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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Self-portrait Wearing a soft Cap, full Face, Head only (‘Rembrandt aux trois moustaches’) (only state) 1634. Etching on paper. 4.8 x 4.4 cm © Norfolk Museums Service.

NORWICH.- The internationally revered Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669) is the subject of a major exhibition presented by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery from Saturday 21 October until Sunday 7 January 2018. 

Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness focuses specifically on one of the less well-known aspects of Rembrandt’s output, namely his fascination with print-making, in particular his use of this medium to explore innovative tonal gradations to produce evocative images of the Dutch landscape, biblical scenes full of drama and pathos, as well as sensitive portraits, including many introspective self-portraits. Not many people today know that during his lifetime, Rembrandt was as famed for his etchings as for his paintings. In Britain, for example, he was far better known as a printmaker. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Artist's Mother Seated at a Table, Looking Right, Three-Quarter Length, 1631, etching on paper© Norfolk Museums Service.

Forming the core of this compelling exhibition is the nationally important but little known collection of Rembrandt etchings held by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery, the fourth most important of its kind in the country. This collection was bequeathed to Norwich Castle in 1951. 

The exhibition is jointly curated by Dr Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art, and Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, Curator of Historic Art, both of Norwich Castle Museum. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Naked Woman Seated on a Mound, 1631, etching & engraving on paper© Norfolk Museums Service.

Dr Francesca Vanke says: “This is the first time Norwich Castle’s extraordinary collection of etchings by Rembrandt has been exhibited as a group for more than thirty years. The exhibition demonstrates how Rembrandt’s handling of light and darkness, expressed purely through the medium of black lines and the white space around them, was unsurpassed.” 

Rembrandt’s preoccupation with light and shade can be seen throughout his work, as exemplified by specially selected additional works which complement the prints. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Group of Musicians Listening to a Flute Player, 1635, brown ink & wash on paper © Norfolk Museums Service. 

Three oil paintings: A Woman in Bed from the National Galleries of Scotland, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb from the Royal Collection and Anna and the Blind Tobit from the National Gallery have generously been loaned to Norwich for this exhibition. The British Museum has also loaned a chalk and wash drawing The Angel preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, together with four prints. It is highly unlikely that these works have ever been exhibited together before. 

Dr Giorgia Bottinelli explains: “By comparing prints with a chosen group of paintings and drawings we are showing how physical and metaphorical light and darkness meet and combine in Rembrandt’s work in all media, creating narratives that communicate to the viewer across time.” 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), A Woman in Bed, c. 1645-1646 © National Galleries of Scotland

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Christ and Saint Mary Magdalen at the Tomb, 1638, oil on panel. Photo credit: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Anna and the Blind Tobit, about 1630 © The National Gallery, London

The process of etching has been used in printmaking since the Middle Ages and is achieved by the artist drawing a picture with a needle onto a metal plate which has been covered with a waxy ground. The plate is then dipped in acid, which then bites into the lines created by the artist. Rembrandt was highly skilled in etching, as well as other related techniques of engraving and drypoint. As such he is credited as being one of the world’s most renowned and innovative printmakers. 

83 of the etchings from Norwich Castle’s Rembrandt collection are included in the exhibition. The subjects of the prints cover the whole range of his oeuvre including self-portraits, portraits of friends and family, among them a particularly lovely study of Rembrandt’s mother, landscapes, biblical scenes as well as genre and nude studies. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Self-portrait Leaning on a Stone-sill (II/II), 1639, etching with touches of drypoint on paper, 20.5 x 16.4 cm © Norfolk Museums Service.

Each of the prints vividly reveals Rembrandt’s outstanding ability to capture the many nuances of light and shade. Enigmatic figures emerge from evocative darkened backgrounds, night is subtly differentiated from shadow, while narrative and emotion are heightened by contrasts and perfectly added highlights. 

Unlike many artists Rembrandt printed the plates himself and often re-worked them as can be seen from comparing different states of the same subject. As such, printmaking to him was a constantly evolving art. In addition he was perpetually experimenting, often employing different acids and using hatching lines of varying thickness, bitten to depths of various degrees, in his attempts to achieve greater tonal effects. Different papers, European and Oriental, as well as oatmeal and vellum, were also a means to create further gradations in texture and contrast. Rembrandt treated print-making as an artistic medium in its own right, rather than merely a means of the mass reproduction of existing works, as had been the case up to this point. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Pancake Woman (II/ VII), 1635. Etching on paper. 10.9 x 7.9 cm. © Norfolk Museums Service.

The exhibition includes a print room to guide visitors through the print-making process while original copper etching plates from the Norwich School of artists drawn from the Norwich Castle collections will also illuminate this fascinating process. 

Margaret Dewsbury, Chair of Norfolk County Council’s Communities Committee said: “Visitors from the area and further afield will relish this beautiful exhibition by one of the most important and best-loved artists in European history, and enjoy observing the minute and intense detail of Rembrandt’s prints. The exhibition presents a rare opportunity to view at close range this outstanding but until now little known collection – and is another example of the cultural riches Norwich has to offer.” 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Three Heads of Women, One Lightly Etched, 1637, etching retouched with brush & grey ink on paper© Norfolk Museums Service.

The exhibition is accompanied by a publication, the first devoted to the Norwich Castle Rembrandt etching collection, written by Dr Francesca Vanke and Dr Giorgia Bottinelli. The exhibition is supported by headline sponsors Birketts LLP. 

Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness is the latest in a series of world-class exhibitions mounted by Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Norwich Castle is known for its original, varied and highly ambitious exhibition programme, which continues to attract growing audiences well beyond the boundaries of East Anglia.

21 October 2017 to 7 January 2018

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Windmill, 1641, etching with touches of drypoint on paper © Norfolk Museums Service.

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669),  The Three Trees, 1643, etching, engraving & drypoint on paper. © Norfolk Museums Service.

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Male Figure, 1646. Etching. © Norfolk Museums Service.

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Christ, with the Sick around Him, Receiving Little Children, 'The Hundred Guilder Print', 1648, etching, engraving & drypoint on paper. © Norfolk Museums Service. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), The Blindness of Tobit: The Larger Plate, 1651, etching & drypoint on paper© Norfolk Museums Service. 

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669),  The Flight into Egypt: Crossing a Brook (only state) 1654. Etching, engraving and drypoint on paper. 9.4 x 14.4 cm. © Norfolk Museums Service

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669),  Virgin And Child, 1654. Etching© Norfolk Museums Service

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Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669),  Reclining Nude, 1658. Etching © Norfolk Museums Service