POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — In this four hundredth anniversary year of his birth, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) remains one of the most imaginative and inventive of artists. With a constant sense of the theatrical, he relished the drama of his artistic subjects, whether a threatening storm, a heavenly vision, or a nocturnal nativity.
"Rembrandt was a master storyteller, and he imbued his prints and drawings with tell-tale lines and light to capture the ecstatic in a vision of angels, or a blast of sun in a farm scene," said Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. "His ready insight into ephemeral states of mind is still unequaled."
To explore the drama evoked in the Dutch virtuoso's work, the Art Center has organized the new exhibition Grand Gestures: Celebrating Rembrandt, including thirty-three works on paper and one etching plate from Vassar's permanent art collection, and five loaned works, including two drawings. As a group, according to Phagan, "Rembrandt rendered these landscapes, religious scenes, portraits, and scenes from everyday life and the theater with a fluid facility."
Significantly, Grand Gestures showcases many of the most important etchings by Rembrandt in the Art Center's renowned Felix Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, a gift to Vassar College in 1941 and one of the highlights of the museum's permanent collection. Accompanying the exhibition is the scholarly catalogue The Felix M. Warburg Print Collection: A Legacy of Discernment, published by the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in 1995, and authored by Dorothy Limouze, the Lynn and Terry Birdsong Associate Professor of Fine Arts at St. Lawrence University, and Susan Donahue Kuretsky, the Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of Art at Vassar College.
The exhibition also features the fourth state (of five) of one of Rembrandt's most impressive and complex prints, Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses (1653), on loan from David Tunick, Inc., New York, and a late ink and wash drawing, Christ Finding the Apostles Asleep (ca. 1654), borrowed from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
Grand Gestures also honors Vassar president Frances Fergusson for her many contributions to the college – including the construction of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center – on the occasion of her upcoming retirement after twenty years of service. The exhibition is made possible by the generous support of The Smart Family Foundation, Inc.
From the beginning of his artistic career, and while still in his native Leiden, Rembrandt conveyed the subtleties of emotional power in his prints. Through the end of his printmaking days in the 1660s, facial expressions, gestures, shading, the quality of his lines, and even the different whites of the surfaces he printed on all contribute to Rembrandt's insightful pictorial expressions. Accordingly, the exhibition begins with his Self-Portrait in a Cap, Open-Mouthed, one in a series of very small prints from 1630 where the young artist mimicked shock, anger, or laughter in a mirror and captured them on his etching plates. The series may have been exercises in making a ready store of references for prints and paintings, though they also indicate early on his prime engagement with relaying sentiment through deft facial means. In this print from the Art Center's collection, Rembrandt shows himself astonished, with eyes wide open and lips pursed. Tangles and wisps of lines shape the image, but then dissolve to highlight the artist's piercing stare.
The self-portrait is the first work in a gallery dedicated to etchings of religious scenes, to which Rembrandt devoted himself throughout his life. This first gallery includes impressions of Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656), The Blindness of Tobit: The Larger Plate (1651), and The Triumph of Mordechai (1639-41). The gallery's centerpiece is The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds (1634), a large, complex etching that begins an especially fertile section of the exhibition on the birth and life of Jesus. Indeed, one may argue that Rembrandt reached his greatest heights as a printmaker and master of expressing human emotions through these lucid New Testament interpretations. Here, the element of surprise, coincidentally, comes into play again as an angel and clouds of watchful putti, aloft and alight in the night sky, suddenly appear and frighten the shepherds and animals below, sending them scampering or freezing them in place. Rembrandt highlighted the vision above and the fracas below by leaving his copper plate untouched in those areas that would appear white; in others, he crosshatched and hatched again and again to attain tones of deep blacks when "bitten" deeply with acid, inked, and printed.
This first section of the Grand Gestures continues with Adoration of the Shepherds: A Night Piece (1652), The Circumcision in the Stable (Night) (1654), The Flight into Egypt: A Night Piece (1651), Christ Disputing with the Doctors: Small Plate (1630), and Christ Between His Parents (1654). Though most of the works in the exhibition were printed during Rembrandt's lifetime, this latter print – an etching with drypoint – is an early impression made before there was much of the usual wear and tear on the copper plate; as a result, Rembrandt's intent here was near its clearest. Consequently, velvety areas made by throwing up the soft copper with the drypoint needle and then inking and printing the plate occur here, against passages of white that seem to illuminate the young boy and his mother. Clearly the center of attention, Christ looks up questioningly at the devout Mary while Joseph patiently keeps walking. Rembrandt even throws an element of unpredictability into the scene, with a scampering dog vying for attention.
The second gallery of Grand Gestures, continuing the religious theme, opens with scenes of Jesus preaching to crowds of people of various backgrounds and belief. It spotlights the drawing Christ Finding the Apostles Asleep, a view of a frustrated Jesus with open hands querying his prostrate followers. Outlined by the artist in heavy deposits of ink, his disciples rest in a contrasting countryside of lilting, wind-tossed trees and open-air sky.
This gallery also features The Hundred Guilder Print (ca. 1649), perhaps Rembrandt's most well known etching. A throng of people in the work, most rendered in rich detail, are either listening raptly to, pondering, or beseeching Christ. At the same time, small groups at left are presented in outline and argue among themselves, seeming to express incredulity, agreement, or earnest questioning. There are so many individual and varied expressions among so many varied types of people in this stylistically complex print, they amount to individual portraits, all attuned emotionally to center stage. Here, Rembrandt placed Jesus taller than anyone, arrayed in light and projected shadow, but surrounded by an almost ineffable darkness that hovers over the stream of crowds, and that seeps into the foreground. A much sought after print in the seventeenth century because of its beauty, various impressions sold then for an expensive one hundred Dutch guilders and more.
With its stage-like setting and lighting, and such individual characterizations, The Hundred Guilder Print is surely one of the most theatrical of Rembrandt's works, and it is installed near another highly dramatic and large work, Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses, a late, rare drypoint that conveys Christ's death and is considered one of Rembrandt's most masterful prints. Rembrandt varied his inking and papers (he sometimes used sheets of vellum, too) when printing this work, in order, it would appear in part, to suggest certain moods. The dramatically inked impression on view here, with its shower of warm light disrupting curtains of darkness, further demonstrates Rembrandt's abilities as a grand designer of pictorial theater. His crowds are camouflaged by excess ink as well as by thickets of dense, cut lines, and inky areas of rich velvety burr (the effects of printing from a plate before the edges of the lines, scraped into the copper, soften with pressure from the press). This state of the print shows Rembrandt's re-working of the plate, his burnishing out and altering of figures, his addition of new figures, and his very strong raining-down of incised lines to create long needles of light striking down into blackness.
Another highly dramatic and large etching. The Death of the Virgin (1639), also shares the gallery. This flowing composition is layered with an ecstatic, freely drawn vision of heavenly bodies, and a more thorough, studied event; the latter, dominated by a dependence on an earthbound opulent line, describes clothes as much as grief, concern, and curiosity.
THE EVERYDAY AND PORTRAITURE
The Strolling Musicians (ca. 1629-31) inaugurates the other main theme in the exhibition, contemporary life. Rembrandt devoted many of his works on paper to the entertainments, rituals, exoticisms, and personalities of Leiden and Amsterdam, as well as pastoral scenes, and this section of the exhibition features etchings of street life, the theater, portraits, and landscapes. For the night scene of The Strolling Musicians, he hatched and crossed lines to cloak musicians and a family in a veiled darkness, enlivened by brilliant light, the shrills of a flute, and, perhaps, for the musicians' part, hopeful remuneration. This etching – installed near Medea (ca.1648), a print with strong theatrical associations – reinforces the notion that Rembrandt often sought stage-like intensities of lighting and characters, and especially, the interplay of tenuous emotions, to create enduring visions of his age and his imagination.
This section of the exhibition continues with other street scenes, such as A Peasant in a High Cap, Standing Leaning on a Stick (1639). A farmer in baggy clothes and furry hat, this unsophisticated pedestrian reaches out toward something, perhaps seeing something new that caught his eye. Rembrandt had a lifelong interest in picturing peasants, beggars, and other passersby in transitory moments, and these rather anonymous portraits contrast enormously in the exhibition with his portraits of established figures in Netherlandish society.
Grand Gestures includes detailed portraits of the preachers Jan Cornelis Sylvius and Joannes Uytenbogaert alongside lavish renderings of wealthy textile trader Jan Six, and Joannes Uytenbogaert, the receiver general of the Netherlands (and second cousin of the aforementioned preacher). Jan Six (1647) is a beautiful study of this businessman and aesthete in pensive thought, dramatically darkened through dense, shifting networks of crosshatched lines on the copper plate. Rembrandt made the lines by scratching them into the plate and by etching others with acid, then filling the lines with ink to print. He also chose to make light fall strikingly from the window upon Six. The beauty of this particular impression may be acknowledged through its distinguished provenance, having been in the collection of Francis Seymour Haden, the influential nineteenth-century British etcher and brother-in-law of famed American artist James McNeill Whistler. Six himself was a prominent art collector, who also authored a version of the play Medea that was performed the same year Rembrandt made his portrait. That year or the following, Rembrandt would make his Medea etching.
In fact, Francis Seymour Haden helped to revive interest in Rembrandt's masterly etchings, and he also championed many of his subjects, especially the landscape. Grand Gestures: Celebrating Rembrandt concludes with two landscapes, a brilliantly lighted Landscape with Trees, Farm Buildings, and a Tower (ca. 1651) and the magisterial The Three Trees (1643). With the latter etching, Rembrandt sets one's sights on a hilly foreground with three large trees seeming to rule the sun-basted horizon. At the same time, a placid fishing pond cast in shadow near the viewer belies a distant, frenetic massing of storm clouds, and either a powerful splaying of the sun's rays or a downpour of rain. The drama of The Three Trees, the largest of Rembrandt's etched landscapes, lies in its contrasts, and in the memorable way it carries symbolic overtones of grand theater and larger-than-life meanings. Even in landscape, Rembrandt sought to evoke drama. Indeed, the "emotions" of this landscape – its oncoming storm, brilliant sky, and peaceful prelude – become grand gestures in Rembrandt's countryside melodrama.
ABOUT THE FRANCES LEHMAN LOEB ART CENTER
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, with collections of more than 16,000 works, charts the history of art from antiquity to the present. The 36,400-square-foot Art Center, designed by Cesar Pelli and opened in 1993, features approximately 350 works at any given time in its Permanent Collection Galleries. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings, and a wide range of works by major European and American painters of the twentieth century. The Art Center is the successor to the Vassar College Art Gallery, which was begun in 1864, making Vassar the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday, 10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m., and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson Valley cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and Olana, the Frederic Edwin Church home. The Art Center is wheelchair accessible. For more information, the public may call 845.437.5632 or go to the Art Center's website, http://fllac.vassar.edu.