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Let there be light: Rembrandt etchings to illuminate the darkness 2

a sketch of man (Rembrandt) wearing a cap and sporting a tache

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669, Self-portrait Wearing a soft Cap, full Face, Head only (‘Rembrandt aux trois moustaches’) 1634. © Norfolk Museums Service

Norwich Castle Museum is dusting down its collection of Rembrandt prints and sketches for a forthcoming exhibition that reveals why the artist was as famed for his etchings as for his paintings

Norwich’s collection of exquisite etchings by Rembrandt may well be overshadowed by world famous works like The Night Watch and The Return of the Prodigal Son, but this homage to his etching and printmaking talents reveals one of the less well-known aspects of his output.

Rembrandt’s passion for printmaking provides the focus for Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness, which explores the innovative tonal gradations he used to produce some of the most beautifully evocative images of the Dutch landscape, as well biblical scenes full of drama and pathos, and sensitive portraits — including many introspective self-portraits.

The Norwich collection was bequeathed to the museum in 1951 by the London art dealer Percy Moore Turner (1877-1950) and in its entirety comprises 93 examples including a rare impression of the fifth state of Christ Presented to the People, printed on vellum. Moore Turner was a trusted advisor to Samuel Courtauld and believed passionately that everyone should have access to great art.

a sketch by Rembrandt of a person riding a mule

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669, 
the Flight into Egypt: Crossing a Brook. 1654. © Norfolk Museums Service

an etching by Rembrandt of a naked woman seated

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669, Naked Woman Seated on a Mound (II/II) 1631. © Norfolk Museums Service

an etching by Rembrandt of a seated woman in a veil

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606- 1669, the Artist’s Mother Seated at a table, Looking right, three-quarter Length (II/III), 1631. © Norfolk Museums Service

Joining his collection are three oil paintings: A Woman in Bed from the National Galleries of Scotland, Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb from the Royal Collection and Anna and the Blind Tobit from the National Gallery. The British Museum has also loaned a chalk and wash drawing The Angel preventing Abraham from sacrificing his son Isaac, together with four prints. Bequeathed to Norwich Castle in 1951

Norwich Castle’s Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, who co-curated the exhibition with the Museum’s Dr Francesca Vanke explained how, by comparing prints with a chosen group of paintings and drawings, the exhibition seeks to show “how physical and metaphorical light and darkness meet and combine in Rembrandt’s work in all media, creating narratives that communicate to the viewer across time.”

Eighty three of the etchings from Norwich Castle’s Rembrandt collection are on hand to create these narratives via an array of subject matter that journeys from self-portraits, portraits of friends and family — among them a particularly lovely study of Rembrandt’s mother — to landscapes and biblical scenes as well as genre and nude studies.

Each of them vividly reveals Rembrandt’s outstanding ability to capture the many nuances of light and shade. Enigmatic figures emerge from evocative darkened backgrounds, night is subtly differentiated from shadow, while narrative and emotion are heightened by contrasts and perfectly added highlights.

an etching by Rembrandt of trees in a landscape

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669 the three trees (only state) 1643. © Norfolk Museums Service

an etching by Rembrandt of a woman frying pancakes in a frying pan surrounded by hungry faces

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669, the Pancake Woman (II/ VII) 1635. © Norfolk Museums Service

an etching by Rembrandt of a person playing a flute surrounded by other musicians leaning on a table

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606 -1669, Group of Musicians Listening to a Flute Player 1635. © Norfolk Museums Service

The process of etching has been used in printmaking since the Middle Ages and is achieved by the artist drawing a picture with a needle onto a metal plate which has been covered with a waxy ground.

The plate is then dipped in acid, which bites into the lines created by the artist. Rembrandt was highly skilled in etching, as well as other related techniques of engraving and drypoint. As such, he is credited as being one of the world’s most renowned and innovative printmakers.

Unlike many artists Rembrandt printed the plates himself and often re-worked them as can be seen from comparing different states of the same subject.

Printmaking to him was a constantly evolving art. In addition he was perpetually experimenting, often employing different acids and using hatching lines of varying thickness, bitten to depths of various degrees, in his attempts to achieve greater tonal effects.

Different papers, European and Oriental, as well as oatmeal and vellum, were also a means to create further gradations in texture and contrast. Rembrandt treated print-making as an artistic medium in its own right, rather than merely a means of the mass reproduction of existing works, as had been the case up to this point.

a painting by Rembrandt of a woman leaning out of bed

Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 1606-1669. A Woman in Bed, 164(7?). Oil on canvas. 81.1 x 67.8cm. Presented by William McEwan, 1892. © National Galleries Scotland

The exhibition includes a print room to guide visitors through the print-making process while original copper etching plates from the Norwich School of artists drawn from the Norwich Castle collections will also illuminate this fascinating process.

Not many people today know that, during his lifetime, Rembrandt was as famed for his etchings as for his paintings. In Britain, for example, he was far better known as a printmaker. This exhibition promises to reveal why.

Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness is at Norwich Castle and Art Gallery from October 21 2017 – January 7 2018.

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One of the city's most famous landmarks, Norwich Castle was built by the Normans as a Royal Palace 900 years ago. Now a museum and art gallery, the Castle is packed with treasures to inspire and intrigue visitors of all ages. The entire collection of this museum is a Designated…

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