Etched in Time


Rembrandt’s Prints, Drawings Showcased in Honor of Dutch Master’s 400th Birthday

For most of us, the name Rembrandt conjures masterful portraits of human nature (especially the artist’s) as well as dark, deeply poignant scenes out of history or biblical literature. Less well known are the Dutch artist’s works on paper, including etchings and drawings, for which he was equally famous during his lifetime.

In celebration of Rembrandt van Rijn’s 400th birthday (July 15, 1606), the National Gallery of Art is presenting “Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings,” which brings together hundreds of the master’s etchings and prints and 22 of his drawings, most of which are straight out of the gallery’s own impressive collection.

Unlike those of many of his contemporaries, Rembrandt’s prints and drawings aren’t just preparatory exercises toward his final paintings. They are complete works in their own right, revealing with pen, chalk or brush the same intense concentration and, dare one say, luminosity as their better-known counterparts in oil.

The works collected in this exhibit reveal the full range of Rembrandt’s remarkable talent and interests, from self-portraiture, landscapes and domestic scenes to portraits of contemporaries and re-imaginings of biblical and historical narrative. Of particular note are multiple impressions of several different prints, which allow the viewer to see Rembrandt tinkering with a specific scene, adjusting elements here and there on his way to completion. This is evident, for instance, in the three versions of the copperplate etching “Landscape with Trees, Farm Buildings and a Tower,” where the atmosphere appears to change from one moment—and one print impression—to the next. Similarly, four different impressions of the religious masterpiece “Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves,” all drawn with clear, deft strokes, offer different and very poignant perspectives on this seminal event in Christian history.

Rembrandt created more religiously themed art than any other artist at the time, and one of the five galleries in the exhibition is devoted to drawings, prints and etchings derived from biblical sources. Here, Rembrandt makes full use of his famed chiaroscuro, the delicate balance of light and shadow that underscores the metaphorical nature of religious teaching.

In two versions of “Christ Presented to the People,” the artist experiments with contrasts between light and dark, first illuminating the architecture that frames the bound Jesus and his captors, throwing the mob below into dramatic relief, and then darkening the foreground and sides to emphasize the chasm between the powers of light and darkness.

A recent addition to the gallery’s collection of Rembrandt’s religious art is the copperplate etching for “Abraham Entertaining the Angels,” which was acquired by the gallery in 1997 after its discovery behind a landscape painting—where it had remained hidden for more than three centuries. In near-perfect condition, the etching reveals an aged Abraham, his long beard hanging down from his chest, offering food and drink to angels disguised as common herdsmen. A shadowy doorway over Abraham’s shoulder seems to indicate the limits of human understanding, while sunlight streams through the trees behind the patriarch’s otherworldly visitors. In the center, a boy scampers over a wall, a cherub-like figure impossible to miss—perhaps a reminder that this is all a divine joke.

Other rooms in the exhibit focus on Rembrandt’s interest in daily life and in portraiture. Etchings of the artist’s family and friends hang alongside self-portraits, such as “Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill,” depicting the artist as a Renaissance gentleman in silk cloths and beret, recalling Titian’s famous “Portrait of a Man.”

Equally striking is Rembrandt’s interest in commoners and peasants. “Beggars Receiving Alms at the Door of a House” is a touching picture of hardship and human endurance, as the family of beggars (baby strapped to the mother’s back and child at her side) asks for money. Shadows line their beleaguered faces, while a warm light illuminates the face of the man offering help. Monumental in form, the human figures demand our entire attention here, as they probably would not should we pass them on the street.

Nature takes center stage in a gallery dedicated to Rembrandt’s landscapes, all drawn on location during walks around his native Amsterdam. The red pen-and-ink “View of Houtewael” is an atmospheric rendering of a marsh, where moving clouds are reflected in still water and the sole human structure appears empty and abandoned. Here, nature and time have asserted their independence.

Such might also seem to be the case with “The Three Trees,” Rembrandt’s most famous landscape. The silhouettes of three large trees dominate the view of distant dikes and a small town. Bright, almost luminescent, clouds appear to swirl around the treetops, even as darker forms gather on the edges of the picture, signaling a storm. Barely visible human figures are all but forgotten in this display of nature’s power and grandeur.

Of course, such symbolism did not escape the Dutch master, who could also depict three trees on the horizon in the form of crosses with a different storm gathering around them. “Strokes of Genius” illustrates that, whatever the subject, Rembrandt was equal to the task, whether with pen, copperplate and paper, or the more familiar glory of oils.

Strokes of Genius: Rembrandt’s Prints and Drawings through March 18 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

Romantic Brits

The National Gallery of Art has drawn from its permanent collection to create another fascinating exhibit, “The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain.” Bringing together nearly 70 prints and drawings from the late 18th through early 20th centuries, the exhibit examines British artists’ fascination with emotion, nature, individualism, medieval culture and rebellion against conventionalism.

Works by artists as diverse as William Blake, David Cox, John Ruskin and Cornelius Varley are represented here, as well as a major new acquisition by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His “Desdemona’s Death Song,” circa 1879, depicting the last moments in the life of the heroine in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” will be on exhibit at the gallery for the first time, coinciding with the city-wide Shakespeare in Washington Festival.

Highlights of this wide-ranging exhibit also include Paul Sandby’s atmospheric “The Tide Rising at Briton Ferry,” Ruskin’s medievalist “The Garden of San Miniato near Florence,” Blake’s visionary “The Accusers of Theft, Adultery, and Murder,” Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones’s pre-Raphaelite “Ariadne,” and the aforementioned “Desdemona’s Death Song.”

The Artist’s Vision: Romantic Traditions in Britain through March 18 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit

About the Author

Deryl Davis is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.