The Morgan Library and Museum has an impressive collection of 489 etchings by Rembrandt van Rijn, the largest and finest in the United States. Pierpont Morgan himself started collecting Rembrandt’s etchings in 1900 when he bought the entire library of millionaire rare book and print collector Theodore Irwin which included 272 Rembrandt etchings. He added 112 more prints in 1906 when he acquired them from the legendary art collection of the late railroad magnate William Henry Vanderbilt, sold by his son George of Biltmore fame.
A hundred and fourteen years after Pierpont bought the Irwin collection, the Morgan owns prints of almost all of the 300 known etchings by the Dutch master in multiple impressions thereof, including very rare ones. Some prints have been published in exhibition catalogs, but other than that, to view these innovative and influential works you had to go the Morgan in New York City where a few selections were on display. As of May 22nd, however, the entire Morgan collection of Rembrandt prints has been digitized and uploaded to the museum’s website.
Rembrandt began experimenting with etching in 1626 when he was a youth of 20 in Leiden. Other painters like Peter Paul Rubens made prints of his work, but he hired printmakers to do all the etching. Rembrandt did all the work himself, seeing it not as a means to mass-produce and publicize his pricier pieces, but as an exciting artistic medium in its own right with its own strengths. They were made by scratching lines on a resin-coated copper plate using a fine needle or the thicker drypoint needle and then dipping the plate in acid. The acid would “bite” the plate wherever the resin had been scratched away, leaving an impression. His early etchings had a relatively straight-forward drawing style. Over time he developed a more painterly style as he used dense thickets of lines and overlays of ink wiped off only in highlighted areas to create dramatic chiaroscuro.
His subjects ranged from self-portraits, often studies of posture and expression rather than formal representations, portraits of family (his mother, his first wife Saskia) and patrons, Biblical scenes, landscapes of the Dutch countryside and even some erotica which has no equivalent in his painted works. He also depicted people at the fringes of society, beggars, peasants, the elderly, the ill, sometimes mixing them up with images of himself in remarkable studies that look like sketches on a piece of paper rather than the work of painstaking engraving on a plate.
Rembrandt’s prints became hugely popular all over Europe, commanding impressive sums. An etching of Christ Preaching, a masterpiece of complex composition drawing from several different Biblical passages, is now known as the Hundred Guilder Print because an elderly patron paid him that much for an impression of it. His biographer Arnold Houbraken wrote that the demand for Rembrandt’s prints was so great people sought out impressions of different states with slight differences for the cachet of having the version of, for example, Woman Sitting Half Dressed Beside a Stove both with and without the stove key.
The largest number of Rembrandt prints that have ever been on display at once was at a British Museum exhibition in 2001 which featured about 100 of his etchings. Now you can enjoy almost three times that many in high resolution from the comfort of your computer. I recommend clicking on All Images and browsing through the whole collection. Click on zoom or on download to examine the details.
Speaking of which, I feel compelled to show love to the obscure but exceptionally innovative Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers. Rembrandt was a big fan of Segers’ work, collecting his paintings and prints, and even remaking one of the latter, acquiring the copper plate of Tobias and the Angel and remaking it into The Flight into Egypt. The Morgan has two impressions of The Flight (this one and this one) and it’s fascinating to the alterations close-up.