SPEAKER 1: Perhaps Rembrandt's profoundest etchings are of religious subjects from the Old and New Testament. He's a master storyteller and is able to convey narrative and a whole range of human emotions on a small scale on these little sheets of paper. And he always has his own take on these stories, which were so familiar to everyone in the 17th century.
For example, here is the parable of the Good Samaritan, who has rescued a poor wayfarer attacked by bandits and brought him to a wayside inn. Incredibly, the diagonal that is the basis of the composition begins in the lower right with a dog defecating in our faces, more or less. The angel appears to the shepherds, announcing Christ's birth, and everyone-- shepherds, cows, sheep, falls all over themselves in shock and surprise. And even the trees twist and turn.
To turn to the Old Testament, Rembrandt presents Abraham casting out Hagar and Ishmael, one of the favorite subjects of artists in the 17th century, who delighted in showing the righteous anger of the Old Testament prophet dismissing from his house his mistress and bastard son. Rembrandt, however, has his own view of this violent and disturbing story.
He presents Abraham as literally torn between his two families, his right hand and right foot turn towards Sarah in the window, and little Isaac peering slyly around the Dutch half door. While his left hand and left foot reach out toward Hagar and Ishmael. Rembrandt loved fat women. Sarah is thin and gaunt, while Haggard is plump with a double chin. And how do you show a child being cast out of his own home by his own father? Perhaps the most eloquent way is to show him from behind, his face turned away from us. By the way, here is that mistake I mentioned before, the wooden support above Abraham's head simply peters out into thin air.
Even the story of Adam and Eve is not immune from the artist's individual point of view and his humor. Here are Rembrandt and Saskia themselves, newly married, presented not as ideal nudes, but naked, fat, warts and all. Even the elephant in the background seems to be making a comment on Saskia's ample proportions. These are all early works from his 20s and early 30s, later in his 40s and early 50s, a different spirit pervades these subjects.
Here, for example, is one as one of his most famous etchings, the 100 gilder print. A gilder in the 17th century is about what a skilled artisan, a carpenter, or a fisherman, would earn in a day. The average annual income was about 300 gilders. So 100 gilders was a hefty, even famous price for print, a multiple of which he seems to have made perhaps 50 or 75 impressions.
We see here a remarkable scene-- Christ receiving from the right the sick and the lame. And from the left, children, and babes in arms. He is, however, among his enemies. The fat and affluent burghers on the left turn away from him in their skepticism. And he is depicted outside the city walls as the true outsider that he is.
Even the three animals-- camel, donkey, and dog turn away from him. Lacking souls, they cannot participate in his miracle. In the foreground are a shell, a symbol of the pilgrim just in front of the kneeling woman, and to the left, a flowering branch reaches out of a depression in the ground. This elegiac mood appears fairly often in these late religious subjects.
For example, in 1654, he does a series of six small plates of the childhood of Christ, showing the shepherds in the stable, the circumcision, the flight into Egypt, the holy family with the cat, Christ in the temple, disputing with the doctors, and the return from the temple. The etching of the circumcision is particularly beautiful. It is perhaps the only time that this ritual is shown in the stable instead of the temple, its traditional place. The stable emphasizes Christ's humble beginnings. Even more remarkable is the ladder leaning leaning against a pole on the left. This is a reference to the crucifixion, the last pain of Christ, present here at the scene of his first ritual pain.
Three of Rembrandt's children die before their first birthday. And the fourth, the famous Titus, dies in his late 20s. Throughout his life, the artist returns to the theme of father and son, and especially Abraham and his troubled relationship with his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. We've already seen his etching of 1637, of Abraham dismissing Haggar and Ishmael into the wilderness, where his son will become a perpetual wanderer. We remember the first line of Moby Dick, call me Ishmael.
Here now we see one of his most powerful prints. The Lord has told Abraham to take Isaac, his one remaining son and heir, up to the top of a mountain and sacrifice him. Here we see the climactic moment of this dramatic, disturbing, inexplicable story. Abraham covers Isaac's eyes, exposing his vulnerable throat and is about to kill him. However, just now the angel of the Lord descends and prevents him from this sacrifice. The angel's pose is not overtly dramatic, as it was in Rembrandt's earlier, youthful depictions of this scene. Rather, he descends in a tunnel of heavenly light, and firmly, but gently, lovingly, embraces the prophet.
If you look closely on the left side of the print, under the angel's right wing, you will see the hindquarters of the ram, his horns caught in the bushes. He will soon be sacrificed in place of Isaac.
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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 6 of 9 in the Rembrandt's Etchings series.