Rembrandt van Rijn was a Dutch draughtsman, painter, and printmaker. He was born on July 15, 1606, in Leyden, Holland. He showed artistic talent from a young age, and set up his own studio in 1625. He is known for his mastery of light and space, as well as his expressive portraits. His focus on light was reflected by the colors on his palette - "white, ochre, and lamp black," while the subjects of his work were always based from life.
Subjects of his work include portraits, biblical scenes, mythical scenes, and landscapes.
While I had known about Rembrandt for his paintings and his use of chiaroscuro, particularly for portraits, I wanted to learn more about his etchings. One that I remember learning briefly about was "Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses,” during a printmaking class. This work was highlighted because the etching underwent five states, throughout which Rembrandt manipulated light and shadows, and even a few of the characters or objects in the etching, using different materials and methods. This manipulation then impacts the presentation of the print, and therefore can change the conveyed meaning. These five states are each different time points during the crucifixion.
I remember a twinge of fear at the thought of recreating or revisiting any of my drawings or paintings. Any piece that I was proud of, I was also certain I could never recreate, for its beauty or accuracy must have been a happy accident. That Rembrandt would make multiple states of one etching deeply intrigued me.
In examining the five states of “The Three Crosses,” we can see a great change from the third state to the fourth.
Third state: 1653, drypoint and burin
Fourth state: 1653, drypoint on vellum
the image becomes a lot darker, and most of the characters are obscured by shadow, throwing the brightest light in the center, illuminating Christ. Light is used not only to represent reality, but also symbolically to convey meaning.
For these etchings, Rembrandt used a technique called drypoint, in which the image is incised into a metal plate, often copper, using a sharp tool.
Looking more closely, we can see that the characters featured in each engraving changes from the third state to the fourth state. Consistent with the observation that Rembrandt drew from life, the rider in front of the left-most thief can be traced to a medallion made by Pisanello that Rembrandt had in his collection of medallions.
In the print, we can find this rider because of his peculiar hat.
Compared, then, to the first state in the series: 1653, drypoint on vellum
The composition changes, and so does the emphasis. In the first state, we can see each of the two thieves, one bathed in light and the other in shadow, signifying their “goodness” and “badness” respectively. This is compared with the fourth state, in which one of the thieves is covered in darkness and the other is barely seen, with all of the light and emphasis in the center on Christ.
Indeed, the expressiveness of the characters and the use of chiaroscuro can be observed in these prints and throughout the rest of Rembrandt’s work.
Hind, Arthur Mayger. Rembrandt, with a Complete List of His Etchings. New York: FA Stokes, 1912. Print.
Van Den Boogert, Bob, Ben Broos, Roelof Van Gelder, and Jaap Van Der Veen. Rembrandt's Treasures. Amsterdam: Rembrandt House Museum, 1999. Print.
Spira, Freyda, and Peter Parshall. The Power of Prints: The Legacy of William M. Ivins and A. Hyatt Mayor. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. Print.