Rembrandt in Print
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Runs until 15 September 2019

Words, Moira Leonard

The first thing I learn about Rembrandt in Print is that the artist’s full name is Rembrandt Harmenzoon Van Rinj. For some reason I had assumed that Rembrandt was his surname like Johan Sebastian Bach where we all know him as Bach, but no, Rembrandt is his first name. ‘He was the son of a man named Harmenzoon and he was born by the river Rinj in the Netherlands’ Xanthe Brooke, Curator of Art Galleries at the National Museums Liverpool tells me.

350 years since his death and forming one of the highlights of Wirral’s Year of Culture, the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight is showing 50 of the ‘best of the best’ prints from the Ashmoleon Museum, University of Oxford. These prints have never been shown together before and they have been handpicked to show the full scope of Rembrandt’s ability as a printer.

Xanthe explains that whilst etching had already been invented in the 16th century, most artists at the time focused on the wood carving technique with the resulting plate being passed on to a professional printer. So the artist was effectively at the mercy of the printer to realise their vision.

Rembrandt however, had his own printing press, so he was able to experiment and develop techniques that allowed him more artistic interpretation in the printing process and gave him full cntrol from beginning to end.

As a result he invented ‘Dry point’ etching, where he would leave the ‘burr’ behind after scraping into a metal plate, thus allowing more ink to be retained on the plate creating softer, more velvety lines on the paper.

Whilst this was an amazingly successful technique to create his striking images initially, the downside was that only a limited number of prints could be made from each plate before the ‘burr’ was worn away. Therefore, these type of Rembrandt prints are very rare indeed and you can see serval of them in this exhibition.

The most famous example is ‘Christ Presented to the People’ which is hanging in the second room of three. It is one of only eight prints of this composition in the world, six of which are in private collections.

Christ presented to the people, Rembrandt, (1655)
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

There are other versions of this print in circulation, but they do not have the crowd scene in the foreground. Xanthe tells me that Rembrandt decided to erase the crowd as he wanted the confrontation to be directly with the viewer rather than with them. She also explained that the printing plate was so large that Rembrandt had to add an extra strip of paper to complete the picture, and if you look closely towards the top of it you can see where the join has been made and cleverly disguised.

The paper he used for this print was imported from Japan due to its smooth, shiny surface and yellowy tone, which you couldn’t get on western paper at the time. The Japanese paper wasn’t as absorbent either, so it could hold the ink a little longer to create very dramatic results.

Living in the Netherlands at the time was a stroke of luck for Rembrandt as the Dutch East India Company had the sole rights to Japanese imports through Nagasaki, which meant it was relatively easy for him to obtain this paper.

Two other highlights in this Exhibition for me are:

  • ‘The Star of the Kings’ at first glance it looks like a black print with a couple of light points in it, but when you magnify it, you can see it is a star shaped lantern being carried by children as they go door to door on the Feast of Epiphany, plus there are a few characters lurking in the background that you may otherwise miss.
  • Abraham Entertaining the Angels’ is another beautiful example of the contrast of hard and soft lines on the page. The interpretation panel explains ‘Here the patriarch is holding a jug and playing host to three strangers who have appeared outside his house. Abraham’s hospitality is rewarded by the Devine visitors who then predict that his elderly wife shall finally bear him a son. Sarah is listening behind the door while their future son Isaac is wielding a bow in the background’.

Also in the exhibition are: examples of his nudes; his landscapes; self-portraits; portraits of his family and; not one to shy away from the harsh reality of 17th century peasant life, there are some gruesome images in the exhibition too. These include a beggar peddling dead rats and a large sow being prepared for slaughter. So there is much to see here.

Sadly, this is Xanthe’s last exhibition at the National Museums of Liverpool as she retires next month after over 30 years at the helm. Her insights have always brought her exhibitions to life for me and I will miss that, but Rembrandt in Print is a great exhibition to end her NML career on.

So, in summary, knowing the background to the printing techniques and how special Rembrandt’s talent was in this area, really helped me get the most out of such an intricate Exhibition. If you use the magnifying glasses and get up close to the images, most of which are really small, I am sure you will love it too.

Run ends 15th September 2019