Friday, December 18, 2009

Some Rembrandt landscape etchings

Well, I am somewhat functional and at my post again. I would like to thank Lori Woodward again for filling in for me. I have an extensive post over at Fine Art Views that you can read by clicking here. It is an Ask Stape column. It has a good level of cheerful mayhem and general wickedness to it.

The etching above is the best known of Rembrandt's landscape etchings. It resembles his paintings more than his other etchings.There are small figures scattered throughout this etching.The presentations I am doing on etching are merely to build your interest. I hope that the next time you are at the art museum you will stop and look more closely at the etchings displayed there . Because I am merely an aficionado and not a scholar, I can only hope to incite you to greater discovery on your own. If I can convince you that this stuff is interesting and fun I will have succeeded.

The plate is very heavily worked. That is, it has been bitten in the acid a number of times and had passages reworked by burnishing. Here's what that means. Because of the softness of the copper, the plate can be reworked more than you might expect. A three sided scraper is used to remove the burr and level the surface of the plate somewhat. Then using a tool called a burnisher which looks a little like a narrow steel spoon, set into a wooden handle the area of the plate to be "erased" can be polished flat again. Then the artist regrounds and etches the passage again. There is a limit to how much of this you can do, but it is possible to radically redesign a plate and Rembrandt did this routinely. This is one of the reasons why the scholars have studied the states of his different plates so much.

The long and low plate above is typical of the Rembrandt etchings. The format is appropriate to the low county where he worked. This one has an L design, and is so standard I really don't know that I need to analyze it much other than to say it falls into the balance or steelyard concept. A whole bunch of stuff and a strong vertical (the tree) are balanced by the great expanse of space on the right. Because of the small size typical of etchings and the fine line used, etchings are often full of fine detail and meant to be looked at very closely. That gives a different sort of design sensibility than something which needs to communicate big simple shapes across a distance like a large painting or mural decoration. The print above looks a little "crabbed" in our reproduction here. If you had it in front of you it would look precious. There is a relationship between scale and design. We see so many things in reproduction and are less aware of that, because reproduction presents large murals and tiny cabinet pictures the same size. Viewing distance effects how an image needs to be designed.

Everything in the etching above (and the one above that) marches from left to right and gradually into the distance, that's a nice device to install in your own paintings. The opposite and far less effective approach is to string everything across the picture plane equidistant to the viewer. That is static, less interesting and doesn't convey the viewer deep into the image, but across its surface. A great way to get a landscape design to recede is to put the nearest object in the left hand corner and then the next item behind that and so forth. Each successive part of the landscape steps back further into space. Usually you will have to install this as much as observe it.

That's a pretty daring placement of that tower, almost right in the center. There's a common trick for doing that too. What Rembrandt has done is put one of the edges of the object on the center and then hang the rest one way or the other out from there. This is something I have done many times in landscapes myself. Balancing that central tower are three spots of dark, (there is a design motif called a three spot by the way). The first is a little grouping of trees to the right of the tower, the second is the dark mass of bushes at the center on the bottom, and the third dark spot is in the house at the left. These darks "orbiting" the tower divert our eye a little from its central location . They also encourage us to explore the picture and find the different areas that Rembrandt has included to entertain us.

Images from the


Laura den Hertog said...

Hi Stapleton,
Love the posts about the etchings. Thank you.
When I was 14 many moons ago and visiting family in Holland, we went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. At the time, there was a library annex where you could sit at tables, don white gloves and be presented with a box of Rembrandt's etchings. A small easel was placed in front of you to view the etchings at your leisure.
It was an experience I will never forget, and I remember very clearly being struck by how small these prints were as opposed to the grand scale of the vistas depicted. I also remember hoping that by touching these things, I could suck up some of that talent and knowledge by osmosis!
Things have changed since '63 and the museum does not allow such close proximity to the work anymore, but the images themselves remain timeless.
PS: The Frans Hals museum used to be open at night so that you could see the work by candlelight alone. Another amazing experience.

Philip Koch said...

While I can't claim Laura den Hertog's close early encounters with handling Rembrandt's etchings, I too want to thank you for posting these images.

Years ago I when I turned from abstract painting to realism Rembrandt's figure etchings and drawings were my focus and I was desperately trying to teach myself how to draw from the model. But as I used to pour over books of his prints (plus lots in museums too, but behind glass) I kept running into Rembrandt's landscape prints like the ones shown today. They intrigued the heck out of me though at the time I had no idea I'd shortly be finding my way as a landscape painter.

I can't think of another artist who can simultaneously create such marvelous abstract textures and marry them to real light and deep space. Rembrandt's long gone, but his best work has much to offer new generations of artists. Can anyone image artists 350 years from now getting excited by Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes?

Unknown said...

Well, you can claim success in at least one observer. I am intrigued as heck by these etchings. Wow, Laura, what an experience.
The Ask Stape column over at FASO is great, I hope everyone here gets a chance to enjoy it...

willek said...

One of the rules of composition is not to lop off a corner, bur Mr. Rembrandt did just that in the first plate. Covering that corner up really changes the picture. I think that dark is balanced by the heavy dark in the lower right quadrant. Without that cut off in the upper left, your eye seems to really be stuck to those trees. I think he did the cut off to bring our eye back into the left distance. What is your take?

All of these etchings are just great. I have all the stuff down to the acid and a press for small prints. I have not done it in 20 years. But this is really tempting... another distraction... The main trouble with etching is all that matting and framing... To do it right, one should have elves or apprentices, or grandchildren printing the editions and matting and framing and marketing and sales while the master etches the plates and pulls a proof or two.

Aline said...

I never have been intrigued by Andy Warhol, except to marvel at his success.

That "lopping off" of the upper left corner of the first plate (to quote Willek) is majorly astounding! Is that even legal? It does prove that all landscapes are abstracts. Who said that?

Stapleton Kearns said...

I had the same experience years ago at the Fogg museum at Harvard. They would let you sit at tables with their Ingres drawings and copy them. The drawings were under glass in narrow little frames but they were in your hands. i don't know if they still do that.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Rembrandt spoke to me before any other artist I think. He had it all. Intellect, charm, bravura, earthyness and wit, deep psychological understanding and that luscious color. He is the Beatles of painting!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks' I always worry that I am getting to "out there" and that people would rather see less "formal" stuff. I don't find baroque art difficult, but I think some people do. The 19th century French are more popular today.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I think he killed two birds with one stone by doing that.He closed off a corner that the eye might have exited through too early and he countered the weight of the lower right hand corner.It also gives the painting a lot of drama.

Stapleton Kearns said...

All landscapes are abstracts
-Gene Pitney


Knitting Out Loud said...

Glad you are feeling better, Stape. Do you know the wonderful Kenneth Clark book on Rembrandt? I did that at the Fogg too as a teenager. Amazing. So sad it's not possible anymore. I love the idea of Franz Hals by candlelight, Laura.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Glad to hear you are out there. I didn't know nyou had the same experience with the drawing cabinets at the Fogg.

Deborah Paris said...

Perfect description of Rembrandt, Stape which is why he still touches us across the centuries -all that bravura wrapped around something so soulful and intimate that we are compelled to look.

jeff said...

Stape the Fogg still lets people copy in the catalog room.

Pencil only.

Also there is a great book out on Rembrandt's prints, printed in there original size. It's a great book for drawing from.

alotter said...


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