Theater & art

Sebastian smee

Missing prints were created by artists at pinnacle of their craft

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” (right) is an etching, Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” (also known as “The Fall of Man”) an engraving.

PRINTS COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” (right) is an etching, Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” (also known as “The Fall of Man”) an engraving.

The two works that are missing, possibly stolen, from the Boston Public Library are by artists who would make anyone’s Top 10 list of the most important artists in the history of Western art. But the works by Rembrandt and Dürer are prints, and so it’s difficult to measure the loss.

You can make an appointment to see versions of both works a few minutes down the road at the Museum of Fine Arts in its Morse Study Room for Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; the MFA staff will happily oblige. Plenty of other museums and private collectors around the world have their own editions.

Advertisement

Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” is an etching, Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” (also known as “The Fall of Man”) an engraving. Both artists revolutionized those respective media, which is why both stand at the pinnacle of achievement in printmaking. The BPL has more than 100 prints by Dürer and 30 by Rembrandt in its extensive prints and drawings collection.

As one in a series of the most sustained and searching self-portraits ever made, the Rembrandt etching is obviously prestigious.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

But the Dürer engraving is perhaps the more singular and remarkable image (which partly explains its high valuation, around $600,000; the Rembrandt, meanwhile, is valued at $20,000 to $30,000).

Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” is the work of an artist operating not only at the peak of his extraordinary powers but at a crossroads of art history — as the Middle Ages shifted into the Renaissance, and as the flinty, naturalistic art of Northern Europe met the idealized and classically inspired art of Italy.

The engraving, part of the Leo M. Friedman estate received by the BPL in 1958, was made by using a sharp burin, or pointed chisel, to cut lines like shallow trenches in the surface of a metal plate. Those gouged lines can hold ink. The image is made by pressing the metal plate with its inked lines against paper.

Advertisement

The process can be repeated, and that, of course, is the whole point: The technique meant artists could spread awareness of their talent and their ideas far and wide.

Dürer, the son of a goldsmith from Nuremberg, did exactly that. He acted as his own publisher and sold his prints at trade fairs and through well-placed agents, and over time he became rich.

He was one of the first artists to exploit printmaking in such a concerted way to cultivate and spread his fame — his monogram alone is famous — making him the very model of the modern art celebrity and genius.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Self Portrait with Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre.

His “Adam and Eve” was engraved in 1504, after his first trip to Italy but before his second. It is Dürer’s early masterpiece. It combines his astonishing ability to render detail in an intensely naturalistic way with a new type of idealized human beauty, until then foreign to Northern European art. That ideal was based, in part, on a system of proportional measurements derived from Vitruvius, the great Roman architect and theorist who fascinated Renaissance artists and architects in Italy, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dürer shows Adam and Eve frontally, their heads turned toward each other, their white bodies made brighter by the dark shadows of the dense wood behind them. The image itself is dense with symbolic details intended to impress and beguile a learned audience.

The goat perched on a distant cliff, for instance, represents sinfulness, alluding to the Christian concept of original sin at the heart of the biblical story of Adam and Eve. The parrot represents wisdom and prudence, in opposition to the evil snake. And the mouse at Adam’s feet is threatened by a cat, meant to emphasize Adam’s precariousness at this key point in his interaction with Eve.

The image also illustrates, at one and the same time, the idea of a peaceable kingdom before the Fall and the medieval doctrine of the four temperaments: the ox is phlegmatic, the cat choleric, the rabbit sanguine, and the elk melancholic. These temperaments, properly balanced, guaranteed not only health, but — according to Christian doctrine — sinless immortality. The taking of the apple disrupted this balance, dooming humans to death, disease, and vice.

Dürer was understandably proud of the image, as the plaque hanging from the mountain-ash branch Adam holds makes clear: “Albert[us] Durer of Nuremberg made this in 1504” it reads in Latin.

Rembrandt van Rijn was at the height of his powers 130 years later when he made the small “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre.” His vaunting self-confidence was leavened with a sense of play, curiosity, and even self-parody, as — like the photographer Cindy Sherman 350 years later — he used costumes and props to try out different guises. The Rembrandt work came into the BPL collection as part of the Wiggin Collection in 1941.

Etchings are similar to engravings. But before any lines are incised, the plate is applied with a layer of acid-resistant coating. The lines are scratched into this coating, uncovering the metal beneath, after which the plate is dipped in an acid bath. The acid eats away at the exposed lines, leaving the rest of the plate untouched (the longer the plate is dipped, the deeper the lines). Those lines, as in engraving, hold ink that can be pressed to paper to produce multiple images.

This self-portrait is not as well known as some of Rembrandt’s other etched self-portraits, but it is virtuosic, especially in its rendering of the artist’s long, curly hair and furry, feathered cap. It’s also, I find, quite funny, and I suspect that Rembrandt himself relished its slightly comic aura.

What’s astonishing, and not at all funny, about the mysterious absence of both prints from the Boston Public Library is that no one seems to know where they are. Even if this mystery turns out to be an innocent mistake, it remains troubling that the BPL isn’t keeping better track of its art.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.