CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Rembrandt’s journey: painter • draftsman • etcher

Exhibition: 26 October 2003 - 18 January 2004


Rembrandt’s journey was conceived and selected by Clifford S. Ackley (Chair, Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, and Ruth and Carl Shapiro Curator of Prints and Drawings) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in collaboration with the MFA’s Ronni Baer (Mrs. Russell W. Baker Senior Curator of Paintings, Art of Europe) and Thomas E. Rassieur (Assistant Curator, Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs); as well as William W. Robinson (Maida and George Abrams Curator of
Drawings) at the Harvard University Art Museums. At The Art Institute of Chicago, the exhibition will be curated by Suzanne Folds McCullagh (Curator of Earlier Prints and Drawings).


This exhibition was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

From the museum website, a text by Cliff Ackley

Rembrandt’s lifework — his eventful artistic journey — undergoes ceaseless evolution. He was possessed by a consuming interest in the world around him and an acute perception of human nature. As an artist who excelled equally as a painter, draftsman, and printmaker, he had few rivals then or now.

This exhibition takes the groundbreaking step of examining Rembrandt’s most expressive etchings in the context of his paintings and drawings. It appeals on many levels: the superlative quality of the works on view, the illuminating insight into the artist’s inventive use of technique, and the transporting character of the art itself, whether penetrating self-portraits, moving biblical narratives, fresh visions of the native Dutch landscape, earthy scenes of low comedy, or sensuous nudes.

An ambitious in-depth survey featuring major international loans, Rembrandt’s journey consists of 22 paintings and oil sketches, 35 drawings, and 160 etchings and copper etching plates. Over two-thirds of the works are borrowed from collections public and private in Amsterdam, Berlin, Chicago, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Paris, St. Petersburg, and Washington, D.C.

Rather than following a strictly chronological survey, the exhibition and accompanying catalogue are arranged according to themes that Rembrandt returned to again and again over time. In his drawings and etchings he recorded — with totally fresh eyes — daily life in street and household, the fields and farms around Amsterdam, and touchingly realistic nude figures. His keen observation of facial expression, hand gestures, and body language gives new depth to his biblical narratives.

His depictions of his own image present a multifaceted portrait in time, ranging from fantasy role-playing (Rembrandt as a beggar or Prince of Painters) to unsparing honesty. Many of the works here — including the largest selection of oil sketches ever shown — focus on the artist’s “hand,” his extreme freedom and spontaneity of touch, a quality deeply appealing to modern eyes, as if works made 350 years ago had just left the studio.

Rembrandt’s journey: painter • draftsman • etcher is a not-to-be-missed opportunity to savor a lifetime’s achievement, extending from the energetic Baroque works of the 1630s to the more serene, meditative pieces of the 1650s.

From the museum press release, 1 October 2003

Rembrandt’s journey: painter • draftsman • etcher is a major exhibition exploring the dynamic artistic career of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), from his early works bursting with physical energy to his later, more serene, meditative pieces. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) and The Art Institute of Chicago and premiering at the MFA on October 26, 2003, Rembrandt’s Journey is the first American exhibition in decades with significant national and international loans that examines the full range and variety of Rembrandt’s work as an etcher from 1626 to 1661 in the context of his paintings and drawings. On view at the MFA through January 18, 2004, this exhibition comprises more than 200 works from all periods of the artist’s career and draws upon public and private collections from around the world, including The State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam), the Berlin Museums (Berlin), The British Museum (London), The National Gallery (London), The Metropolitan Museum (New York), The Pierpont Morgan Library (New York), and the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.). This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Rembrandt’s journey is an extraordinary event,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. “Revealing important new scholarship focusing on Rembrandt’s artistic development and showcasing major loans from around the world, visitors will for the first time be able to trace his artistic ‘journey,’ making meaningful comparisons between the paintings, drawings and etchings of one of the greatest artists of all time.”

The exhibition

Rembrandt’s journey will involve “close looking,” especially at the expressive details of Rembrandt’s etchings. The exhibition includes more than 20 paintings, 35 drawings, and some 150 etchings and six original copper etching plates. In this wonderful gathering of masterpieces, visitors will experience the complex interrelationships between Rembrandt’s paintings, drawings and prints with respect to imagery, narrative content, and the marks of the artist’s hand. Organized thematically as well as chronologically, Rembrandt’s journey explores the artist’s emergence as a great storyteller and dramatist, and focuses on Rembrandt’s Shakespearean range of subject and mood, documenting how the artist conceived the same subject at different stages in his career.

“Rembrandt was the most experimental etcher of his time, and is also widely recognized for his psychological insight and skill in depicting emotion,” said Clifford S. Ackley, curator of Rembrandt’s Journey. “By bringing together works that have never before been seen together, visitors will enter into Rembrandt’s unique world — shaped by his close observation of reality and boundlessly fertile imagination — and experience his unusual ability to imaginatively and empathetically project himself into various roles in his works.”

As one of the most creative printmakers of all time, Rembrandt had a deeper commitment to expressive printmaking than any other 17th-century painter. Many of the finest known examples of the artist’s prints will be featured in Rembrandt’s journey, such as an extraordinarily rich impression on golden Japanese paper of the rare first state of Christ Preaching (The Hundred Guilder Print, about 1648, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

While presenting the full richness and diversity of Rembrandt’s work as a printmaker, Rembrandt’s journey also focuses on significant and expressive drawings from different periods in his career. Rembrandt’s drawings reveal his bold spontaneity of touch and gesture, his acute perception of the visible world, and his insight into the richness of human experience. This can be seen in one of his most deeply expressive narrative drawings, Christ carrying the Cross (mid-1630s Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin); an early self-portrait, Self-portrait (about 1628-29, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam); his amusing record of an old man’s lively encounter with a rambunctious child, Two studies of a child, Pulling off the cap of an old man (1639-40, British Museum, London); as well as in his
portrait-like study of two weathered farmhouses, Two thatched cottages with figures at a window (1635-40, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).

Rembrandt’s journey will also bring together more than 20 major paintings and oil sketches from around the world. Painting highlights include: the jewel-like Rest on the flight into Egypt (1647, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin) and Daniel and Cyrus before Bel (1633, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles); the dramatic Incredulity of Thomas (1634, Pushkin Museum, Moscow); the intimate and tender Holy Family with angels (1645, State
Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg); and the moving Visitation (1640, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit). The charming Flora (1654, Metropolitan Museum, New York), the touching image of Rembrandt’s son Titus at his Desk (1655, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam), his dignified Self-portrait (1659, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and the meditative James the Apostle (1661, private collection), evince the bold brushwork and breadth of conception of Rembrandt’s later paintings.

This exhibition brings together many of the artist’s oil sketches, which are relatively unknown to the general public. As models for etchings, such as Ecce Homo (Christ before Pilate, 1634, National Gallery, London), they provide insight into Rembrandt’s working method. When taken as independent, small-scale paintings, like The Entombment (1630s, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow), the artist’s facility with the brush as well as his constant searching for artistic solutions strike a thoroughly modern chord.

Exhibition themes

Themes in Rembrandt’s journey include: the artist’s profound and insightful treatment of biblical narratives from both the Old and New Testaments; his lively spectrum of highly-original self-portraits in etching, drawing, and painting; portraits and fantasy portraits; his keen-eyed observation of daily life — including his fascination with beggars and street people; the male and female nude; meeting of the sexes; and his fresh, influential conception of landscape.

Biblical narratives

One of the largest and most important groups represented in this exhibition is Rembrandt’s biblical narratives. Rembrandt had an ability to re-imagine biblical subjects in deeply human terms and give them a unique universality. Close study of the expressions, gestures and body language of the figures in these works provides deeper insight into the inventive, subtle and complex way he brought new life to traditional biblical themes and how he projected himself into them.

The cycle of Christ’s Passion, from the Last Supper with his apostles, through to his arrest, trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection is central to the Christian story. Drawings, etchings and oil sketches from the mid-1630s to the late 1650s that illustrate significant episodes in the narrative of Christ’s Passion, illuminate Rembrandt’s commitment to freshly imagining these often-depicted events. Two drawings, Calvary (mid-1630s, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin) and Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross (1634-35, British Museum, London), and one oil sketch, Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross (1634-35, National Gallery, London), demonstrate Rembrandt tearing or cutting up the page in collage-fashion in order to make changes in his compositions.

In certain Rembrandt drawings of the 1630s, such as Christ carrying the Cross (mid-1630s, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), the speed and curved rhythms of the urgent marks made with the quill pen and brush, are precise equivalents for the intensity of movement and emotion expressed. The Entombment (1630s, Hunterian Art Gallery, Glasgow), an oil sketch on oak panel, stands out among Rembrandt’s oil sketches because of its extreme fluidity of execution. Like so many of Rembrandt’s religious works, it involves an expressive dialogue between darkness and light.

Two states of a pure drypoint of unprecedentedly large scale — imposing, but executed with great freedom — signed and dated 1653 in the third state, as well as a reed pen drawing of the later 1650s, embody the passionate intensity and startling breadth of execution that Rembrandt brought to the subject of Christ’s crucifixion during his mature period as a graphic artist. The monumental drypoint, Christ crucified between two thieves (“The Three Crosses,” 1653, MFA, Boston), is one of a pair with the other monumental drypoint of similar format and dimensions, Christ presented to the people
(1655, St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis).

Four closely interrelated works illustrating the Old Testament subject of Joseph telling his dreams (Genesis 37:2-11) span the decade in which Rembrandt moved his artistic activity and his place of residence from his birth city of Leiden to the more cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam. Bearded old man seated in an armchair (1631, private collection), is an independent model study in red chalk on paper prepared with a wash of pale yellow that was later used for Joseph telling his dreams (1633-34, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), a monochromatic oil sketch in a palette of gray-browns and ochres executed on paper. In addition, Two women and a turbaned figure (1638, private collection), a drawing in pen and brown ink, is a study for the etching Joseph telling his dreams (1638, MFA, Boston).


A number of 17th-century Dutch artists made self-portraits, but none pursued self-portraiture throughout their careers in three different media with the intensity, variety and inventiveness that Rembrandt brought to the subject. For example, in his Leiden years (1626-31), Rembrandt’s drawn, etched and painted self-portraits speak to his interest in role-playing, his fascination with the expression of the emotions, and his ambition to make his image as well as his name known.

Early self-portraits, 1628-30

The 1629 painted Self-portrait (1629, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) is a deep excursion into role-playing and fantasies of aristocratic distinction. It is the most elaborately conceived of the earliest surviving painted self-portraits from the period 1628-29. Another well-known work, the painting The artist in his studio (about 1628, MFA, Boston), has become virtually emblematic of the young Rembrandt and his art. Striking in its stark simplicity, it focuses on the dramatic confrontation between the small figure of a youthful artist almost swallowed up in his bulky studio garb and a looming easel on which rests a large panel held rigid between wooden battens.

In the Leiden years, from about 1628 to 1631, Rembrandt etched around ten small, almost postage stamp-size, head and bust self-portraits in which the artist’s features undergo surprising transformations and express a great range of moods and emotions. These quirky, personal etched self-portraits are without clear precedent in the history of self-portraiture, particularly in printmaking. Scholars have related them to the young Rembrandt’s passionate interest in the expression of human emotions. Two wonderful examples of this are Self-portrait in a cap, and Self-portrait (open-mouthed as if shouting, both 1630, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York). In the first, everything — the contours of his face, mouth and eyes — is rounded in surprise or wonder. In the second, with brow furrowed and mouth opened wide, Rembrandt seems to be crying out.

Self-portraits, 1630s and 40s

With his move to Amsterdam around 1633, Rembrandt’s etched self-portraits tended to become more elaborate and, over the course of the decade, diminish in frequency. If in the intense small-scale studies of the Leiden period he had rehearsed expression, lighting and technique, Rembrandt stepped on stage in full costume before a larger audience in his highly imaginative Amsterdam self-portraits. At first, he so completely enveloped himself in his roles that his own identity was nearly lost, but he soon achieved an equilibrium in which he was clearly the star playing the part.

His interest in presenting himself as a Renaissance courtier came into full flower in the medium of etching, culminating in the instantly recognizable Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill (1639, MFA, Boston). In the pocket-sized etching, Self-portrait (in a flat cap and embroidered dress, 1642, MFA, Boston), Rembrandt donned a Renaissance slit doublet, but dispensed with the theatrics of his 1630s performances.

Late self-portraits, 1648-59

One of the most celebrated of Rembrandt’s later self-portraits is the painting of 1659 from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. It echoes in pose the 1639 printed Self-portrait leaning on a stone sill, and exemplifies the way in which the artist employs a subdued palette of grays and browns and understated rich dress to set off his face. The core of this candid presentation of his own aging image, is the steady, dignified and stoical gaze of his large eyes in their setting of fleshy folds. And with the palpable tactility of the paint, Rembrandt is able to make visible to us the stresses and strains of a life compounded of creative triumphs and financial reverses. A notable drawing of the same period, which unusually depicts the artist in a smock and hat, is Rembrandt in studio garb (1648-50, Museum het Rembrandthuis, Amsterdam).

Portraits and fantasy portraits

One of Rembrandt’s greatest gifts as a portraitist in etching was his ability to convey a vivid sense of inner life, be it spiritual or intellectual. Three highly-finished etched portraits of learned men from the 1640s — a deceased Protestant minister, Jan Cornelis Sylvius (1646, MFA, Boston); a Jewish physician who was also a man of letters, Ephraim Bueno (Bonus), physician (1647, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA); and a wealthy amateur of art and literature who was a prominent member of Amsterdam’s ruling class, Jan Six (1647, private collection) — demonstrate Rembrandt’s special gift for portraying the inner as well as the outer man. All three are full-dress, official portraits that acknowledge the printed portrait conventions of the day, but transcend them in various ways.

Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, was one of his favorite models and for a few years, one of his most frequent. He made intimate life studies of her in unguarded moments, formal portraits, and works which drew her into his world of fantasy role-playing. To Rembrandt, Saskia could be a housewife, an aristocratic beauty, a biblical heroine, or a martyred saint. Three etched examples are Saskia as St. Catherine (The Little Jewish Bride, 1638, Hood Museum of Art, Hanover, NH) and two states of The Great Jewish Bride (both 1635, one from the MFA, Boston, and the other from the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA).

Rembrandt’s obsession with the recording of the real world and his inventive fantasy were inextricably intertwined. He created a cast of imaginary characters, pressing into service his own features as well as those of his models, especially picturesquely seamed and weathered old men. Objective studies from life were quickly transformed into exotic images of oriental monarchs, old soldiers and venerable rabbis. Four wonderful examples of Rembrandt’s fantasy portraits are the painting Old man in a gorget and black cap (about 1631, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago); the tiny, yet powerful painting Bust of an old man (1633, private collection); the etching, Old man with a divided fur cap (1640, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK); and Ephraim Bueno (1647, Rijksmuseum,
Amsterdam), a small painting which he used as a model for a portrait etching.

Scenes from everyday life

Rembrandt used his keen observation of the daily life around him to inject new life and reality into traditional biblical and historical narratives, but he also depicted everyday reality for its own sake, whether the life of the street, the activities and customs associated with particular months or seasons, or even domestic animals. Etchings and drawings that range in date from 1635 to about 1651 testify to the special insight he brought to such subjects. Examples include: The pancake woman (1635, MFA, Boston), one of the first etchings in which Rembrandt made expressive use of different degrees of finish; Sleeping watchdog (1637-40, MFA, Boston), the drawing of a chained watchdog curled asleep in its kennel, and the related etching Sleeping puppy (1639-40, MFA, Boston) where Rembrandt focuses exclusively on the animals themselves; and his careful depiction of a single exotic shell in the small, much-beloved etching, The shell (1650, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam).

Male and female nudes

Rembrandt drew directly from the nude model and used drawing from the nude as an essential part of the training of his many pupils. His unorthodox vision of the imperfections of the human body and the effect of the pull of gravity on it was already criticized in the 17th century by those who felt the nude should reflect an ideal standard of beauty. Rembrandt’s male and female nudes, enveloped in and caressed by light and shadow, were touchingly vulnerable and real.

In 1646 and later, Rembrandt organized figure-drawing sessions so that his students could work from nude models. His choice of relatively unprepossessing sitters was remarkable for the time. Traditionally, drawn studies and prints of nude males depicted athletic bodies of sleek Apollo-like or muscular Herculean proportions. Unidealized depictions of the human body were usually reserved for images of the aged and infirm. Rembrandt seems to have enlisted young students or workshop assistants for the exercise as seen in Male nudes seated and standing (The walker, about 1646, private collection), and Nude youth seated before a curtain (1646, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA).

Rembrandt made nine etchings prominently featuring nude female figures — three in about 1631 and six from 1658 to 1661. They are in some respects so similar and in others so different, that one suspects that Rembrandt may have intentionally revisited the subject. One example, Diana at the bath (about 1631, Teylers Museum, Haarlem), casts the model in the role of Diana, the chaste mythical goddess of the hunt and the moon, while another etching from later, Woman bathing her feet at a brook (1658, MFA, Boston), assigns the woman no specific role. Two other notable works include the drawings Nude with a snake (Cleopatra, about 1637, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles) and the later Female nude seated on a stool (about 1661-62, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago).

Man and woman & Flirtation and fornication

In his lively etching Adam and Eve (1638, MFA, Boston), Rembrandt seized the opportunity provided by the fall from primal innocence of humankind’s first parents, to explore with comic irony the battle of the sexes. Painters and printmakers who preceded Rembrandt in the 16th and early 17th centuries generally conceived of Adam and Eve as ideals of human physical beauty. Rembrandt’s pair is more primitive and earthy. Past the first flush of youth, they are distinctly naked and dominated by the pull of gravity. Their vulnerable physical appearance seems already to reflect the consequences of the
transgression they are in the very act of committing.

Rembrandt was not squeamish about the earthy side of life. The 1640s brought a flurry of prints showing couples in intimate circumstances. He tipped the scales away from the idealization of human behavior, giving greater weight to our failings and foibles. In the
etching The sleeping herdsman (1643-44, MFA, Boston), while a bearded old man dozes on a leafy embankment, a young woman and her suitor take advantage of the moment. Another tiny outdoor pastoral scene, The monk in the cornfield (about 1646, Art Institute
of Chicago), participates in a long artistic tradition that satirizes the unchaste behavior of monks and priests. This print is very rare, suggesting that the miniature masterpiece was intended to be shared like an off-color story, only among close friends. And despite his use of a remarkably similar pose for its protagonists, The French bed (Ledikant, 1646, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) is far more tender in mood, with Rembrandt seducing us with the velvety lines created by his drypoint needle.

Landscapes of the 1640s and 1650s

Beginning in the late 1630s, Rembrandt left the city walls of Amsterdam to draw and etch in the surrounding fields. His quietly radical landscape etchings and drawings — with their amazingly suggestive shorthand — record space, light, and atmosphere with an economy and accuracy that was to transform all future notions of landscape in black and white. Landscape prints were very popular in 17th-century Holland and the portrayal of the native Dutch landscape reached its peak in Rembrandt’s work.

Rembrandt produced 26 landscape etchings dating from 1641 to 1652, which range in conception from the quick, momentary impression Six’s bridge (1645, MFA, Boston), to an elaborate summation concerning nature and man’s relation to it, The landscape with the three trees (1643, Metropolitan Museum, New York). Several other wonderful examples of Rembrandt’s landscape works include: the drawings Two thatched cottages with figures at a window (1635-40, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles); Farmstead beside a canal (about 1650-52, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago); ‘Winter’ landscape (Landscape with a farmstead, about 1648–50, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA); Houses on the Schinkelweg (Landscape with an inn, about 1653, private collection); the pair of black chalk sketch book pages, A clump of trees with a drawbridge and A clump of trees in a fenced enclosure (both about 1645, British Museum, London); as well as the etchings The Omval (1645, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago) and Small gray landscape
(House and trees beside a pool, about 1640, Teylers Museum, Haarlem), the artist’s only etched landscape miniature, and possibly his first. The wonderfully small, fresh and bright painting, Winter landscape (1646, Staatliche Museum, Kassel), is similar in its dimensions to Rembrandt’s landscape drawings and prints, and is one of the latest of seven or eight securely attributed to the artist. It is his only naturalistic landscape painting.


Clifford S. Ackley, Rembrandt’s journey: painter, draftsman, etcher, in collaboration with Ronni Baer, Thomas E. Rassieur, and William W. Robinson, Boston (Museum of Fine Arts) and Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago) 2003.

ISBN 0-87846-677-0.

Other venue

Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago (14 February-9 May 2004).


This exhibition is sponsored in Boston by Merrill Lynch. The media sponsor in Boston is WBZ-TV 4.