Most people today think of Rembrandt as one of the great Old Master painters; his name is one of those which almost everyone in the West is aware of and much of the rest of the world also. He was also one of those great artists who found success within his own lifetime, however that reputation wasn’t built on his beautiful canvasses and painted portraits, but instead on his work with art prints using etching, engraving, and drypoint techniques.
Among most contemporary artists and art historians he is considered the greatest etcher who ever lived, embracing the newly emerging technique of the 1600s, intensively experimenting with and pushing the medium to create a true art form from it.
Rembrandt created around 300 art prints through his career, which circulated much further around Europe than his paintings. He took to etching very naturally, first attempting it in the late 1620s, at first approaching it little differently to sketching. His handling of subject was also typical to all his work; whether depicting Mary and Joseph as young parents rather than religious icons, or feeling the plight and rejection of street beggars, he always found deep sympathy and empathy for those he depicted.
Attaining a mastery of art print etching technique
Rembrandt learned rapidly, and within just a few years his art prints were already the work of a master, delivering beautifully refined linework and handlings of light and shade that few others could match. Just like his paintings there were often experiments with style and method, sometimes using a very free form and rapid stroke, dense cross hatching or multiple acid bitings to see how it affected the quality of line and shade. He tried out blunt tools and double pointed ones, and occasionally used a V-shaped engravers burin in some places, with fine etching needles or thick dry point ones in others.
This broke with the typical approach to engraving and printmaking, which was usually about tight, precise lines, but Rembrandt wanted to push the medium, and just as a talented painter can draw endless textures and lines from a brush, so he sought to do the same with art prints. As his mastery grew rumours began to circulate that he had discovered some secret process, and while he had some bespoke approaches, such as a very soft etching ground allowing very free moving lines and strokes, there really was no great secret, just a formidable talent and passion for drawing the best from the medium.
The 1640s represented a middle point for Rembrandt’s artistic career, at the time he was working with quite a complex approach to etching, often working with a drypoint needle which created a softer and more painterly line, and varied inking effects for light or heavy lines, sometimes leaving plates unwiped to create a hazy surface tone effect. A critical new work would begin to change much of that though.
The Hundred Guilder Print and a matured art print style
Great mastery requires patience, and Rembrandt would often work for years on a piece, working through many preparatory sketches, and making sometimes subtle and sometimes extreme changes to parts of the picture. The Hundred Guilder Print was worked on in various stages through the 1640s and was subject to endless sketches and reworkings as he sought a further refinement or advancement in style.
A more matured Rembrandt emerged, focusing on a more simple approach to his work; there would still be endless revisions and preparations as almost any great art piece experiences. Now though, he focused on hatching to create areas of shade, retaining a fondness for using drypoint or surface tone, and put much of his experimental spirit into utilising different types of paper or vellum, particularly favouring Japanese papers which had a warm yellow tone and smooth surface that beautifully displayed the etched linework and drypoint burring of the print.
Rembrandt’s art print career took him through an incredible process of technique explorations in a newly emerged medium, barely associated with true art when he first tried it. A few decades later every possibility had been explored and delivered with a skill and beauty few other artists have ever come close to, and his body of work contains many of the most stunning examples of art prints ever created.