Last month, the Smith College Museum in Northhampton (MA) announced the acquisition of two impressions of the The Three Crosses, Christ Crucified Between the Two Thieves by Rembrandt.These two prints will add significantly to SCMA’s ability to study and share information on the working methods of one of the most influential printmakers in the history of western European art.
Mary Gordon Roberts gift includes impressions of the third and fifth states of the composition, both of which are very rare. This important gift joins an impression of the fourth state already in the SCMA collection, which was purchased in 1911 by the Smith Studio Club, a student group. The ability to compare different states of a print allows viewers to consider the artist’s goals for the work of art, and the techniques used to communicate those goals. Rembrandt’s The Three Crosses represents a high water mark in what different states of a print can tell us.
Rembrandt intensively worked and reworked the composition of The Three Crosses, experimenting with different types of paper, vellum and inking variations. Four versions, or “states,” of The Three Crosses were produced during Rembrandt’s lifespan, with a fifth state printed after the artist’s death.
It was not until the third state that Rembrandt considered his print formally completed as his signature affirms. Solely created in drypoint, a print technique which allows for only a limited number of impressions, Rembrandt did something very bold; instead of destroying his copper plate after it started to wear down, he decided to rework the composition completely by adding and erasing figures in the scene. The most evident compositional changes are found between the third and fourth states.
There are only twenty-two documented impressions of the third state of The Three Crosses. Compositionally, the third state seems to reflect the moment before darkness ensues; a bright light is cast on Christ and his mourners as well as on the penitent thief. By way of contrast, the impenitent thief’s face recedes in darkness.
The fifth and last state, which compositionally is the same as the fourth, is also uncommon, and its history is somewhat mysterious. After Rembrandt’s death his copper etching plates were sold to various printmakers and art dealers in Amsterdam. Apparently, the plate for The Three Crosses was acquired by the obscure printmaker Frans Carelse, who re-printed impressions after adding his own name to the plate.
The rare juxtaposition of the last three states of the print will offer students and the public an extraordinary opportunity to gain a far more intimate appreciation of Rembrandt’s artistic process. SCMA will initiate exploration of these prints with a Rembrandt Study day in April 2018. The specific details will be announced at a later date.