In the past few troubled years, and particularly since the beginning of the latest wars in Europe, the thought must have come to many minds that we are witnessing the disintegration of Christian civilization. When an idea of this nature besets people they feel impelled to look for some reassurance of their faith; some solace and comfort in a world that seems suddenly to have lost its bearings. Such qualities of reassurance and comfort can be found in many fields of art, but nowhere to such a satisfying degree as in the religious etchings of Rembrandt.With this thought in mind the Institute has arranged an exhibition of some of these prints. They come from the large and distinguished collections presented to the museum by Herschel V. Jones, and show how Rembrandt’s conception and power of expression developed. To look at them is to rediscover one’s sense of perspective, and to find one’s belief in human nature unexpectedly strengthened. They are so simple and so natural that the thoughts they express strike one as right and inevitable.It is strange, perhaps, that Rembrandt should have interpreted the scriptures in so moving a fashion, for he was not what one would have called a devout man. But he had those qualities of simplicity and compassion, of realism and loneliness, that made it possible for him to reach the heart of truth. His conception of religion, as revealed in his etchings, was not that of a remote and unattainable ideal, but something that lay everywhere around him. His religious prints are peopled with the figures that he met in the street, and his Christ is a man of such innate and unassuming dignity that he dominates any situation.The observer feels drawn to him in this unawesome and everyday guise, and realizes that Rembrandt, in interpreting the scriptures in a natural and intimate way, made them far more impressive than if he had been flamboyant in expression. This can be observed from a comparison of some of the early with the later prints, for in the beginning Rembrandt occasionally used a complex language that was foreign to the uncomplicated nature of his own thought.From the very first, however, his work reveals the blending of realism and spirituality that gives it its deepest meaning. In the plate of Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple,
for example, Christ’s righteous anger is heightened by the groups of people chatting idly in the background. Here it will be remarked that line is closely handled, but that it serves Rembrandt well in depicting this turbulent scene.More moving, because it is treated in a freer manner, is The Return of the Prodigal Son.
No pronounced gradations of tone detract from the composition in which the aged father is seen receiving his son on the threshold of the family home. The chief interest is concentrated on this group, but again Rembrandt has added the commonplace figures that make the scene one of universal appeal and emphasize the sorrowing pity of the old man.Dating between this plate and the larger Death of the Virgin,
which illustrates one of Rembrandt’s earliest uses of drypoint to achieve tone, is the delightful small etching of Joseph Telling his Dreams.
Seated in the midst of a group of people who express skepticism, scorn, indifference, and amazed belief, the young Joseph, still quivering from the impact of his dream, relates his experience. This is not one of Rembrandt’s most important works, but it is one that illustrates splendidly his ability to understand and interpret human experience.From the beginning of Rembrandt’s second period, about 1640, his etchings reveal an increasing power of expression and freedom of treatment. One of the most beautiful creations of this time is the small plate of the Raising of Lazarus.
Here, for the first time in the scriptural plates, conception and treatment are perfectly coordinated. In this delicate landscape, where light and shade are so superbly handled, the raising of Lazarus from his uneasy grave is an event of profound import. It is the more effective because of its economy of line, and foreshadows the open and suggestive manner of Rembrandt’s last period.From the middle forties dates a lightly etched Rest on the Flight Into Egypt
that is one if Rembrandt’s most charming works. The protective gesture of the Virgin as she draws her shawl over the Child in her lap; the happy, half-smiling glance of Joseph who sits beside her on a log; and the two birds in the background lend it a tender and human quality that is very endearing.The homely, intimate tone of the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt
is in sharp contrast to the Hundred Guilder
print: one of Rembrandt’s great masterpieces, and one in which his genius for expressing the entire range of human emotion is seen at its best. The nobility and grandeur of this etching are such that one finds himself without words to express the emotion it arouses. Indeed, one is often without words before these works of Rembrandt. His genius was of the order that lays bare all human experience, leaving the observer moved beyond his own powers of expression.It is more miraculous because he did it with such economy of means. In the larger etching of Tobit Blind,
for example, and in David at Prayer,
great intensity of feeling is conveyed by the simplest means. Here Rembrandt uses his line in a free and open manner to suggest, in the one case, all the terrors that lurk around those who are forever in the dark, and in the other the supplication of him who finds himself bewildered and alone. In these compositions every element is carefully considered to give meaning to the whole, and no extraneous detail detracts from the effect. The little dog in the Tobit, and David’s discarded harp are the accents that give the plates a deeply poignant meaning.In the plate of Christ Preaching,
(La Petite Tombe), these touches find their counterpart in the child who lies sprawled on his stomach at the feet of Christ. This figure, more than any of the others who surround Christ, conveys Rembrandt’s conception of the character of Christ. Standing thus simply in a narrow street his nobility emerges more vividly than if he were set apart, his role more sharply defined.This composition, together with the wonderful Christ at Emmaus
and Abraham’s Sacrifice,
are three of the finest late works of Rembrandt on view in this exhibition. All are superb illustrations not only of his power of expression, but of the masterly means by which he gave it voice. The sad beauty of Christ’s face and the startled wonder of the disciples in the supper at Emmaus; the overwhelming grief of Abraham; the pitiful submission of Isaac, and the swooping gesture of the angel in the Sacrifice, are miraculously expressed. To look at such etchings is to absorb something of Rembrandt’s philosophy and to find oneself re-oriented in a troubled world.Referenced Works of Art
- The Raising of Lazarus by Rembrandt. This is the small plate, done in 1642. Herschel V. Jones Collection
- The Blindness of Tobit Herschel V. Jones Collection
- Christ Preaching, also known as La Petite Tombe, was etched by Rembrandt in 1652. Herschel V. Jones Collection
- Abraham’s Sacrifice, A brilliant impression of the plate etched in 1655. Herschel V. Jones Collection