The Sign and the Light

Exhibition Dates: September 11 – November 18, 2020

About the Exhibition

“Rembrandt: The Sign and the Light” features an exceptional selection of 59 etchings, offering a variety of subjects detailing a panorama of Rembrandt’s etching activity during his 35-year career. Some of them include religious figures and scenes, genre scenes, portraits, figure studies and the famous beggars.

Made possible with a grant from an Anonymous Fund of the Cumberland Community Foundation, Inc.

Rembrandt’s Life & Art

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-69) was born in Leiden, Netherlands. His father was a miller and his mother was the daughter of a baker. As a boy, Rembrandt was sent to Leiden Latin school in 1615, but quit his studies in 1619 to follow his artistic ambitions.

This Dutch painter quickly established himself as one of the greatest storytellers in the history of art, with an unbelievable ability to render people in his work.

Since the 17th century, Rembrandt scholars have tried to identify what it is in his works that goes beyond the colors, the line, and the forms: a message about the human condition and a reflection about the world. What is usually most striking in Rembrandt’s work is his gaze, his way of capturing the subjects and putting them onstage, creating a constant tension between the irreducible uniqueness of the subject and the constant search for universally human qualities as a manifestation of life. In his works, we find scenes in inns and on the streets, we meet up with charlatans, beggars, vagabonds and other members of the underworld. Other scenes show men and women engaged in artistic or intellectual activities. Finally, more than any other painter before him, Rembrandt dedicated himself to recording the many facets of a child’s life in the first years of existence. Rembrandt used various techniques to probe every act, every situation, and find the best artistic rendering of it. However, the search for what the scholar calls universal identification has the price of sacrificing the individual in a sort of distant detachment.

Rembrandt stands out for his psychological penetration of the characters, intimately tied up with the temporal character of his works. In fact, in Rembrandt, the physiognomies examine the subject’s vital process, a synthesis that in the work’s present moment contains the entire life, as if a single word could already reveal its existence. In this sense, the figures, moved by a profound vitality, appear more familiar to us, open and able to communicate the uniqueness of each individual’s destiny, revealing the psychic and vital tension.

Rembrandt approaches “real” life through its theatrical transposition. The idea of the works’ theatricality can be perceived in the different way of using models in the studio. Rembrandt relied on his observation of the attitudes and poses assumed by his models, almost as if they were on a stage.

The numerous self-portraits executed, like the physiognomic studies done at the start of his career, provided Rembrandt with a huge repertoire to use in his pictures.

Like an actor, he mimed before a mirror the most varied states of mind: amazement, skepticism, irritation, anger, melancholy and joy.

Another element that heightens the drama in Rembrandt’s works is the almost constant presence of actors playing peripheral roles.

These figures generate variety; they expand the narrative, and emphasize the emotional drama of the scene, or they act as surrogates.

In “Adoration of the Shepherds: With the Lamp” (in this exhibition), the peasant family peering into the stable represents an earthly reflection of the Holy Family. In many biblical prints, secondary figures of Jews seem to represent skepticism and to indicate the intransigence of whoever doubts Jesus’s message. Striking examples can be found in “Christ Seated Disputing with the Doctors” and “The Tribute Money,” both in this exhibition.

Finally, the mournful expression of Jacob’s wife as she leans against her stricken husband in the etching of “Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob,” (in this exhibition) seems to magnify the patriarch’s sorrow.

It is clear that Rembrandt is an innovator in the representation of religious subjects. It is a religiosity that does not spring from the figures’ faith, but rather from their experience of religion as a daily fact of life. Rembrandt makes sure that the extraordinary and the everyday interpenetrate, blurring the borders between genre scenes and holy scenes in keeping with the Nordic tradition.

He chooses to humanize the divine, representing religious figures as individuals transported into his own time. Christ and the saints are his contemporaries: the figures are far from the classical canons, their faces express human, familiar emotions.

Rembrandt’s Printmaking Process

The etching process is relatively simple: The artist coats the copperplate with a layer of material resistant to Ferric-chloride etching solution. The drawing is scored into this layer using special tips and then the plate is given a bath with Ferric-chloride etching solution. Where the plate was scored, the Ferric-chloride etching solution bites into it, leaving unique grooves. The plate is cleaned (the Ferric-chloride etching solution-resistant substance is removed) and then inked all over. It is cleaned again so that the ink remains only in the grooves. Then it is run through the press in contact with the sheet of paper that will receive the image.

The grooves obtained by means of the Ferric-chloride etching solution “bite” are different from those made using the burin (byoor·in), a steel tool used for engraving mechanically without the use of etching solution. They are never sharply defined, but are characterized by the fluidity of the design, and for the effects of smoothness and mellowness in the light tones as well as in the darker ones. The tips used to score the drawing into the Ferric-chloride etching solution-resistant surface can vary widely, depending on the expressive requirements.

The most delicate moment of the process is certainly the “biting,” when the Ferric-chloride etching solution substance comes into contact with the parts left exposed by the scoring. There are many variations in this procedure, to obtain different effects. For example, multiple bitings make it possible to vary the chiaroscuro (kee·aa·ruh·skoo·roh) tones (the use of strong contrast between light and shade in drawing and painting), conferring different depths to the grooves.

Rembrandt & The Etching

While Rembrandt is principally known for his paintings and drawings, it is in his etchings that he most profoundly changed the course of art history. Rembrandt kept the three artistic techniques he used almost completely separate from one another: drawing, painting and etching. The latter remained his most intimate territory, his private haven. It is safe to say that Rembrandt achieved his own, unmistakable etching style, which was imitated by artists throughout Europe.

In his first etchings, in which he has already developed pronounced chiaroscuro effects, he makes mostly small-format works focusing on biblical subjects or scenes of poverty. The artist repeatedly portrayed figures of beggars. In these works, two of which are shown in this exhibition (“Old Beggar Woman with a Gourd,” 1630, and “Beggar with a Wooden Leg,” 1630), the artist focuses on the movement between light and dark: indigent figures draped in rags, moving freely, they exalt the alternation of light-filled areas with dark ones. From 1639, Rembrandt began using drypoint (a diamond-point needle in which an image is incised into a copper plate without etching solution), eventually executing such works as “The Death of the Virgin” (in this exhibition) almost exclusively in this technique.

The artist also experimented with different qualities of ink and paper. For example, until the start of the 1640s, in keeping with the usual procedure, Rembrandt removed all the excess ink from the plate to obtain uniform and well-defined images. Later, he changed strategies, leaving a thin film of ink in such a way as to obtain, in addition to the lines, tonal-like effects in the work, or in part of it. These devices allowed Rembrandt to achieve an exceptional variety of pictorial effects.

The artist intentionally alternated “finished” incisions with “half-finished” ones and “barely sketched” others. This variety demonstrates Rembrandt’s skill at using a vast repertoire of technical and stylistic devices to generate a surprisingly diverse corpus of works. In some cases, the artist intervened, often using drypoint, to increase the intensity of the shadows. In other cases, he actually replaced entire figures. In the 1640s, Rembrandt’s prints seem to reflect two contrasting approaches to etching. On the one hand, we find a linear style similar to drawing, as in the work shown in this exhibition “Abraham and Isaac (1645);” on the other hand, he pursues markedly more pictorial atmospheres, as in the work, also present in this show, “The Rest on the Flight: A Night Piece (1644).” In the 1650s, his style changes noticeably, with more compact compositions, figures distributed in planes parallel to the surface, and a hatching that no longer shapes the figures, but runs across forms and objects.

Exhibition visitors will notice how Rembrandt was able to exploit the quasi-mystic power of black ink on paper. The paper is the source of the light, whether in the more worked-on areas or in the sketchier or even arid ones. The effect is like suddenly being torn from the ordinary conditions of sensory life, which in painting, instead, find room, at least somewhat, through the colors. Light and shade seem to beckon to one another in a two-way conversation, an ambiguous mingling, without forgetting that everything seems to be dictated by the light, natural in defining objects according to the “laws” of perspective and “shading,” and supernatural for its strange intensity, which seems to conjure up confused images in the observer.

Follow us on Social Media