image: Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt's Prints and Drawings image: Introduction Navigation

image: Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill, 1639 Introduction

REMBRANDT VAN RIJN (1606–1669) was one of the world's most accomplished graphic artists. In his drawings the Dutch master used pens, chalks, or brushes to capture pose, expression, form, and shadow with quick decisive strokes. His drawings vary from minimal touches to create a smile, a breeze in a tree, or the eddy in a current of water to elaborate treatments of the details of a face, a complex biblical story, or the texture of wrinkled skin. Rembrandt's drawings are most often suggestive rather than highly finished, and his genius shows in his telling strokes where shorthand intimation converts to convincing vision.

In his early prints Rembrandt mastered etching, using acid to bite varying depths of lines he drew through a protective ground covering the copperplate. Single strokes established the edges of forms, and irregular patterns of cross-hatching suggested variations in light and shadow. He added further subtleties of tone with drypoint, scratching directly into the copperplate to make sharp strokes, throwing up ragged edges of burr that created lines with soft edges like lengths of yarn. Rembrandt achieved broader patterns of tone by biting the surface of his copperplates with brushstrokes of diluted acid.

Rembrandt often changed the lines on his plates to revise his images, producing what are called new states of the plates. In his quest for richer atmospheric effects he learned to vary the amount of ink and thus the clarity of different parts of his plates. He discovered how to achieve further variations by printing on different types of European paper, parchment, or vellum, or on the oriental papers just beginning to be imported to Europe. In these ways Rembrandt treated his prints not as finished works but as the bases for further experimentation or elaboration. As he grew older, Rembrandt became ever bolder, both in the individual strokes he used to create an image and in the radical changes he might make to it.

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Introduction Genre Scenes Portraits Landscapes Biblical Imagery Highlights Exhibition Information