Rembrandt: life, paintings, etchings, drawings and self portraits

Rembrandt: life, paintings, etchings, drawings and self portraits is the sister site to the amazing Essential Vermeer site I wrote about back in November. Both are created and maintained by artist Jonathan Janson.

Rembrandt! What can you say about someone who is often billed as “the greatest artist in the history of Western art”, or (sometimes in the company of Valezquez) “the greatest of all painters”? Labels like that become masks that are difficult to see past. We see the legend and the name, not the artist; but clichés are hard to avoid when they contain truth.

We have little writing from Rembrandt. We know him from his remarkable artistic legacy and a fascinating visual biography in the form of over 90 self-portraits; but where he reveals himself most, I think, is in his drawings. Over 1,400 of his drawings survive, conservatively estimated at less than half of what he produced. (For most great artists we’re lucky to have a few dozen. For Vermeer and Franz Hals we have none.) Also unlike most of the great masters, the majority of Rembrandt’s drawings were not done as preparation for paintings, and very few were signed as pieces to be presented to friends or patrons. Most of his enormous outpouring of drawings were apparently done for himself, as visual record of his life and experience or simply for the joy in the act of drawing.

He drew almost anything in the world around him: trees, houses, marshes, reeds, boats, bridges, people in the street, people in costume, domestic and captive wild animals, children, beggars, merchants, his patrons, his wife, his family and himself. Rembrandt must have drawn with the ease and facility with which you or I walk or speak.

RembrandtThat faculty for drawing expressed itself in an economy of line and fluid simplicity unmatched by any other drawings I have ever seen in Western art. (Chinese and and Japanese ink paintings are another story, but they had a different purpose and were also a definite influence on Rembrandt.)

In the same way that poetry distills pages of emotion and meaning into a few lines, Rembrandt compresses his fascination with the visual world into a few intensely meaningful ink lines.

Drawing most often with reed pen and bistre ink, at times with rapid, wildly calligraphic strokes, and adding quick expressive ink washes that speak worlds of volume and light, Rembrandt was a visual poet. He captured the essence of what he saw with a clarity and brevity that is transcendent.

Rembrandt’s etchings show his drawing skills at their most careful, since these were made for reproduction and sale, but he still shows a wonderful freedom and almost casual confidence when drawing with the etching needle.

Although not as mind-bogglingly comprehensive as the Essential Vermeer site, Rembrandt: life, paintings, etchings, drawings and self portraits is still an amazing resource, containing over 100 paintings, 50 drawings and the complete set of all 289 of his etchings, as well as biographical information, museum listings, links and more. Wow.

Addendum: I forgot to mention: there are seven Rembrandt etchings on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as part of an exhibition on Dutch Prints (to February 12, 2006), and a major show of Rembrandt prints and drawings will be at the National Gallery in November of 2006.


13 Replies to “Rembrandt: life, paintings, etchings, drawings and self portraits

  1. Careful — somehow the high-res images are are saved uncompressed. I downloaded one 870K image (!), and resaved it and it dropped to 88k.

    He’s doing something wrong…

  2. Andrew, I think it’s more likely he’s saving them at a low level of compression to preserve image quality. This is unusual, but it’s actually for our benefit. JPEG images are capable of many levels of compression, but JPEG is a “lossy” compression method, it saves file size by throwing image information away. At low levels of compression, it’s not noticable, but as you compress more (or if you re-save the same image multiple times as a JPEG) you lose image quality until the degradation becomes apparent.

    Janson is actually being generous in offering the images a low levels of compression (higher file size) because it costs him more in bandwidth. He’s leaving us with the option to re-save them (as you did) at a higher compression rate (lower file size) if we want to, but you can’t put the extra image quality back in once it’s compressed.

  3. The fact that Rembrandt was also a skilled etcher is lucky for us, because otherwise we (the general public) could never afford his works. These Rembrandt etchings are original works that are 400 some years old and just amazing to me. Of course they are not cheap, but they are more conceivable to own than, say, one of his unique paintings.

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