Two Etchings by Rembrandt and the Art of Being Human
In addition to some 400 paintings and over 1000 drawings, Rembrandt van Rijn’s vast oeuvre also comprises some 300 etchings produced over the span of his career. The National Gallery of Canada’s commitment to collecting Rembrandt's work dates back to 1913, when it acquired its first two etchings by the artist, Saskia with Pearls in Her Hair (1634) and Self-portrait with Saskia (1636). Since then, the collection has grown to include two paintings, two drawings and a total of forty prints. These works were recently joined by two more etchings: Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness (1634) and The Flute Player (1642).
Religious imagery makes up half of the Gallery's holdings of Rembrandt etchings. The artist’s overall graphic output comprises no fewer than seven etchings of Saint Jerome, a subject the artist never represented in painting. One of the four Latin Doctors of the Catholic Church and admired for his extensive commentaries on Christian moral life and his translations of ancient texts, Jerome was a popular religious figure with eminent artists from the Renaissance onward, including Albrecht Dürer, Titian and Caravaggio. He is usually depicted in his study or in the desert and often flanked by the lion that became his faithful companion after the hermit healed the animal's injured paw.
The newly added Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness complements the Gallery's other etched composition featuring the learned hermit, Saint Jerome beside a Pollard Willow (1648), purchased in 1968. Both are set in a landscape and depict the saint with his lion. The latter is a sparse composition focused on a pollard tree, while the earlier work, executed fourteen years prior, is denser, despite being smaller in format. In this work, the bearded theologian is portrayed in a busy, leafy landscape, sitting at the base of a tree with, on his lap, an imposing book. The charming lion fiercely guards the saint by taking a stance in front of him and frowning at the viewer. A water gourd hangs off the tree trunk while a small animal skull, possibly a reminder of life’s futility, appears in the lower right corner. With its endearing treatment of its subject matter, this work is a perfect example of Rembrandt’s ability to humanize religious figures.
The NGC's etching of Saint Jerome Reading in the Wilderness once belonged to the multi-talented English actor, painter and caricaturist Robert Dighton (1752–1814), whose impression of Rembrandt’s celebrated Windmill of 1641 is also in the Gallery's collection. Both prints bear Dighton’s collector’s mark in the shape of a painter’s palette and brushes. The St Jerome was later owned by the Liverpool art collector Daniel Daulby, who authored the Descriptive Catalogue of the Works [etchings] of Rembrandt and His Scholars in 1796 and whose collection of Rembrandt etchings was considered the best in Britain at that time.
The Flute Player (1642) is also a significant addition to the national collection, as Rembrandt’s depictions of everyday life are the least represented in the Gallery's collection of prints, with just six works. Called “genre scenes,” they show the daily activities of ordinary people and of marginal figures such as beggars, tramps, quacks and street musicians. The Flute Player mixes a higher idyllic thematic with more lowly erotic content. Although seemingly a traditional pastoral love scene, it shows a lusty flute player peering under the skirt of an unsuspecting shepherdess weaving a flower garland. The musician’s licentious intent is signalled by a frantic herd behind him and the owl (a symbol of folly) on his shoulder mimicking his voyeuristic act. Although sexual undertones are customary in this type of scene, such lecherousness is unusual and, as scholar Christopher White has pointed out in Rembrandt as an Etcher (1969), marks the first expression of sexual content in Rembrandt’s etchings. In this way, this composition highlights Rembrandt’s ability to portray lust in a realistic manner.
Both works illustrate the artist’s perceptive understanding of human nature. As art historian Ernst Gombrich pointed out in The Story of Art (1995 ed): “Those keen and steady eyes that we know so well from Rembrandt's self-portraits must have been able to look straight into the human heart.” By creating images of men and women, whether saintly or lay, in all their humanity and inhumanity, Rembrandt has moved audiences for nearly four centuries.
For details of other works by Rembrandt van Rijn, see the National Gallery of Canada's collection online. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery news, exhibitions and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.