

Sometimes, those original copper plates are displayed - how small they often seem! - and we marvel at how he was able to etch directly onto a metal surface in this way. The artist can scarcely see the effect he strives to achieve. It's like drawing - in reverse, of course - in semi-darkness. There is no smooth consistency in the technique either - some etchings are done in a variety of different styles, loosely in this corner, as if quick-sketching on metal, finely and painstakingly cross-hatched in that.

"I am forced to witness that I have not seen equal industry and application in any sort of man, whatever his pursuit or age," his associate Jan Lievens once remarked.

It is always gratifying, if not even a little comforting, to have it reconfirmed that the greater part of genius is often sheer, life-long, hard graft.

Rembrandt the Printmaker, BritishMuseum, London, WC1 to 8 April

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