Rembrandt’s etchings

Following is an excerpt from A.M.Hind catalogue raisonne of Rembrandt’s etchings, giving us a great insight into the world of etchings by this genius.

“As a painter Rembrandt was chiefly devoted to portraiture, a devotion no doubt largely due to the conviction that its study gives the most immediate opportunity for depicting human character.
But it must also be confessed that the overwhelmingly large proportion of portraits to other subjects in his painted work may be partly owing to the demands of clients. That it was not entirely so is immediately evident when one considers the master’s untiring industry in painting portraits of himself after his popularity had waned, and commissions nearly ceased. Nevertheless as works for the most part uncommissioned and less lucrative than the paintings, we may take it that the etchings are a true reflection of the actual tendency of Rembrandt’s genius when least affected by demands from outside. In his etched work we find that portraits are much less numerous, and by far the largest place is given to the subjects from scripture, treated with the same reality that characterises his sketches from daily life. Rembrandt’s affection for scriptural subjects is a striking fact in face of the general character of Dutch art in the seventeenth century. The reformation in Holland seems to have helped towards the exclusion of art from the domain of religion ; and the merely formal and superficial rendering of biblical stories by the classicists of the late sixteenth century may have also had much to account for the secular reaction of the succeeding period. But Rembrandt had no need to seek new ground to escape from a formal rendering of well known themes. Like most masters of supreme genius, his originality consisted in the realisation of his own deepest and most personal emotion in his treatment of the old stories. They appealed to him as the vehicle of the noblest thoughts of man in relation to himself and God, and he was practically the first artist who dared approach the Scriptures in the spirit of reality that implied a living faith rather than an official creed.
It is perhaps still not superfluous to emphasise the fact that the etchings of Rembrandt (as of nearly all the painter-engravers or etchers) are original works distinct in methods and aims from the paintings or works in any other medium. In Rembrandt’s work of rather more than three hundred etchings there are scarcely half a dozen subjects that correspond with his pictures. In general the original engraver or etcher conceives and carries out his design in specific relation to its medium ; its expression in another would demand an entirely different treatment.
Rembrandt worked on copper in pure etching and dry-point. In pure etching the plate is first covered with a thin layer or ground of wax composition ; the etcher draws through this ground (which offers scarcely any resistance) with an etching needle, opening up the surface of the copper where he wishes his lines to appear. The plate is then put in a bath of acid which bites the furrows in the unprotected parts of the plate, i.e. wherever the needle has been drawn through the ground. Dry-point, though generally regarded as a branch of etching, as it is so constantly used on the same plate as bitten work, is in reality more akin to line-engraving. No acid is used, and the lines are scratched on the surface of the copper by a strong steel point. The artist does not push this point before the hand like the graver, but uses it in the same way as a pencil. The curl of metal thrown up at the side of the line is not scraped away as in line-engraving, where the aim is clearness of designs, but left to hold the ink, enwrapping the line, as printed from the furrows, in a rich cloudy tone. This curl of metal, or * burr ‘(a term also applied to the velvety tone which it causes), is, extremely delicate, and a comparatively few impressions suffice to level it with the surface of the copper, and leave the effect a mere ghost of the artist’s intention.
So that rich impressions from dry-points are infinitely rarer than good ones from the pure etchings, which often yield hundreds of prints without greatly deteriorating in quality. But the more delicate the etching and the closer the mesh of line, the sooner will deterioration of quality set in, so that a glance at the character of an etching, granting that the plate was not destroyed after a very limited issue, will almost immediately reveal one important point, i.e. the comparative rarity of good impressions.”