Rembrandt prints breathe with life Review: This master's works are more believable because of ordinary touches.

February 24, 1997|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Maybe the principal reason for Rembrandt's immense appeal to viewers through the centuries is his ability to make any scene, even when he's dealing with the most exalted subject matter, both human and natural. We see this quality all over "The Age of Rembrandt," the Baltimore Museum of Art's excellent exhibit of the prints of Rembrandt and his contemporaries.

In "The Death of the Virgin" (1639), the artist has created a complex scene with many people in various states of emotion surrounding the large bed on which the Virgin expires. The center and focal point of the scene is her outstretched arm, from which a doctor takes her pulse. The rest of the scene is from an age long gone, but with that one gesture -- which would be the same today -- Rembrandt makes the Virgin human and the scene part of our lives. There's no one who hasn't had a pulse taken.

There's a fine chance to compare Rembrandt's approach with that of other artists in the seven prints of St. Jerome, five by Rembrandt and the others by Jan van Vliet and Ferdinand Bol. In each of those two, the artist has taken such pains to emphasize the saint's piety that the figure looks like an actor on stage, or a model striking a suitable pose. There's a consciousness of being watched that makes the whole scene artificial.

In the Rembrandts, however, whether the saint is reading or praying or lost in thought, he's utterly self-absorbed. There's no hint that he's doing what he's doing for effect, so he's totally believable. As an added human touch, in the latest of these prints, "Saint Jerome Reading in an Italian Landscape" (1653), the saint has kicked off his sandals and sits there comfortably reading barefoot.

In the Bol, St. Jerome is barefoot, too, but there it's symbolic, a sign of his nakedness before God and of his poverty. In the Rembrandt, the gesture makes him one with us, a guy we could go over and sit down next to.

To express the fullness of humanity, one must have enormous insight, and that's nowhere better shown than in the exhibit's group of portraits. There are two portraits here of the goldsmith ,, Jan Lutma, one by Rembrandt and the other by the goldsmith's son Jan Lutma the Younger, both from the year 1656. Both show the subject tired and careworn, but in the Rembrandt there's another dimension as well -- a penetrating keenness in the subject's sidelong glance.

This ability to capture more than one quality in the gaze of the eyes is even more evident in Rembrandt's self-portrait of 1648, in which he is shown drawing just inside a window. There's insight and a hint of worldly wise sadness in the eyes, but there's also the quality of concentrated looking that an artist has when he looks up from his work to take in some detail of the subject before him.

This exhibit brings together more than 70 of Rembrandt's prints from 1630 to his last year of printmaking in 1661, together with a selection of works by his contemporaries. According to curator Susan Dackerman, the emphasis of the show is on how these artists reflect their social and cultural context.

Thus landscapes by Rembrandt, Jan van Goyen and others show us something of how people lived, what kind of houses they had, how they got from place to place. "The Haarlem Ferry" (about 1652-1654) by Renier Nooms, called Zeeman, shows not only what the ferry looked like but also a rest stop along the way and the amenities it offered.

Genre scenes, of course, tell much about the times in which they are created. Jan van Vliet's "Beggar with a Wooden Leg" (1632) and Rembrandt's "Beggar Seated on a Bank" (1630) reflect attitudes about society's unfortunates -- Rembrandt's sympathetic, the other unfavorable. Geertrud Roghman's "Cleaning" (about 1650) shows an interior with household utensils. Rembrandt's "The Golf Player" (1654) shows that golf was played in the 17th century, which was news to me. And Adriaen van Ostade's "The Peasant Family" (1647) depicts the interior of a house and the disarray in which such a family might live.

The exhibit, which offers up the museum's finest Rembrandt prints for the first time since 1991, is not confined to the social-context approach, of course -- nor need the viewer be. A sextet of works explores the history of Rembrandt's most famous print, the depiction of Christ with the sick around him, known as "The Hundred Guilder Print" (about 1649). It includes early and late impressions of the original Rembrandt image, examples from a later reworking of the plate by another artist, and a 19th-century copy of this popular image.

As always, Rembrandt offers as many possibilities as one wants to pursue. And as an added attraction there is a complementary exhibit, "After Rembrandt," exploring the impact of Rembrandt and other Dutch 17th-century artists on 19th-century printmakers including Whistler, Manet, Corot, Delacroix and Degas.

'Age of Rembrandt'

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive near Charles and 31st streets

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through April 13

Admission: $5.50 adults, $3.50 seniors and students, $1.50 ages 7 through 18

$ Call: (410) 396-7100

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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