Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Etchings by and after Rembrandt van Rijn

The story of etching in France could be told simply in terms of French etchers' passionate engagement with the work of Rembrandt - as Alison McQueen has effectively done in her brilliant book The Rise of the Cult of Rembrandt: Re-inventing an Old Master in Nineteenth-Century France, which is available in full here. Rembrandt was not just the etchers' guru, as I described Maxime Lalanne in a recent post, but the etchers' god. Those who taught etching to hundreds, such as Charles Waltner or Alphonse Legros, held Rembrandt up as the most brilliant etcher of all time, and their students - such as Legros's star pupil William Strang - learned to gauge their own success or failure by comparison with the work of the Dutch master. Even Impressionist etchers such as Norbert Goeneutte and Henri Guérard started by copying Rembrandts. The result is that, besides the two original Rembrandt etchings that will be the main focus of this post, I have many etchings after Rembrandt by a roll-call of nineteenth century printmakers, all eager to test themselves against the skill of the master. In fact I have one even earlier, by Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy, signed and dated in the plate 6 October 1755. 10 of de Marcenay's total of 71 prints were studies after Rembrandt.

Rembrandt, Self-Portrait
Etching by Antoine de Marcenay de Ghuy, 1755

Rembrandt, Autoportrait (tenant un bâton dans la main gauche)
Etching by Pauline Wissant, 1871

Rembrandt, Portrait de l'artiste
Etching by Charles Waltner, 1906

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) scarcely needs any more words added to his fame by me. But there are some interesting things to say about his etchings (and I'll just use the word etching to describe them, even though many also show touches of the drypoint needle and the engraver's burin). Rembrandt made about 300 etchings, issuing them in various states with sometimes very small modifications; he had already discovered the kind of collector-based marketing that enables music companies to sell us the same music over and over again by adding an extra track or a remix. The first Rembrandt etchings were pulled by Rembrandt himself, and even if not all the lifetime impressions were hand-printed by Rembrandt, it is obvious that a lifetime proof will be of far greater value than any posthumous one.

Rembrandt, Saskia van Ulenburg
Etching by William Unger, 1876

Rembrandt, Un Gueux
Etching by Henri Guérard, 1876

Rembrandt, Portrait de Rembrandt, d'après lui-même
Etching by A. Protche, 1974

With posthumous impressions, however, the water gets murkier. It's not necessarily so that the earliest posthumous prints from Rembrandt copper plates are the best, nor that what is printed is entirely Rembrandt's. Copper is a very soft metal, which is what makes it ideal for etching and drypoint, but this softness also means that copper plates wear away with alarming speed. At various times engravers, often highly skilled, have tried to "improve" degraded Rembrandt plates, taking the image ever further from the touch of Rembrandt's own hand. The mid-nineteenth century put a stop to that, with the invention of the process known as steel facing, whereby a copper plate is given a thin coating of steel by electrotyping. This steel face does not damage the plate, and can be removed from it. It prevents any further wear, though obviously it cannot repair wear already received, nor remove the traces of previous restorers.

Rembrandt, Paysage
Etching by Jules Jacquemart, 1877


Rembrandt, Landschaft mit ruinen
Etching by William Unger, 1886


Rembrandt, Winterlandschaft
Etching by William Unger, 1886

A large collection of Rembrandt copper plates, deriving from the estate of Rembrandt's close friend, the Amsterdam print dealer Clément de Jonghe, has survived to this day. After passing through various hands, it was sold at auction in London in 1993, and the plates dispersed. Eight of these have since been reprinted, with some controversy you can easily discover for yourself via Google, as the Millennium Edition. I don't have any of these controversial Rembrandt re-strikes, but I do have two beautiful Rembrandt etchings printed from other plates in the same hoard in 1929. At that date the plates belonged to M. Alvin-Beaumont, who had bought them in 1906. He had the plates rigorously assessed and then vehemently championed by the etcher and art historian Charles Coppier, and the publication of small editions of three of them in 1929 was accompanied by a long and argumentative essay by Coppier, mainly concerned with rubbishing the expertise of every previous authority on Rembrandt's etchings. This extreme cross-fighting in the field of Rembrandt studies has continued unabated to the present day. The plates were published in an edition of 605 copies on very high-quality laid paper. There is a watermark (filigrane) in the paper, but unfortunately I don't recognize it. The publisher was the art revue Byblis: Miroir des arts du livre et de l'estampe. This was published in two editions: 105 deluxe copies, with the text on Arches, and 500 ordinary copies, with the text on vélin pur fil Lafuma. The deluxe copies had extra prints, many prints in two different states, and many prints hand-signed by the artists. As mine is one of the ordinary ones, it only has two Rembrandt prints, lacking Les Pélerins d'Emmaüs of 1654. The printer Jacquemin, Paris. Coppier writes of the plates and the proofs: "Ces trois cuivres, on le voit, sont à peu près intacts, et donnent encore des épreuves magnifiques." These three plates, as can be seen, are almost pristine, and still yield magnificent impressions.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son
Original etching, 1636
Printed from the original copper plate in 1929
Refs: Bartsch 91, Hind 147

The earlier of my Rembrandt etchings is Le retour de l'enfant prodigue (The Return of the Prodigal Son), etched in 1636. After the 1993 sale, the original copper plate for this was bought by the Rembrandthuis. The Biblical scene is rendered with great pathos and emotion. There's a good essay on this etching here, so I won't go on about it!


Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House
Original etching, 1648
Printed from the original copper plate in 1929
Refs: Bartsch 176, Hind 233

My second Rembrandt etching is Les mendiants à la porte d'une maison (Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House) from 1648. This is a very interesting scene in which Rembrandt explores his enduring fascinating with beggars and outcasts; perhaps he felt that at any moment he might become one. The website of the Rijksmuseum notes that the father of this beggar family is probably blind, and that he is carrying a hurdy-gurdy, "the typical instrument of the itinerant musician".

Rembrandt, Portrait d'homme
Etching by Charles Courtry, 1881


Rembrandt, Tête de vieillard
Etching by Jules Jacquemart, 1877

Rembrandt, Die Judenbraut (The Jewish Bride)
Etching by Willem Steelink, 1891

Rembrandt's complete etchings can be explored here. One word of warning before I go. In the nineteenth century the firm of Amand-Durand made excellent heliogravure facsimiles of Rembrandt etchings. These are photo-engravings (possibly with some fine detailing by drypoint) rather than hand-made prints. So convincing are they that they are often offered for sale as original etchings after Rembrandt. Decorative and desirable they may be, but etchings they are not.

Rembrandt, Portrait of His Wife
Etching by N. S. Mossolow, 1892

14 comments:

Jane Librizzi said...

You're not the only one who is hesitant to write about Rembrandt. It is very interesting to read about 'etchings after', a term that one usually sees without explanation.

Neil said...

Jane - I suppose what makes Rembrandt such a great etcher is not just his artistic and technical skill, but his complete mastery of black-and-white. Nobody ever saw a Rembrandt etching and wished it was in colour. I'm thinking about this because of a planned post about the French artist who really kick-started the French etching revival, Charles Méryon, who took up etching because he was colour-blind and achieved such stunning results that he inspired a whole generation.

Adrian Money said...

Yes I agree totally with Neil - but not just Méryon, but also Whistler who had the greatest influence on those that followed - and indeed we could include the likes of Goya too.

Neil said...

Thanks, Adrian. Have you seen the book Rembrandt and the English Painter-Etchers of the 19th Century by Robin Garton, Gerald Volker Grimm, and Gerhard Vincent van der Grinten? It's published by the Schloss Moyland Museum, at a very reasonable price for such a lavish production, and covers exactly this ground - the influence of Rembrandt as it reverberates through the work of Méryon, Whistler, and their followers.

Gary Arseneau said...

January 9, 2013

Re: "Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House, Original etching, 1648, Printed from the original copper plate in 1929, Refs: Bartsch 176, Hind 233

At, best, anything posthumously printed from an unretouched Rembrandt etching plate would be a -posthumous impression-, not "original etching."

Etchings are original works of visual art that "must be wholly executed by hand by the artist [and] excludes any mechanical and photomechanical processes."

Unfortunately, Rembrandt plates have been posthumous printed, reworked and subjectively altered to fit the arrogant sensibilities of those individuals who believed and acted on the belief that they could substitute their judgment for a dead Rembrandt.

Then to add insult to injury, many well-meaning individuals naively speak of original works of visual rt such as etchings, that are falsely attributed, with or without intent, to a dead Rembrandt, as if the living presence of the artist is not required to create the work attributed to them, if in fact it is attributed to them.

In other words, the dead don't etch.

To learn more about these contentious issues of authenticity surrounding Rembrandt forgeries, link to: http://garyarseneau.blogspot.com/2012/06/rembrandt-forgeries-at-arlington-museum.html

Caveat Emptor!

Gary Arseneau
artist, creator of original lithographs & scholar
Fernandina Beach, Florida
gwarseneau[at]hotmail[dot]com

Neil said...

Hi Gary - Sorry for the delay in posting your comment, I've been away. I don't share your conviction that a posthumous re-strike from an authentic plate is a forgery. But of course I agree that it is necessary to be scrupulous about identifying when, where, and why a posthumous printing was made. Luckily in the case of the two etchings discussed above, there is ample information available. André-Charles Coppier even discusses how to tell these proofs apart from earlier ones, writing, "After careful consideration, we decided, out of respect for the orginal copperplates, of which a new printing might compromise the freshness, to have them steel-faced (by electro-plating) with rigorous fidelity. Because of the special care paid to the preparing and printing of these plates, the connoisseur cannot distinguish our proofs from the last ones pulled in the eighteenth century, exept by two points of comparison: a very slight crop to make it easier for connoisseurs unfamiliar with paper watermarks to distinguish (between the two), and the platemark, which is more noticeable with a steel-faced plate on account of its thickness, double that of the original copper-plate." The Rembrandthuis, which acquired the copper plate of Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House at auction in 1993 describes this plate as among "the finest and best preserved specimens". By the way, I don't usually post comments that include weblinks; I did so with yours because it seemed relevant, but that does not mean I endorse your attack on the Arlington Museum. It would be very hard for any museum to put on a comprehensive show of Rembrandt etchings consisting solely of lifetime impressions. If they had been exhibiting the Amand-Durand photo-engravings, or the Bundesdruckerie facsimiles, and claiming them as originals, I could understand your ire.

Mark said...

Hey Neil! Thanks for the well written article. It's for sure facinating how complex the market is. I actually just came into owning a Rembrandt print that has perplexed me. In the bottom left corner it says "Handprinted by RaeBoer". After exhaustive research I have found many auctions but nothing about where it came from and if its a restrike or other type of print. Any ideas? Thanks again and keep up the wonderful writting. I love reading it!

Gary Arseneau said...

January 24, 2013 -9:55PM-

Dear Neil:

I thank you for your reply. I must say I am very troubled by your response.

Etchings are -original- works of visual art "wholly executed by hand by the artist."

Rembrandt's death in 1669 ended forever his career as an etcher.

In other words, -no- more Rembrandt etchings.

Any posthumous impression from his plates could -never- be etchings a.k.a. original works of visual art, much less attributable to a dead Rembrandt.

Connoisseurship is defined as: “that of the art expert able to distinguish between the authentic and non-authentic, for example between an original and a copy.”

Yet, you wrote: "Because of the special care paid to the preparing and printing of these plates, the connoisseur cannot distinguish our proofs from the last ones pulled in the eighteenth century."

A true connoisseur would -never- attributed 18th-century or later impressions, as original works of visual art ie., etchings, to a 17th-century dead guy.

The dead don't etch.

Then to add insult to injury, the vast majority, if not totality, of posthumous impressions, falsely attributed to a dead Rembrandt, are from posthumously reworked and altered Rembrandt plates.

Yet, you state: "I don't share your conviction that a posthumous re-strike from an authentic plate is a forgery."

The plate is a tool, Rembrandt's printing of his plate resulted in -authentic- works of visual art ie., etchings.

Anyone else posthumously printing Rembrandt plates, reworked or not, results, at best, in a posthumous impressions.

On page 660 of the Seventh Edition of Black's Law Dictionary, -forgery- is defined as: "The act of fraudulently making a false document or altering a real one to be used as if geniune."

Rhetorically, when someone misrepresents posthumous impressions as original works of visual art ie., etchings, attributable to Rembrandt, is that "The act of fraudulently making a false document or altering a real one to be used as if genuine?"

The hubris of those who believe and act on the belief that they can substitute their judgment, in the posthumous alteration and subjective printing of a dead Rembrandt's etching plates, is a rank obscenity to not only Rembrandt's true legacy but the poisoning of the marketplace against those legitimate past, present and future artists who create and print their original works of visual art ie., etchings, lithographs, serigraphs, woodcuts and the like.

Rhetorically, how can living artists compete in the marketplace if the dead can continue to come out with new work?

Then to go from the ridiculous to the sublime, you stated: "It would be very hard for any museum to put on a comprehensive show of Rembrandt etchings consisting solely of lifetime impressions."

To a true connoisseur, the answer is self-evident: lifetime impressions can be the -only- Rembrandt etchings.

Anything else is, at best, gift-shop fare.

Finally, I hope that someday everyone will come to understand the marketplace has become skewed for avarice by those collectors, museum professionals, academia and auctions houses who believe and act on that belief that not getting caught in a lie is same thing as telling the truth.

Caveat Emptor!

Gary Arseneau
artist, creator of original lithographs & scholar
Fernandina Beach, Florida
gwarseneau[at]hotmail[dot]com

Neil said...

Mark - thanks for your comment. I've never seen one of these Handprinted by RaeBoer prints, but I think they are photogravures, rather than etchings printed from the plate.

Neil said...

Gary - I think we'll have to agree to disagree. I haven't got the time or the inclination to get involved in a long argy-bargy on this matter. To me, a posthumously-printed etching from a genuine plate is still "by" the etcher, and not any sort of fake, just as a modern edition of Bleak House is still "by" Dickens and not a forgery. You might care to consider the case of my etchings by Henri-Georges Adam (just type Adam into the search box); these were posthumously printed, but I don't think anyone would argue that they were not authentic artworks by Adam.

boonery said...

On the excellent M. Amand-Durand, his reproductions -- the original copies, so to speak -- all seem to have a little red stamp on the back, as he was an honest fellow and didn't want his work confused with the real thing. I bought a job lot of Amand-Claude Lorraines a few years back for a few coppers and they are all stamped. When the plates were sold to America, the new owners were not so scrupulous and for some reason (in fact, an obvious one) the stamp is not widely known. There are also a fair number of Amand-Durand's printing plates around which didn't cross the Atlantic. I've a couple of these as well, and they are handsome objects in their own right.

Kerryvan1946 said...

I just need to know the best way to authenticate an etching by Rembrandt---an art museum??

Neil said...

Boonery - Sorry to be so neglectful as to not reply to your interesting comment. I agree, Amand-Durand seems to have been a perfectly honest, and very skilful, artisan. I have some of his heliogravure reproductions and they are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.

Neil said...

Kerryvan - it depends where you are and what facilities you have available to you. I would recommend a good auction house that deals in such things - auctioneers have a great deal of knowledge and practical experience. Otherwise a specialist dealer in Old Master prints. Or, as you say, a museum with a print collection.