On any short list accounting of art history’s most revered figures, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) will certainly appear. Rembrandt’s self-portraits continue defining the genre almost 400 years later for their extreme awareness and sensitivity. The detail and line of his etchings similarly hold up as astonishing through the years. A classic example of Rembrandt’s etching, Descent from the Cross (1633) serves as a highlight for the collection at the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida.
Rembrandt created his etchings using an etching needle, a tool used for “drawing” – “scratching” if you will – lines and marks onto copper plates creating an image. He created about 300 etchings during his career. His subject matter mirrored his painting: self-portraits, landscapes, religious scenes.
During his lifetime, he would publish multiple “states” of each image – editions, so to speak – sometimes with minor alterations. These prints are sometimes called “impressions.” Because the original copper plates survive, further editions could be printed following his death. This hints at what makes collecting prints, also referred to as “multiples” because multiple versions of the same image created at the same time and place exist, a particularly tricky aspect of the art market.
The most valuable prints are of a limited edition – 100 or less. The most valuable prints are signed by the artist, which means they were created during his lifetime, and they are numbered. Most prints don’t fit that category. The print “market” is flooded with examples from major name 20th century artists like Picasso, Dalí and Chagall which have very little value because they’re posthumous prints created in large volume.
Interestingly, prints made from etchings are what brought about Rembrandt’s fame and fortune during his lifetime. It wasn’t until after his death that his oil paintings became prized. Also interesting, while Rembrandt was able to amass a small fortune for his work during his life, he spent all of that money and then some and financial mismanagement contributed to him dying penniless and uncelebrated.
Rembrandt’s etchings remain virtuosic examples of genius artistry, pairing astounding technical innovation and eye for detail with inspiring drama and breathtaking storytelling. The Cummer Museum’s example checks all of these boxes.
If you find Rembrandt’s etchings of particular interest, be sure to visit the Morgan Library and Museum in New York which houses America’s best collection of them.