Rembrandt etchings are an education

October 17, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Some names in art are so well known that we seldom stop to realize how rarely we get a chance for a good look at their works. Think: When was the last time you saw a whole show devoted to Rembrandt's etchings? Five years ago? 10 years? 20?

Such an opportunity comes knocking so seldom that to let it pass would be a sin. Such an opportunity exists at the Mitchell Gallery at St. John's College in Annapolis, where "Rembrandt Etchings" presents a show of 51 works.

And what a show it is. Selected from the collection of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, it spans 30 years of his career from 1630 to 1660. It covers his portraits, including five self-portraits; narratives, including a dozen works on the life of Christ, from "The Adoration of the Shepherds" to "The Descent from the Cross," in addition to genre scenes, figure studies and landscapes.

It gives us some of Rembrandt's most famous works in the medium. There is the richly toned "The Three Trees," with its dramatic contrasts of light and dark and its symbolic significance; the three trees may stand for the three crosses of the crucifixion, or we may think of it more generally (and more personally) as visualizing the darkness that threatens to engulf the light that is life.

There is "Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses)" in the fourth and last state of 1660. And there is "Christ Preaching" of 1649, also known as "The Hundred Guilder Print" because Rembrandt was said to have bought back a version of this print for the large sum of 100 guilders.

The exhibit also contains excellent texts and labels that comment on every work, explain the artist's development, and encourage the viewer to look again and again at each etching. Not only museum-goers but many a museum could learn from this show.

It points out that in his earlier landscapes, Rembrandt's transitions between foreground and background were sometimes awkward, and he could place too much emphasis on surface detail and too little on structure. Later, his lines become shorter and stronger and his structures become more solid and monumental.

It also points out how his portraits develop from emphasis on clothes and other adornments to greater probing into the character of the sitter -- and how the narratives develop from stressing overt emotion to psychological insight. It discusses technical matters such as Rembrandt's use of drypoint to achieve richness, depth and contrasts of light and shadow. It discusses successive states (or stages of development) of a print, illustrating with an early and a late state of the print of "Clement de Jonghe, Printseller" (1651).

You could spend hours in this show, and return to it again and again without exhausting its possibilities. Don't hesitate; it'll probably be a long time before we see its like again.

ART REVIEW

What: "Rembrandt Etchings: Selections from the Carnegie Museum of Art"

Where: Mitchell Gallery, St. John's College, Annapolis

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; through Nov. 19

Call: (410) 626-2556

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