CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rembrandt as printmaker

Exhibition: 8 March - 1 July 2004


John Ittmann, curator of prints

From the museum website

The Philadelphia Museum of Art is proud to present two recently acquired masterpieces of printmaking by Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ Preaching and Christ Crucified between Two Thieves, more popularly known as The Three Crosses.

Many of the Dutch artist’s most famous works were inspired by his deep knowledge of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. His career as a printmaker began around 1626, at the age of twenty, with small etchings of episodes from the infancy of Jesus and culminated in the early 1650s with his largest print, The Three Crosses, a scene from the very end of Jesus’s life. By this date, Rembrandt had executed more than 250 etchings, using a medium well suited to his fluent drawing style. Rembrandt quickly learned to add finishing touches to his etchings in drypoint to avoid having to subject the plate to further immersion in an acid solution, as required for etching. Soon he was deliberately dragging the sharp drypoint tool across his plates, raising a delicate curl of copper (called “burr”) to capture extra ink and print accents of velvety black. Rembrandt purposefully combined deft touches of drypoint with etching in Christ Preaching, 1652, a print that conveys the spellbinding power of a voice over a group of people so intent on the words spoken that no one looks at the speaker.

Executed entirely in drypoint, The Three Crosses presents a darkening world pierced by shafts of blinding light. Because fragile drypoint burr wears down rapidly under repeated pressure in the printing press, Rembrandt had to reinforce the drypoint lines three times before they gave out and no longer satisfied him. Rather than abandoning the plate altogether, the artist returned to it with renewed zeal to create a final version, the great masterpiece now owned by the Museum.