Etchings and engravings were big in northern Europe during the 17th century.
Mass literacy ignited during the Protestant Reformation created an unprecedented demand for books, and engravings became the rage for artists eager to place their paintings, sculptures and drawings before the public. The opportunity for money and fame had never been greater.
As Rembrandt: The Consummate Etcher and Other 17th Century Printmakers, an exhibit on display at the Mitchell Gallery in Annapolis through Feb. 20 makes clear, even the greatest Dutch master of them all was inspired by this medium. Rembrandt (1606-69) crafted nearly 300 original etchings, each lavished with his innovative virtuosity.
His fellow artists from northern Europe did the same; some of their works are included in this collection of 40 engravings on loan from Syracuse University.
The Mitchell has arranged the pieces thematically, so that the viewer can see the artists work in several styles - religious subjects, landscapes and portraits among them. Each is testimony to the meticulous craftsmanship brought to this dexterous, highly expressive art form.
In the religious realm, one encounters Rembrandt's 1633 Descent from the Cross with its etched chiaroscuro - the interplay of light and dark shadings - calling to mind his evocation of light in paintings.
A similar luminous quality is shared by his small but riveting The Raising of Lazarus (1642), with the subject's head poking out of his light-filled tomb.
Rembrandt was not alone in his fascination with religious subjects. One of the exhibit's most striking images is Napkin of St. Veronica by Claude Mellan (1598-1688). The French artist's image of Christ crowned with thorns was created with one continuous spiraling line beginning at the figure's nose.
In engraving, as in painting, perhaps no one infused more life into his subjects than Rembrandt.
In the palpable piety that suffuses the face of a Mennonite preacher, and in the rapt intelligence that informs the face of Samuel Manasseh ben Israel, the etched lines suggest not only an image, but the human character and drama behind it.
Presiding over the other portraits is Rembrandt's Self Portrait Drawing at a Window, in which the artist stares alertly at the viewer, even as his pen remains fixed on the paper despite the interruption.
Etches and engravings conveyed images of northern Europe's public life as well.
Carriages, ruffled collars and all manner of exotic headwear lend flair to The Market by Jan Van der Velde (1593-1641), who re-creates the hustle and bustle of burgeoning town life in the early 17th century.
Other glimpses of the rustic peasant existence come courtesy of Slaughtering the Hog and The Barn by Adriaen van Ostade (1610-1685), as well as through the helter-skelter of Cornelius Dusart's Village Fair.
But for immediacy and realism in the social realm, Rembrandt gets the last word with his The Pancake Woman, a rural scene of a young boy conscientiously guarding his pancake from his dog.
"Rembrandt: The Consummate Etcher and Other 17th Century Printmakers" will be at the Mitchell Gallery through Feb. 20. The gallery on the campus of St. John's College in Annapolis is open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday evenings. Admission is free. For information, call 410-626-2556.