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.

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.

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