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Rembrandt van Rijn, Rembrandt, zelfportret (B 10), 1630, ets, 72 x 60 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

HAARLEM.- Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) is generally accepted as the greatest artist that the Netherlands has ever produced. In addition to his many paintings, he also made hundreds of drawings and etchings. His mastery in all these areas is undisputed. Already in the 17th century collectors have avidly sought after his drawings. Even during his lifetime Rembrandt received wide acclaim throughout Europe for his etchings. 

Interest in Rembrandt’s work reduced substantially at the end of the 17th century and throughout most of the 18th century, particularly in the Netherlands. The taste of art lovers was changing at that time. Rembrandt was considered to be a maverick, not somebody who set an example to be followed. Teylers Museum, however, did not pay much attention to that and the museum began to buy his work soon after its opening in 1784. Now Teylers owns a wonderful collection of drawings, including a few very famous sheets. The collection of etchings by Rembrandt is the most important collection in the Netherlands, apart from the Rijksmuseum’s collection. 

The shifting popularity of Rembrandt’s work is a fascinating story. It is told here according to Teylers’ own collecting history. The public was involved in selecting the works in this exhibition. Hundreds of art lovers took part and voted for their favourites at www.teylersrembrandt.nl. This exhibition shows Rembrandt’s 100 most beautiful drawings and etchings from the museum’s collection, focusing on the top 25: today’s favourites, Rembrandt according to you. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, De terugkeer van de verloren zoon, 1626-1669, pen in bruin, penseel in bruin, wit gehoogd, 191 x 227 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

On a pedestal

Over the centuries, attitudes towards Rembrandt’s work have changed considerably. During his lifetime he quickly became one of the most important artists, but after his death this changed rapidly. His work did not fit into the straitjacket of French classicism which was fashionable at the time. His subjects were too ordinary and his way of working too loose. He was a ‘heretic’ in the 18th-century Dutch art world. 

This view shifted in the romantic and nationalist 19th century. Rembrandt’s alleged heresy and anti-academic attitude was admired then and he was idealised as a misunderstood genius. He was given an important position in the growing historical awareness of the Dutch and he became a national symbol, similar to Dürer in Germany and Rubens in Belgium. The height of this era was in 1852, when the Rembrandtplein was created in Amsterdam with a statue of the artist as a centrepiece. 

Numerous stories have been construed around Rembrandt, for example the myth of the under-appreciated artist, which persists even today. The love and admiration for his work has never stopped growing throughout the centuries. Rembrandt is currently considered to be part of the uppermost echelon of Western art history. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Steen verwoest het beeld uit Nebukadnessars droom (B 36), 1655; ets, 110 x 69 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Teylers and Rembrandt

There was not a great deal of interest in Rembrandt’s work in the Netherlands in the 18th century. However, Teylers Museum began to collect works by Rembrandt soon after its opening in 1784. Initially the collection featured only drawings, but later expanded to include etchings as well. By bringing together drawings of important Dutch and international masters in a collection that was accessible to the public, Teylers Museum wanted to present Dutch artists with the best possible examples from art history. For that reason works by Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt were acquired. 

In the 18th century, the neat and carefully-executed art of Gerard Dou, Nicolaes Berchem and Jan van Huysum was much more popular than Rembrandt’s ‘loose’ work. In comparison, Rembrandt’s work was less expensive. This would remain the case until the 19th century. 

Teylers Museum has always encouraged the interest in Rembrandt and has done so in many different ways ever since it opened 230 years ago. For example, Teylers contributed a substantial amount of money towards the statue on the Rembrandtplein. And the first-ever museum exhibition about Rembrandt in the Netherlands took place in Teylers Museum in 1888. In addition, Teylers Tweede Genootschap was founded to promote academic research in the arts. Thanks to the support of this association, ground-breaking books were published about drawings and prints by Rembrandt and his contemporaries. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Heilige Familie (B 63), 1654; ets, 95 x 144 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Rembrandt’s drawings

Rembrandt made paintings and etchings in order to sell them. This was not the case with his drawings, which is why he hardly ever signed them. His drawings were practice material for himself and examples for his pupils. There are hardly any drawings that were direct preliminary studies for his paintings or etchings. 

It was not until 1658 that Rembrandt’s drawings appeared on the market, when the artist had to sell large parts of his art collection and belongings. They then spread rapidly across western Europe. The young Teylers Museum acquired its first Rembrandt drawing in 1793. More than 30 drawings were purchased in the 19th century. In line with what was fashionable at the time, a great deal of money was spent on completely finished sheets. It is inevitable that later on some of these works turned out not to be from the master’s own hand. 

Typical features of Rembrandt’s drawings are: the incredibly well-observed lighting, the choice of the most emotional moment in a story and his gift of suggesting more than he actually shows, which is why the work sometimes may seem unfinished. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Kruisiging (Drie kruisen) (B 78), 1653, droge naald en burijn, 386 x 452 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Rembrandt’s drawings

Rembrandt made paintings and etchings in order to sell them. This was not the case with his drawings, which is why he hardly ever signed them. His drawings were practice material for himself and examples for his pupils. There are hardly any drawings that were direct preliminary studies for his paintings or etchings. 

It was not until 1658 that Rembrandt’s drawings appeared on the market, when the artist had to sell large parts of his art collection and belongings. They then spread rapidly across western Europe. The young Teylers Museum acquired its first Rembrandt drawing in 1793. More than 30 drawings were purchased in the 19th century. In line with what was fashionable at the time, a great deal of money was spent on completely finished sheets. It is inevitable that later on some of these works turned out not to be from the master’s own hand. 

Typical features of Rembrandt’s drawings are: the incredibly well-observed lighting, the choice of the most emotional moment in a story and his gift of suggesting more than he actually shows, which is why the work sometimes may seem unfinished. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Hiëronymus, lezend (B 100), 1634; ets, 108 x 90 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Acquisition list: etchings

Between 1833 and 1888 Teylers purchased as many as 405 of Rembrandt’s etchings. Recent research in the museum archives has revealed the purchase date and price of many of these. The etchings were bought at art auctions, as was the custom then, in groups and sometimes individually. The most important purchases are listed below. 

Due to financial difficulties, between 1927 and 1930 Teylers sold more than 50 of the etchings of which it owned two copies. Furthermore, several etchings turned out not to be by Rembrandt himself, so the total number of Rembrandt etchings in the collection of Teylers Museum is now 326, including several states (editions). This is to say that the museum owns 265 different etchings as well as 61 slightly or very different editions made from the same copper plate of the original etching. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Student aan tafel bij kaarslicht (B 148), 1642, ets, 147 x 133 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Acquisition list: drawings

Teylers acquired 34 drawings by Rembrandt between 1793 and 1884. Two more were added in 1920 and 1930. According to the latest research, twelve drawings are from the master himself. You can find them on the wall Rembrandt’s drawings in Teylers. The other sheets turned out to be work from his followers or pupils, as can be seen on the wall Rembrandt and non-Rembrandt. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, View of Diemen, c.1650-52. Pen, brown ink, wash on paper(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Rembrandt the etcher

Rembrandt is generally known as a great etcher, if not the greatest. He was already famous for his etching skills as far away as Italy even in the 17th century. Etchings are relatively easy to reproduce and distribute. He started etching in roughly 1625, mainly self-portraits and studies of emotions. From 1630-31 he began signing his etchings and widened his range of topics. 

Rembrandt’s confident lines, the unique deep black and his masterly use of the drypoint were very much admired during his lifetime. His range of topics is very richly varied: Biblical scenes, everyday scenes, landscapes, nudes, self-portraits and portraits. He depicts everything with unrivalled originality. 

Etching must have appealed to Rembrandt because it is so similar to drawing. It is relatively easy to draw in the surface with the etching needle. This is in contrast to engravings; to create lines with a burin is much harder. (See the area in the middle of the exhibition room for techniques). What’s more, changes are relatively easy to make to an etching by reworking the copper plate. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Jupiter en Antiope: grote plaat (B 203), 1659; ets en droge naald en burijn, 136 x 205 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Rembrandt’s etchings in Teylers Museum

Teylers Museum bought its first etchings by Rembrandt in 1833. For a long time it was the only museum in the Netherlands that collected the master’s graphic works of art. For more than 50 years the museum was able to make great purchases. In 1888 the first-ever Rembrandt exhibition in a Dutch museum was held at Teylers, with as many as 133 etchings on display. Before then, exhibitions of that kind had only ever taken place abroad, as there was more interest in Rembrandt outside the Netherlands. The first catalogue of Rembrandt’s etchings had been published in France in 1751.

We now know of a total of 314 different etchings made by Rembrandt. He made many alternative states or versions of many of them – sometimes very similar, but some of them very different. There isn’t a museum in the world that owns a complete collection. Teylers owns 265 of these 314 different etchings. It is impossible to complete the collection as there is only one remaining copy in the world of many of the missing works, and these sole surviving copies have already been acquired by other museums. 

The collection of Rembrandt etchings in Teylers Museum is one of the ten most important collections in the world because of its excellent quality, the wide range of prints and a few very rare or unique copies. Other important collections are: the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the British Museum (London) and the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York). Rembrandt’s 5 most beautiful works In the run up to this exhibition, Teylers Museum asked the public to vote for the most beautiful works in the Rembrandt collection. The exhibition has largely been based on this vote. The public’s top 5 favourites are on this wall: 

5. Shell (etching)

4. Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill (etching)

3. The three trees (etching)

2. Self-portrait with eyes wide open (etching)

1. The return of the prodigal son (drawing) 

If we compare the contemporary public’s choice with the 18th- and 19th-century art experts’ reviews of Rembrandt’s work then the difference is significant. Only one of the four etchings on this wall, Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill, received any praise at that time. In previous centuries, the fully completed scenes were very popular, for example The Raising of Lazarus, The Hundred Guilder Print and the Portrait of Jan Six. Today only The Hundred Guilder Print makes it into the top 25. 

Today’s choice has definitely been influenced by the revolution in taste of Impressionism. Ordinary objects presented in a looser way are very much appreciated. The choice reveals a great deal about ourselves of course. The silent shell and the dramatic landscape possibly show that we long for both detailed and large-scale experiences of nature. The two self-portraits, one in a direct, excited state and the other formal and distinguished, indicate our growing desire to know more about the human being who is behind the work. What’s more, it has turned out that Rembrandt is able to personally touch the contemporary viewer in many different ways. He speaks to all of us. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Bruggetje van Jan Six (B 208), 1645;ets, 128 x 223 mm(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands

Rembrandt’s etching

When Rembrandt began to produce his first etchings around 1625-26 the technique was only roughly one hundred years old. It was developed in Germany to decorate weapons.

The process is as follows: the artist covers a copper plate with an acid-proof layer. An etching needle is then used to draw lines in the soft surface. By putting the plate in an acid bath, the acid cuts (etches) into the unprotected parts of the plate. Once the acid has etched enough, the artist takes the plate out of the bath and removes the acid-proof etching layer. Subsequently, a layer of greasy ink is added which is later removed again. The ink remains in the lines cut by the acid. If a sheet of paper is put on the plate and this is put through a press, the ink in the lines is printed on to the paper. This leaves a mirror image of the drawing on the paper. 

Generally speaking, fifty to a hundred prints can be made from one etched plate, until the lines have become too shallow from use and can’t hold enough ink any more. The artist can make changes to the original etching plate, for example if he does not like the composition. This is how the next ‘state’ is created. Rembrandt did this very often. Four or five versions of an etching is not unusual for him. 

Not only did Rembrandt make many different versions of a single etching, but he also liked to experiment, for example with the drypoint technique. He scratched directly – without an acidproof layer – into the plate and he left the metal edges along these lines standing upright. More ink remains in these edges. This creates a wonderful, velvety line in the printing process. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn, Pharisees in the Temple (Jews in the synagogue), 1648. Ets en droge naald, tweede staat uit negen(c) Teylers Museum Haarlem the Netherlands