Rembrandt: the king of drypoint

Most people today know Rembrandt as the greatest of the Old Masters of the Dutch Golden Age, and perhaps one of the greatest painters of all time. Art is subjective, and everyone will create their own list of favorites, but it’s indisputable that Rembrandt’s humanistic style influenced many artists who came after him.

But fewer people realize that during his own lifetime, Rembrandt was equally — if not more — known for his printmaking. There are about 300 paintings attributed to the artist. He also made 290 plates for printmaking, and each of those was used to make “scores, even hundreds” of impressions of each. Of those plates, as many as seventy-nine still exist today.

But fewer people realize that during his own lifetime, Rembrandt was equally — if not more — known for his printmaking. There are about 300 paintings attributed to the artist. He also made 290 plates for printmaking, and each of those was used to make “scores, even hundreds” of impressions of each. Of those plates, as many as seventy-nine still exist today.

Etching, Engraving & Drypoint

More specifically, Rembrandt made intaglio prints. This is a form of printmaking in which the artist cuts a design into a plate. Ink is inserted into those grooves, and then the print is made when damp paper is pressed down so that it picks up the ink. 

In Rembrandt’s day, three techniques were used to make these grooves.

Etching

41.1.34
Christ presented to the people, engraving by Rembrandt van Riijn

Etching is a chemical process. To make a design, the artist first coats a metal plate with a layer of wax. The design is then carved into the wax deep enough so that the metal beneath is exposed. A wash of acid is placed over the waxed plate — it won’t interact with the wax, but it will eat away at the metal wherever it is exposed. The longer the acid is left on the plate, the deeper the the groove will be.

Engraving

Unlike etching, engraving requires no chemicals. It simply uses a tool called a burin to cut lines into a plate — usually copper in Rembrandt’s time. It also differs from etching in that the burin can be held at different angles and different pressures to produce different widths and darknesses when printed, giving the artist more control over the work.

Drypoint

Drypoint is very similar to engraving, but it uses a specialized tool, usually with an industrial-grade diamond tip. When this tool is used, it not only cuts a groove, but raises a rough and ragged edge alongside it. This raised bump is called a burr. The burr is an important feature of the drypoint print, but it is very delicate. For that reason, drypoint prints are usually made in small batches. Prints rarely use drypoint alone, but use drypoint combined with other techniques.

Old-time trading cards

By the time Amsterdam became the center of a trading empire, a brisk trade in prints had also developed. Art collectors — and artists themselves — were buying and selling prints, which were often smaller and more affordable than paintings. Rembrandt himself had a large collection of prints from other artists, which was catalogued when his creditors came calling in 1660.

Sometimes, the trade was scandalous.

Many of these prints were standard fare — landscapes, portraits, biblical scenes. Others, however, were quite lascivious, even by today’s standards. It didn’t take long for the more respectable elements of society to catch on to what was being bought and sold and take umbridge. 

Rembrandt etching woman peeing
Woman urinating, engraving by Rembrandt van Rijn

According to a curator for the British Museum, “In 1647 …  someone in Antwerp evidently took umbrage at certain prints with erotic themes that were available in the city. An astonishing twenty-two artists, including Jacob Jordaens, Jan Bruegel and Jan de Heem, testified that “volumes of prints by Carracci, Rosso and De Jode are sold and traded every day showing the fornication of the gods and suchlike, and these picture-books are commonly purchased by print-lovers, indeed similar picture-books by Raphael of Urbino and Marco da Ferrara are also sold and traded as well as new ones made in Paris by Peter van Mol which are more scandalous still”.

Rembrandt, too, got in on the bawdy trend. 

Rembrandt drypoint couple making love
Couple fornicatng, engraving by Rembrandt van Rijn

Prints of his exist that show a woman peeing onto the ground. Some art historians comment that this is inline with Rembrandt’s naturalistic acceptance of humankind as it is, and his insistence on portraying people realistically as opposed to idealistically. However, it’s just as likely that the prints served a more prurient interest as well.

There are also a number of prints that show men and women caught in various stages of lovemaking. One print of “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife” shows Joseph pulling himself away from his boss’ bed with his boss’ wife still in it. Another quite blatantly shows a man and woman caught in flagrante delicto. 

The diamond designer

Rembrandt’s prints are known for his use of combining multiple techniques onto one plate. He also advanced the use of drypoint by experimenting with imported papers from Japan that were more gentle on the drypoint burr than domestic papers.

I also think there’s another reason Rembrandt worked more in drypoint than other artists of his time, and that has to do with his address.

Rembrandt’s house was located at 4 Breestraat (Broad Street), today known as Joodenbreestraat (Jew’s Broad Street). The street earned its name because it runs through the heart of the city’s Jewish quarter. In fact, the place that Rembrandt called home was located just around the corner and down the block from Baruch Spinoza’s home, and just two blocks away form the famous esnoga, the Portuguese Synagogue. 

menasseh ben israel 1
Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, engraving by Rembrandt van Rjn

This would also be the part of town where Amsterdam’s diamond trade was headquartered. Jews were drawn to the diamond trade because they were banned from joining any trade guilds, but Amsterdam had no diamond-cutters guild.

It’s easy to imagine Rembrandt meeting with his neighbors to ask for a scrap, industrial-grade diamond unsuitable for jewelry that he could use for his drypoint tool. Such things would be harder for others to come by; for Rembrandt, it might be like asking a neighbor for their recycling.

We’ll never know whether this neighborly trade actually took place or not. We do know, however, that Rembrandt did engravings of some of his Jewish neighbors, including the renown Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel

It’s tantalizing to think about. 

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