The Man from Rijn

Landscape with three gabled cottages, Rembrandt van Rijn

Over the weekend we were lucky enough to get into the Frick Collection after only a twenty minute wait. I’d not been there in years, and the first hour of my visit was spent reacquainting myself with it. It’s unique in its use of  space; keeping the feel and look of the house much as it was when Mr. Frick lived in the stately building, showcasing wall panels, objects and furniture in addition to paintings.

The reason for the visit this time, however, was to view the current exhibition: Rembrandt & His School; in particular the etchings and drawings (though several paintings were also on view, including the newly restored self portrait). Admittedly, many of the works of his followers felt pale in comparison; lacking that veritas inherent in his expressive lines; the humor and humanity.

The Goldweigher's field by Rembrandt
The Goldweigher’s field, Rembrandt van Rijn

Three Trees by Rembrandt
Three Trees, Rembrandt van Rijn

As a studying printmaker, new to the copper plate arts, it was not only a visual treat to see these works firsthand, but also timely and highly instructive. Most notable is his variety of line work, even within a single piece. Not bogged down by a desire for consistency, he allowed his lines to take the shape and direction most suitable to the subject as well as the expression of the subject.

In many of his plates, he worked with both etching and with dry point; the fine fine lines and minute details being rendered clearly and cleanly with the etched lines, while allowing the dry point lines (which by nature are fuzzier, darker, less precise) to intensify areas of shadow, or to rough in areas (often in the foreground, surprisingly) of less importance, or for which no detail was required.

This is particularly apparent in Landscape with three gabled cottagesThe Goldweigher’s field, and Three trees. In Three trees he goes a step further, using a burin to inject that mass of straight lines on the left; a heavy curtain of rain in his already roiling sky. The wide range of depth in the line work of this landscape masterly create a contrast of storm  –light and shadow– from the almost invisible wisps of clouds, to the near-blackness of the foreground– perfect drama in an image.

Interior with Saskia in bed by Rembrandt
Interior with Saskia in bed, Rembrandt van Rijn
(no larger image found)

Another perfect drama, in shorthand, is his drawing, entitled Interior with Saskia in bed. A featured work in the show, it manages more than most finished paintings do, despite being a story told in only the most gestural of lines and tonal washes. But, again, we see the evidence of a highly sensitive and observant eye, putting line-weight to work again at the heavy lifting– telling a story of light, scale and mood with a minimal amount of actual detail.

Information –accurate depictions– then, do not rely on minutiae at all. As Rembrandt was well aware, we bring all the details –of fabric, texture; of light, of time of day and the quality of air– we bring all this with us, so that looking at a study from another era altogether, we still feel as if we, too, were looking in on this scene. He has marked out only the milestones; affords only what is necessary to trigger our mind’s eye, so that as we look upon it the scene is utterly complete.

Of course, being a study, it was likely never intended for viewing in this way, but simply as a note-to-self to reference while working on a finished painting. That his shorthand is so concise, so tellingly universal, it stands on its own– is what makes this piece so amazing.

Self portrait by Rembrant
Self portrait leaning on a stone sill, Rembrandt van Rijn

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