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Rembrandt prints amaze at the MFA

Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s “Six’s Bridge.”the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The many varied lines in "Rembrandt the Etcher" at the Museum of Fine Arts are so expressive — delicate, urgent, velvety, commanding, impish — you may begin to feel you know the man.

Earthy and playful, occasionally ironic, sometimes droll, Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn translated his passion through his ink, in subtle depictions of light and shadow, in the telling details of facial expressions and postures, in fantastic and dramatic variations from one version, or state, of a work-in-progress to the next.

"Rembrandt the Etcher" echoes the MFA's impressive 2003 exhibition, "Rembrandt's Journey: Painter — Draughtsman — Etcher," which featured more than 200 works, many borrowed from private and public collections here and in Europe, with the prints front and center. The museum's curator of prints and drawings, Clifford Ackley, organized both shows. This one is more constrained, with only 45 works, mostly from the museum's meaty collection. They're all prints, which might be easy to pass by if there were a painting down the wall. But this artist clearly loved printmaking; his hand and technique are so lively, his attention so soulful, that prints alone make for a magnetic show.

Etching gained ground as a printmaking technique in the 16th century. Then Rembrandt cracked it wide open. Using a copper etching plate as easily as he used a sketchbook, he worked actively in the medium from 1630 to 1661. His prints display startling variety of slashes and crosshatches, with lines densely gathered into thick storm clouds of ink, or applied in taut, efficient descriptions.


He did the last in the landscape "Six's Bridge," one of the sparer prints in the show. The story goes that Jan Six, a mayor of Amsterdam, dared Rembrandt to complete a scene on an etching plate in the time it took for a servant to run home and return with a pot of mustard. The tale is likely apocryphal — later research proved that the piece doesn't depict Six's land at all, but that of another Amsterdam official — but it speaks to the swift surety of Rembrandt's lines. There's a whole world conveyed in the evocative shorthand of the trees' foliage, the quick outlines of a sailboat, and the sketched buildings on the horizon, all revolving around two tiny fellows communing at the bridge's rail.


Artists of that era often used prints to prop up their careers, selling print versions of their paintings. Rembrandt, who struggled with bankruptcy, did what he could to boost his career, but it wasn't his habit to copy his paintings. That would have been a bore for this voracious experimenter. His prints are hardly static afterthoughts. In each, he puzzles and pushes to create a dynamic composition and tell a provocative story.

There's more than biblical parable to read into "Adam and Eve," a knowing wink at the politics of relationship. Rembrandt imbues the figures with the Dutch naturalism for which he was known. They're fleshy, even dowdy, unlike the idealized mythic types depicted in Italian art at the time. We can relate to them.

Eve stands beneath the tree of knowledge holding a sunlit apple in both hands, certain and unmovable. Adam is less solid in his stance, half propped on a rock, his face a map of consternation. He strokes the apple with one hand and points skyward with the other. Poor guy. You know he's never going to win this one.


Rembrandt's eloquent faces might be his greatest achievement. Not every portrait in this exhibition is exquisitely nuanced, but in the crisply detailed, unyielding "Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill," the artist in his 30s looks directly at us, eyes slightly narrowed, appraising and a little weary. He wears a capacious chapeau and cape, the garb of a prince, like clothing he had seen in portraits by Raphael and Titian. The costume addresses a question of the period: Are artists craftsmen or gentlemen? With his penetrating gaze, Rembrandt dares us to judge him.

The artist frequently returned to his wife, Saskia, in his work. She appears to have sat for his etching "The Great Jewish Bride." An early state of that print is on view, unfinished at the bottom; we see only the bride's round face and the fan of hair draping her shoulders suggesting an infinite expanse below. In the final version, she wears a gown and grips a scroll, but there's something inviting about this half-completed one, great with possibility.

Printmaking gave Rembrandt the opportunity to see each work evolve; scrutinizing one state of a print could catalyze dramatic changes. Among the several biblical narratives in the show, Ackley has included two states of the shattering "Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves ('The Three Crosses')." In the earlier one, Jesus appears in the center of the dying trio; a funnel of light showers from overhead, as soldiers and witnesses linger below. This is a drypoint print, made with a burr, which renders a softer, more romantic line. Rembrandt left a veil of ink on the plate before he printed this one, suggesting twilight.


For the later print, the artist slashed the scene with black lines, pelting down and ricocheting across. The other crucified figures and many of those on the ground vanish in the darkness. Christ remains illuminated, as if at the eye of a violent storm. It's a shocking rendering, which with its bold, brittle lines foreshadows 20th-century German Expressionism. Visionary, for an artist of Rembrandt's time.

Even the prints that feel most like sketches radiate an effusive energy. "Saint Jerome beside a Pollard Willow" pictures the elderly scholar at a makeshift desk attached to an old, broken-down tree. Rembrandt minutely details the leaning tree with rough bark and jagged edges; a small bird perches on one side, and a big cat lurks below. The only remaining leafy boughs reach to shade the man, who, like the tree, has some life in him yet.

For all the realism of the willow, the surroundings are bare cartoons. Works like these feel like they're still coming to be. Rembrandt's virtuoso technique and his compassion for his subjects are two parts of what made him great. This experimenting, generative quality is the third. For him, making art wasn't merely a record of life. It was the best way to live it.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at