Rembrandt brought his distinctive touch to so many diverse subjects that one needs a good-sized exhibit to do him justice. That's why the generous selection of 95 Rembrandt prints currently on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art is such a welcome opportunity to see what the artist can do with a homely cottage or for that matter a homely face.
It's impressive to consider that the exhibited prints are culled from the BMA's collection of more than 260 Rembrandt prints, many of which were originally collected by Baltimorean T. Harrison Garrett in the 1880s. Also included in the exhibit is the BMA's single oil painting by the Dutch master.
The first such display of the museum's Rembrandt holdings in more than 30 years, this exhibit allows us to see such famous prints as "The Three Trees" (1643) in the company of other images that are much less familiar.
Also, the BMA's preparation for this show led to the happy discovery that in the counterproof of one of the prints, "The Gold-Weigher" (1639), Rembrandt had taken black chalk and drawn in the gold-weigher's facial features. Voila! -- the BMA now realizes it has a Rembrandt drawing in the collection.
Walking through the show, one is equally struck by Rembrandt's versatility in printmaking techniques and in compositional strategies. Where the latter is concerned, he always seems able to find ways to focus our attention on the image before us. Of course, many of these images are quite small and so we have to pull up close to appreciate the detail. "Head of a Man in Fur Cap, Crying Out" (ca. 1631), for instance, is an etching that is not much larger than a postage stamp. More than small size and close cropping account for Rembrandt's ability to pull us up to such an image, though, because it's the shouting man's quickly rendered facial contortions that really force us to pay attention.
The same artist is capable of holding our attention with other prints that could hardly be more different in size, technique and subject matter. If an image like that of the shouting man is reductive, an image like "The Angel Appearing to the Shepherds" (1634) is sensuously if darkly detailed. This brilliantly achieved nocturnal scene has just enough light in it to enable us to see the densely worked foliage. The swirling angels overhead and all the leafy detail surrounding the shepherds are made all the richer by presenting them in such a way that they're barely discerned through gradations of darkness. We are pulled into this image as if through layers of the night.
As in any self-respecting Rembrandt show, the BMA exhibit balances views of life in Amsterdam with others of the surrounding countryside. One of the finest country scenes is "Landscape With a Cottage and a Large Tree" (1641), in which the thatched roof cottage is represented as if it were itself a hill rising from the plain. There is a thatch/hatch connection for Rembrandt in a scene like this, if you will, because one notes a perfect synthesis of the thatch roofing of such cottages and the artist's characteristic hatchmarks. It's appropriate that the two human figures depicted in the cottage doorway are easily overlooked, because they have been integrated into a landscape where there is complete harmony between the man-made and the natural worlds.
Going from the country to somewhat more citified matters, Rembrandt's intense interest in the everyday life of his own age comes through in such prints as "The Rat Killer" (1632), who is making his rounds in the 17th century equivalent of rat rub-out programs. This image presents the downside of the ramshackle picturesque tradition, because charming old cottages are great homes for rats. Thematic reinforcement is offered in this image by the battered and rotted barrel at the lower left.
Rembrandt's honest hand could effortlessly go from such a naturalistic and yet dignified depiction of a rat patrol to numerous illustrations of Biblical stories that humanize these sacred subjects without demeaning their elevated nature.
"Rembrandt: The Museum's Collection" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 21. For information, call 396-6310.