See the brilliance of Rembrandt in new Norwich Castle Museum exhibition

Saturday October 21 marks the launch of a new Norfolk exhibition celebrating the genius of one of the greatest artists who ever lived: Rembrandt. Trevor Heaton reports on the story behind it.

It was a life riven by personal tragedy, bankruptcy, and disappointment, but the fruits of that life – his stunning artworks - live on and are loved all over the world.

We know Rembrandt best today for his paintings, from his epic Night Watch to the remarkable series of self-portraits which charted his life from the confident swagger of youth to an old man broken by fate.

But in his day, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s early fame came not from painting, but through his brilliance at etching. He single-handedly took it from a mundane aspect of printing to an art form in itself.

And from today at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery you have the chance to see almost 100 of the best of them, plus paintings and drawings, in the exhibition Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness. The museum has a fantastic collection of 93 etchings – it’s the fourth best in the

whole country - and this will

be your first chance to see them since 1990.

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It represents almost one in three of all the different etching subjects this genius of art produced in his lifetime. He lived from 1606 to 1669 and is still the most famous of that crop of artists which flourished along with the young Dutch republic in the early decades of the 17th century.

“All the prints come from one collector,” explained Dr Giorgia Bottinelli, Curator of Historic Art and exhibition co-curator. “Percy Moore Turner was born in Yorkshire but lived in Norfolk. The castle had lots of dealings with him as art dealer and collector – we had a long connection with him. When he died in 1951 he left us this amazing collection.”

Later, the museum also acquired an original drawing from a private collector. That, too, will be on display. Produced in 1635, it shows a group of musicians and is, of course, exquisitely drawn.

And in a real coup the exhibition will also feature three paintings – Anna and the blind Tobit (National Gallery); Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (Royal Collection); and A Woman in Bed (National Galleries of Scotland) – plus a drawing and four prints from the British Museum. Dr Francesca Vanke, Keeper of Art and Senior Curator of Decorative Art at the Castle (and the other exhibition curator) is pleased to have secured the loans, especially the paintings. “It’s traditionally been something that is very hard to arrange, as his paintings are always so popular,” she explained.

The paintings represent almost one in ten of all the pictures in this country that have been definitely attributed solely to the artist. So we’re lucky – really lucky - to have them on our doorstep.

Arranging these loans has been just part of the preparations for the exhibition, which will also feature a fully-illustrated catalogue. Giorgia and Francesca have even sourced some of the same pigments the artist would have used – colours such as rose madder, ochres, vermillion, and Van Dyke brown – as a backdrop in the gallery.

The technique of etching involves covering a sheet of metal – Rembrandt used copper – with a waxy acid-resistant substance. This is scratched off with a pointed tool which digs out a design in the metal. The plate is put in a bath of acid which ‘bites’ into the design to make the lines deeper. It is then cleared of the waxy substance. Ink is added, and a print made.

It sounds a very mechanical process. And it is – but not when the maker is Rembrandt. He experimented with different sorts of parchment and paper (he even used some made in Japan), and took the black-and-white art form to new heights.

“There had been printing for 100 years or so, but usually the artist handed the work to the printer to produce,” Francesca explained. “Rembrandt made the plates himself.”

Her colleague Giorgia added: “He is extraordinarily skilled in the way he used line and tone. He seems to create about 25 shades of black on the same print.”

Some of the prints are clearly very fine early impressions and have been retouched in pen ink - perhaps by Rembrandt himself.

You can seen the development of his style through series of etchings such as ‘The Entombment’ from the 1650s in which the artist adds more and more shading until it is just the character’s faces and hands which are illuminated. Rembrandt loved this effect, of faces lit by hidden light sources.

Later artists loved it too. Picasso was a devotee, as was Van Gogh. “He thought Rembrandt was the bees’ knees,” Francesca explained. “If you look at [Van Gogh’s] portraits, particularly around the eyes, you can see he looked at Rembrandt a lot.” Rembrandt’s legacy can also be seen in everyone from Maggi Hambling to Lucien Freud, and from David Hockney to Edward Ardizzone and Mervyn Peake. The Norwich School of artists (especially John Crome) also took inspiration from his landscapes.

The exhibition will be divided into several categories: self-portraits, his family, portraits of other people, religious scenes, landscapes, general scenes,

and nudes.

The etchings of his family are especially poignant, as all but one of his children died in infancy, and his wife too before she was 30. “He went through an awful lot,” Francesca added. To add to his woes, after his early fame and riches he went bankrupt in 1656 and his printing press and plates were sold off, along with

his paintings.

The plates survived, with prints still being pulled from them as late as – incredibly – 1916, almost 250 years after the artist died.

Some of the etchings are tiny, probably simply a reflection of the artist being unable to pay for more materials. It wasn’t always so. One lucrative etching is known as the ‘100-guilder print’ though. This was a handsome sum, something like a month’s money for the average worker. This work was produced around 1648, its real name being ‘Christ with the Sick around Him, receiving little children.’ It’s the sort of biblical scene which always played well with his God-fearing countrymen. “He had a gift of making religious scenes seem very human,” Francesca pointed out.

Even though Giorgia and Francesca have studied these etchings for years they still find new things in the drawings through tiny details, such as the sail glimpsed between trees which Giorgia only spotted recently.

“I still find something new every day,” Giorgia added. “I’d really like people to think about looking in more detail.

You have to look a bit harder to appreciate it.”

Dr Bottinelli wants people to come away from the exhibition with an appreciation of the sheer artistry displayed. “I hope that people will appreciate how difficult it is to make a print and what a skilled job it is, and what ability it involves. People tend to think these are mechanical reproductions – they are not like that at all…”

“…especially when they are

in Rembrandt’s hands,”

Francesca added.

Rembrandt: Lightening the Darkness will run at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery until January 7 2018. There will be an accompanying series of talks, courses, and printmaking demonstrations. For full information about opening hours and prices, see or call the information line on 01603 493648. An accompanying book by Drs Bottinelli and Vanke is also available, £12.99.

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