For its latest exhibit, the Currier Museum of Art is handing out magnifying glasses.
“Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt” follows the art scene in 17th-century Holland, when art became a commercial enterprise. The 75 prints and six paintings are set up chronologically and include work by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Jacob van Ruisdael, Pieter de Molijn, Hendrick Goltzius and others.
Most are just a bit bigger than a hand.
“Technically, these are extraordinary,” said exhibit curator Kurt Sundstrom, describing Hendrick Goltzius’s “Passion” series, which tells the story that leads to the assumption of Christ in small black-and-white pictures. The series offers masterful storytelling, Sundstrom said, but his awe is over the detail in the tiny print.
These artists of the 1600s did what we rely on computers to do today.
“It’s a marvel that people could do this. Each face of these 13 figures [in the series depicting the Last Supper] are all distinctive, and they’re all invented out of his mind. Even their haircuts,” Sundstrom said. What’s more, “you can see that the figures maintain the same figure throughout the series of prints.”
Rembrandt, in particular, was able, in just a line or two, to capture a person’s emotions, Sundstrom said.
The prints were created using intaglio techniques, which typically required a printing plate of copper or another metal, which became more expensive the larger the print, Sundstrom said. That’s why the prints were kept small.
This exhibit highlights an important movement in commercial art. During the 1600s, when the printing press became prevalent in the art world, art became something not just for the privileged or the well-traveled but for anyone who could afford to buy a print. They were in mass production, and with a larger middle class during this period, people could afford to buy them, Sundstrom said. Rembrandt’s prints were in such high demand that it was this body of work — not his paintings — that brought him financial success and international fame.
“If you wanted to see a Michelangelo sculpture or a Michelangelo painting, it was assumed that in order to do this, you would have to go to Italy. But if you wanted to see work by Rembrandt, you could just buy a print.... This was the advantage of printmaking,” Sundstrom said. “It was the dissemination of artistic ideas, and of an artist reputation,” he said. He compares the movement to today’s social media, transporting information faster than ever before.
Be sure to read the descriptions accompanying the prints — the story is one half of each print’s charm. One of Sundstrom’s favorites is “Parental Instruction,” an engraving by Jean George Wille, after Gerard ter Borch’s 1681 painting. It became quite famous because of how the poet Goethe wrote about the painting — at the time, it was seen as a father admonishing his daughter who “might have gone off the straight path,” Sundstrom said. However, thanks to 21st-century technologies, this interpretation was challenged after the original painting was cleaned, revealing a coin between the man’s fingers, suggesting that these scene actually took place in a brothel, and this man — who is not her father — is buying this woman’s services.
Seventeenth-century Dutch artists were also the first to explore landscape as a subject. One example is Jacob van Ruisdael’s etching, “The Little Bridge,” 7 ¾ in. by 11 in. “Here, he took the landscape of Holland, which is mundane, and elevated it to a grand scale,” Sundstrom said. This was something new. “There is probably not a single Renaissance painting in which the landscape is the primary subject,” he said. The idea that the landscape is worthy of artistic attention developed at this period.
“I think they were very proud, themselves, that they had these incredible engineering feats — they were able to build lochtes, build even storm barriers, to keep the water out. This was something to boast about. It was also a time of independence, and I think this gave them a sort of nationalistic pride, in the landscape,” Sundstrom said.
Most of the prints were purchased by the Currier Museum of Art, as were some of the paintings.