Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 15, 1999
Christopher White Rembrandt as an Etcher, 2nd edition Yale University Press. (0300079532)

In 1969, Rembrandt’s Etchings: An Illustrated Critical Catalogue by Christopher White and Karel Boon was published in an independent edition (Amsterdam: Van Gendt & Co. / London: A. Zwemmer Ltd. / New York: Abner Schram) and as part of the Hollstein series (F.W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, ca. 1450-1700, Amsterdam 1949). More than three decades later, despite the steady stream of publications devoted to the artist’s paintings and studio practices, White and Boon is still the most up-to-date catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s etchings.

At present, activity in this relatively quiet corner of Rembrandt studies is beginning to pick up. Most recent research has focused on technical aspects, such as watermarks and paper types, while attribution has received relatively little attention, with most specialists concurring that the essential weeding out of school pieces and later imitations was pretty well resolved by the early twentieth century. (One fundamental aspect still to be clarified is the degree to which Rembrandt’s plates were etched and/or printed by other hands.) While prints played a distinct second fiddle to paintings in the major Rembrandt exhibition of 1991-92 (Rembrandt: The Master and His Workshop, London/Amsterdam/Berlin), the curators of the recent Rembrandt by Himself (London, National Gallery, and The Hague, Mauritshuis, 1999) made a concerted effort to integrate prints and paintings as complementary aspects of Rembrandt’s calculated self-presentation. More significant is the millennial sequence of exhibitions specifically directed to Rembrandt’s etchings by the British Museum and the Amsterdam Rijksprentenkabinet, the first of which is scheduled to open in Amsterdam in July 2000. These shows and their catalogues will present a comprehensive survey of states and combine iconographic interpretation with technical study. They are sure to produce fresh insights.

In this context, the recent reissue of Christopher White’s Rembrandt as an Etcher returns to ready circulation an important, still unique contribution to this growing body of research. (While still available through rare book dealers, the original edition is scarce and costly—a quick internet search in January 2000 produced two copies for sale in the $200 range and one, in California, at over $500.) The first edition of this book (Rembrandt as an Etcher: A Study of the artist at work, 2 vols., London: A. Zwemmer Ltd., 1969) was published almost concurrently with White and Boon’s catalogue raisonné. The clinical format of a systematic catalogue offers no room for discursive analysis or synthetic evaluation, and one senses that Rembrandt as an Etcher afforded White the welcome opportunity to expand upon the many insights garnered over years of close firsthand study. Neither a technical dissection of method nor a focused decoding of iconography, this book explores, in lucid, descriptive prose, the development of Rembrandt’s career as a printmaker. Its goal, as the introduction states, is to examine the artistic and cultural significance of Rembrandt’s body of work. Preceded by an introductory discussion of technique, the text is arranged thematically according to subject type (history, portrait, genre, nude, landscape) and, within each chapter, chronologically. Significant trends and turning points in Rembrandt’s evolution are introduced along the way, such as his increasing use of drypoint, experimentation with selective wiping and distinctive paper types, and sometimes drastic alteration of plates midway through their development. With the eye of a true print connoisseur, White zeroes in on the telling details of execution and process that set Rembrandt apart from his more pedestrian contemporaries. In many instances, specific works and trends are placed in the context of relevant biographical and cultural factors, such as Rembrandt’s collecting of and artistic dialogue with earlier printmakers (Lucas van Leyden, Dürer, Tempesta, Mantegna, the Carracci, and others). Preparatory drawings are frequently considered (and illustrated); parallels and intersections with paintings are sometimes mentioned, but are not a major focus of White’s attention.

In this new edition, the text of the original is largely intact, but White has carried out a judicious edit, with the acknowledged advice of fellow specialists such as Adrian Eeles, Eric Hinterding, and Martin Royalton-Kisch. Specific passages have been altered here and there to reflect advances in research. A notable instance is the chapter on technique, where White has modified his previous opinion that Rembrandt’s studio-mates, while they may have learned to imitate his manner, never collaborated on his plates; in addition, he adds a new excursus on Rembrandt’s most active collaborator, Jan van Vliet (recently the subject of an exhibition at the Rembrandthuis). Serious readers will also welcome the expanded footnotes, crediting or summarizing new interpretations published since the original text appeared. It is necessary to consult these footnotes for references to journal articles and other specific new contributions, since the separate bibliography is limited to a list of thirty-four frequently cited sources.

The format and production of this book differ markedly from the first edition. In the original two-volume set, the typeset text on cream laid paper was bound separately from the illustrations on glossy paper. The new edition is a single, more compact volume, glossily offset-printed for a large run in both hardcover and paperback. Illustrations are integrated with the relevant text, making it easier to read straight through, but perhaps less so to compare specific images. The number of illustrations is almost exactly the same, but there are numerous changes, in keeping with the closer cooperation of figures and text. The chapter on technique has its own new set of demonstrative examples. Elsewhere, close-up details have been eliminated and additional comparative figures added, placing somewhat less emphasis on the subjective perusal of Rembrandt’s linear artistry and more on his use of sources.

The quality of the printing is excellent, with black-and-white illustrations managing to convey something of the texture of varied papers, the differing character of etched and drypoint lines, and the tonal effects of Rembrandt’s selective wiping of plates. However, many of the illustrations are smaller than in the original volume. Despite the improvement in photographic quality, details in some cases now are more difficult to study. Captions are a mixed blessing. The location of the impression illustrated is identified, significant because of the variability of Rembrandt’s states and printing methods. Measurements are given only in centimeters, potentially frustrating to some American users. Illustrations larger than the original print are flagged, but it would have been nice, especially for the general reader, to note in which cases we are looking at reductions as opposed to actual size. (For a more accurate view, one can still consult Gary Schwartz, The Complete Etchings of Rembrandt, Reproduced in Original Size (Dover,1994). The single color illustration (Fig. 2) shows the copperplate to Rembrandt’s ‘Negress’ Lying Down (now in a private collection), inked and photographed in a raking light to suggest the tactile character of the printing surface. More color plates, for instance to distinguish some of the red chalk drawings and perhaps a few of the impressions that are heavily toned or printed on unusual paper, would have helped to clarify the variety of Rembrandt’s graphic production.

Although White appears gallantly open to new scholarship, none of this, it seems, has fundamentally altered his assessment of Rembrandt’s genius as an etcher. Affectionate and quaintly subjective in spots, this book remains a thoughtful and perceptive analysis by a writer steeped in his subject. It also remains the most comprehensive account so far of Rembrandt’s career as a printmaker. With its updated apparatus and high-quality illustrations, this new edition is a well-deserved and useful revival of a classic contribution to the study of Rembrandt’s etchings.

Stephanie S. Dickey
Professor of Art History and Bader Chair in Northern Baroque Art, Department of Art History and Art Conservation, Queen’s University