Oud Holland

Review of Rembrandt's religious prints (2017)

PETER VAN DER COELEN

Charles M. Rosenberg, Rembrandt’s religious prints: The Feddersen collection at the Snite Museum of Art, Bloomington [Indiana University Press] 2017

Rembrandt’s etchings hold an exceptional place in seventeenth century Dutch printmaking, not only because of their innovative technique and free style, but also because of the varied choice of subjects. No other great Dutch peintre-graveur created an oeuvre like Rembrandt, whether it is Hercules Segers, Adriaen van Ostade or Jacob van Ruisdael. Although Rembrandt's extensive graphic work contains almost all traditional genres and subjects, such as landscapes, portraits, self-portraits, genre, mythological scenes, nudes and even a still life, it was the Bible that most often occupied him. One quarter of the 314 etchings attributed to Rembrandt today have a Biblical theme, including 18 prints from the Old Testament and 59 prints from the New Testament. Biblical themes dominate not only numerically, but it is in this field that we also find Rembrandt's most ambitious prints, in particular a small group of large etchings and drypoints, including Christ blesses the children and heals the sick (better known as The hundred guilder print), Christ presented to the people and The three crosses.

Left: Cover of Rembrandt’s religious prints: The Feddersen collection at the Snite Museum of Art.
Right: fig. 1 Rembrandt van Rijn, The hundred guilder print, 1649, etching with drypoint, 27.79 x 38.81 cm, Notre Dame, Snite Museum of Art, inv. 1991.025.045.

The present book, a catalogue of the Feddersen Collection of Rembrandt etchings at the Snite Museum of Art, is certainly not the first study of Rembrandt’s biblical prints. The author, who is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), could build on previous research; starting with Christian and Astrid Tümpel’s Rembrandt legt die Bibel aus (1970). As Rosenberg even acknowledges, in preparing his catalogue he has been particularly influenced by the more recent publication Rembrandt’s faith: Church and temple in the Dutch golden age, a groundbreaking, if controversial, study of Rembrandt’s religious imagery by Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver.1

Rembrandt’s religious prints contains two introductory essays, the first of which describes the history of the Feddersen Collection in the Snite Museum of Art, which composed 70 Rembrandt etchings bequeathed to the museum in 1991 by the collectors Jack and Alfrieda Feddersen. The Feddersens, who lived in Elkhart, Indiana, started to focus exclusively on Rembrandt’s biblical prints in 1966 and built up their collection in the next 16 years. They mainly purchased their prints from dealers in New York, including David Tunick, Associated American Artists and Kennedy Galleries, and in London, including Craddock & Barnard and, especially, the fine art department at Harrods. Some prints are missing, in particular the exceedingly rare early etchings, but in the end the Feddersens succeeded in creating a nearly complete collection of Rembrandt’s biblical work. It should be noted, however, that a substantial part of the collection consists of posthumous states or late impressions.2

In a second essay, Rosenberg provides a highly informative introduction to Rembrandt's religious etchings, linked to the artist’s biography and seen against the background of religious developments in the seventeenth century Dutch Republic. He describes Rembrandt's career as a printmaker and analyses the compositions of his etchings, paying attention to the architectural backgrounds, the use of secondary observers and auxiliary characters, as well as the role of animals. Rosenberg is also the author of the extensive entries in the richly illustrated catalogue portion of the book. Each print is discussed in great detail, starting with a careful analysis of the composition and iconography of the depicted theme, with attention for its visual predecessors and the exegetical tradition. As said, Rosenberg often uses the mentioned study by Perlove and Silver, but in his own interpretations he usually is – rightly, in my opinion – more cautious than these authors, who directly relate Rembrandt's work to the theological debate of the seventeenth century, which leads to many new insights, but also raises questions about the representativeness of the sources they use.3

Left: fig. 2. Rembrandt van Rijn, The stoning of St. Stephen, 1636, etching, 9.5 x 8.5 cm, Notre Dame, Snite Museum of Art, inv. 1991.025.063.
Right: fig. 3 Rembrandt van Rijn, Christ crucified between two thieves: Three crosses, ca. 1653-1655, etching and drypoint with burin, 38.5 x 45 cm, Notre Dame, Snite Museum of Art, inv. 1991.025.049.

Rembrandt’s biblical scenes bear witness to an exceptional ability to empathize and a deep insight into the subject matter. They reveal his intimate knowledge of the Bible, which must have been based on thorough reading of the text, and perhaps, tell us something about what aspects of the Bible and Christianity most deeply moved him. But has Rembrandt also incorporated explicit motives or messages in his biblical etchings, which reflected his own confessional position or were meant for specific denominational groups? Rosenberg usually relates Rembrandt’s scenes to Calvin’s writings, but he detects other confessional positions as well, e.g. in the Hundred guilder print (fig. 1), which, "might favour a more Anabaptist reading" (p. 285), The stoning of St. Stephen (fig. 2), which, "may have been intended as a pro-Remonstrant commentary" (p. 412), and The adoration of the shepherds: With the lamp, which, "seems to reflect Catholic traditions more than Calvinist ones" (p. 155).

Such interpretations stem from the assumption that Rembrandt's religious prints were meant to, to a significant extent, serve as meditational aids for the devout. In his analysis, Rosenberg emphasises their supposed didactic and devotional functions. Some of Rembrandt’s etchings, such as The crucifixion: Small plate and Christ crucified between the two thieves (fig. 3), are even thought to have once been intended for devotional purposes only. No doubt some of those who acquired these prints, may indeed have been inspired by their spiritual quality, but Rembrandt must have created them as collectors' items for art connoisseurs in the first place. The small editions that he printed – usually between 25 and 50 impressions – and the relatively high prices of his etchings, suggest that they were especially directed at the highest segment of the print market.4 Rembrandt’s prints were certainly not accessible to everyone; above all, they were intended for the cultural elite. Art lovers and fellow artists were presumably the only ones who could fully appreciate his experimental approach, ingenious compositions and subtle references to the work of great printmakers, such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden.

NOTES:
1 C. Tümpel and A. Tümpel, Rembrandt legt die Bibel aus: Zeichnungen und Radierungen aus dem Kupferstichkabinett der Staatlichen Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin, Berlin 1970; S. Perlove and L. Silver, Rembrandt’s faith: Church and temple in the Dutch Golden Age, University Park 2009.
2 Unfortunately, this is not mentioned in the catalogue entries. Posthumous states include: cat. 1, 5, 12, 13 (Basan), 17, 20, 26, 27, 29 (Basan), 32, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 49, 54, 60, 66, 67 and 69.
3 See the important review by the church historian: A.T. van Deursen, ‘Rembrandts geloof’, Kroniek van het Rembrandthuis (2009), pp. 23-27.
4 For editions and prices of Rembrandt’s etchings, see: E. Hinterding, Rembrandt as an e
tcher: The practice of production and distribution, Ouderkerk aan den IJssel 2006, vol. 1, pp. 47-65.

CITE AS:
P. van der Coelen, ‘Review of: C.M. Rosenberg, Rembrandt’s religious prints: The Feddersen Collection at the Snite Museum of Art, 2017’, Oud Holland Reviews, September 2019.