SPEAKER: First, a brief word about the technique of etching, one of several print media. The artist, or his or her assistant, takes a copper plate and covers it with a thin layer of acid resistant wax. The artist then takes a needle and scratches it through that thin layer of wax to make the intended design.
Then the plate is put in an acid bath. The acid bites, or etches, into the copper where the needle has scratched the design. When the acid has bitten deeply enough into the plate, it is taken from the acid, the wax is removed, and thick, sticky ink is spread across the whole plate. The ink is then wiped off and stays only in the lines etched by the acid. A piece of paper is put on the plate, and paper and plate are put through a press.
The pressure of the press forces the ink out of the etched lines and onto the paper, creating in reverse the design the artist intended. A good number of copies-- or impressions, as they are called-- can be taken from the plate, from 50 to 100 or more, depending on various factors, before the lines begin to break down and become too shallow to hold the right amount of ink.
The genius of Rembrandt, especially when it comes to etchings, is that he combined his fascination with people and animals and the stories of the Old and New Testament and ancient mythology with an endless experimentation with the medium itself. The technique of etching was invented in Germany in the early 1500s, more than a century before Rembrandt, as a way of decorating armor. Rembrandt seems to have learned the classic technique of wax and acid and needle from another Dutch artist, [INAUDIBLE].
However, he soon began to experiment. He would, for example, introduce dry point and engraving lines into his etchings. That is, directly cutting into the plate, often throwing up curlicues of copper on either side of the line, called burr, which would catch the ink and make it broader and more velvety. He experimented with wax that was slightly porous, letting in some of the acid to bite into the plate, creating a film, or tone, on the paper.
He experimented with different kinds of paper. Paper with oatmeal in it, vellum, or animal skin. Paper of different colors, textures, and absorbencies. This continuous search for new effects is one reason why his work had such great importance for 18th and 19th century German, French, Italian, and Spanish artists.
Goya, one of the giants of European art, consistently looked back to Rembrandt, and he was a major influence on the French etching revival in the late 19th century. He even came to a new conception of the etching medium. This comes out, for example, in the various, quote, "mistakes" he made, which we will see shortly.
In one of his etchings, the so-called French Bed, the woman has two left hands. He certainly noticed this, but he didn't bother to burnish one of them out. In his Abraham Dismissing Hagar, we will see that he etches in the beginning of a beam of a building, but he doesn't bother to finish it.
In another case, he deliberately takes a plate by an earlier artist, Hercules Seghers, whom we see here, burnishes out the right-hand part of the plate, and reworks that section with his engraving tool, the burin, to make an entirely new subject, producing a work that is the marks of two different artists and two different styles, all in the same print. In other words, this is the original Seghers here, the original plate, and here is the reworked part of the plate by Rembrandt himself.
In other words, he often treated the etching, which is a public medium, a multiple intended for the art market, as a drawing, which is usually a private medium, intended for the artist himself or herself. His prints are, therefore, amazingly spontaneous, seemingly unrehearsed, uncorrected. Both in his technique and in his subjects, which are so often himself or his family, he makes the private public. He opens himself up to everyone. And this, of course, makes him very modern.
Another technical point worth mentioning here is the idea of the state. Every time that an artist makes a change to his original plate, that is called a new state. Now and then, Rembrandt would produce only one state, the original composition, and print this whole edition from that.
However, unlike his predecessors, he could make change after change, sometimes quite minor and sometimes major, rethinking the whole conception of the work, as we will see later on. In other words, he tended to think of the etching plate as a kind of sketchpad, a place to think out loud, to reveal himself and his emotions, his obsessions. A sort of extended self-portrait, warts and all.
Interestingly, contrary to our romantic idea of the neglected genius, Rembrandt was much admired and widely collected in his own lifetime and throughout Western Europe. There were collectors who insisted on buying not just every one of his etchings, but every state of those etchings. Our 21st century's fascination with this great artist is nothing new.
More than 70 of Rembrandt's original plates survive and are now in various public and private collections. After the artist pulls 50 or 75 copies or impressions from the plate, he would sell it, and later owners of the plate were free to print their own editions from it after Rembrandt's death. They would often recut certain details that might be getting paler due to excessive use or incompetent cleaning of the plate, thus creating new posthumous states. In some cases, they would even cut the original plate into two or more pieces and print editions from each of the pieces.
If you decide to collect Rembrandt prints, or any prints by any artist, it would be wise to learn about the tactical aspects of states, editions, condition of the paper, whether it is light struck or discolored by wood pulp matte, and the quality of this particular impression. For example, how well the dry point burr has held up. Any reputable dealer or auction house specialist will be happy to discuss these issues with you and lead you to the appropriate books and catalogs.
There is nothing quite like seeing and owning an original work of art, the actual physical thing created by the artist. Holding such an object, you are close to the creative act itself. The wonderful thing about prints is that they are multiples. There are plenty of them. And so they are relatively inexpensive. Often, extremely good etchings or lithographs or engravings by well-known artists are available in the art market for hundreds of dollars, not thousands.
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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 3 of 9 in the Rembrandt's Etchings series.