FRANK ROBINSON: Rembrandt is born in the town of Leiden, known for its university and its textile factories in 1606. And he dies in Amsterdam in 1669 at age 63. It is, I think, a moving experience to see this artist develop from his early 20s to his early 60s. It is a long journey from a brash, brilliant Generation Xer, self-confident and insecure at the same time, who wears his emotions on his sleeve, to someone more serene, his emotions under control and yet still intact inside him. We see him over time as someone both intimate and aloof, coolly appraising and open, powerful and fragile. But progressively, that power is mixed with and shadowed by an awareness of pain, loss, and death.
Like all great artists, Rembrandt drew from many sources. One of his students, for example, worked in Persia. And it is probably from him that the master obtained a number of Persian miniatures, several of which he copied. He was particularly influenced by two artists, Lucas van Leyden and Jacques Callot. Lucas worked in the city of Leiden, as his name suggests, where Rembrandt himself grew up. And his best prints, engravings in particular, were done around 1500, when he was still in his teens. He has a feeling for the homely details of everyday life that characterized so much of Rembrandt's work, as well as, on occasion, a monumentality and intensity of emotion that the later artist could reach as well.
His other major source is the early 17th century French etcher Jaques Callot. Callot also was an acute observer of daily life. Like Rembrandt, he was especially fond of tramps and beggars as subjects. And he was remarkably sympathetic in his attitudes toward the less fortunate in life. One of his greatest series is his Miseries of War, stunning images that have lost none of their force in our own century.
In an even deeper sense, Rembrandt was a creature of his own time and place. Even though it was invented early in the previous century, etching, one could argue, is a very Baroque, 17th century medium in its immediacy, informality, and spontaneity, its free, whirling swirls of line, which come from the greater freedom and ease of execution allowed by etching, as opposed to the more laborious engraving or woodcut, characteristics that must have appealed to the artist.
And one can see over the 30 years or more of Rembrandt's etching activity the profound change that 17th century art as a whole went through, especially in the Netherlands, as we will see when we come to his two monumental prints of Christ presented to the people, one from 1636 and the other almost 20 years later in 1655. Rembrandt as a young man is imbued with the drama, even melodrama, of the high Baroque, whereas later, his work is closer to what is sometimes called the classical Baroque, simpler and more frontal and parallel to the picture plane.
But this gets us ahead of our story. Let's begin our detailed discussion of the artist's individual works with his portraits of people, including himself. One of the most remarkable series of Rembrandt's etchings are his self-portraits. No other artist examined his own face more closely or more often. Aside from his natural interest in himself, the artist is using his face as a kind of laboratory of experiences, trying out pain, shock, surprise, and laughter, in a motion he was never comfortable with. Here he is, for example, frowning in a harsh light, his unruly hair curling up and around his head. Here he is angry. And here he purses his mouth and starts back from us, shocked at what he sees.
He can show himself at age 24 as a beggar in rags sitting at the side of the road, his hand out, or again in a sheet of sketches, staring calmly out at us, young and self-contained but surrounded by elderly peasants sketched in at different angles of the sheet.
Later on in his 30s, he shows his wife Saskia sitting at the table behind him. His hat and his arm extend outward surrounding and, in effect, protecting her. A few years later, he shows her in bed dying.
Perhaps his most ambitious self-portrait etching is from 1639, when he was 33 years old. He has just been to an auction in Amsterdam, where two great High Renaissance portraits by Titian and Raphael have been sold. And he models his pose on these Italian ideals from the previous century. Also he wears a velvet cape, a gold chain, and a big beret, archaistic dress for the 17th century but one more sign of his ambition to be considered equal to the masters of the Renaissance.
And why shouldn't he think this? He's in his early 30s. He's already a big success in Amsterdam, the dynamic capital of a new dynamic country. And he has married a wealthy aristocrat. But even here, at the height of his career, he cannot help seeing the dark side of his own personality. He squints nearsightedly out at us and frowns. His hair cascades uncombed out of his beret and down to his shoulders. He is not the ideal Renaissance gentleman finally. He is somebody real, cocky and pretentious and emotional and unsure of himself.
His last etched self-portraits are in the late 1640s and early 1650s, when he is in his own mid and late 40s. He confronts himself head on with no fancy dress and no pretentious poses or expressions. He is simply recording what he sees. And what he sees is a face not too different from what we see when we look in the mirror. Or as he did more than 20 years earlier, he presents himself as just one among a sheet of sketches. The other figures are, as before, peasants and beggars.
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This room celebrates the etchings of Rembrandt van Rijn, the great seventeenth-century Dutch painter, draftsman, and printmaker. His etchings, over 200 of them, have an extraordinary range of subject, from beggars and rat catchers to portraits of distinguished politicians and businessmen, from the Old and New Testaments to mythology and genre subjects, as well as many self-portraits and portraits of his family. The room also includes a demonstration of the making of an etching.
This video is part 4 of 9 in the Rembrandt's Etchings series.