On the Hunt for Rembrandt

The special exhibition Rembrandt’s Century, closing on June 2, is remarkable not only for its breadth but also for the fact that it is drawn primarily from the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts (AFGA), the works on paper department at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. As curator Jim Ganz relates, this exhibition’s compilation required an epic treasure hunt through the Museums’ permanent collections, an endeavor that proved neither easy nor efficient, but was ultimately incredibly fruitful.

Rembrandt's Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window, 1648

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). Self-Portrait Drawing at a Window, 1648. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. Bruno and Sadie Adriani Collection. 1959.40.19

I began working on a proposal for Rembrandt’s Century in late 2010, following the model of Impressionist Paris: City of Light and Japanesque, very successful exhibitions designed to complement the concurrent presentations of masterpieces from the Musée d’Orsay at the de Young. Like those blockbuster shows, Girl with a Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuis represents a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition made possible by a major museum renovation project, in this case the Mauritshuis expansion in The Hague. When our late director John Buchanan secured the Mauritshuis treasures for San Francisco, he asked me to plan a complementary Rembrandt exhibition drawn from the permanent collections.

Rembrandt's The Landscape with the Three Trees, 1643

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). The Landscape with the Three Trees, 1643. Etching, drypoint and engraving. Collection of Marie and George Hecksher. L12.16.1

Early in the exhibition’s development I arrived at two fundamental conclusions: first, that restricting the checklist to our Rembrandt etchings would be the easiest and the most efficient approach; and second, that I did not want this project to be either easy or efficient. And so I expanded its chronology beyond Rembrandt’s years of activity to include the late mannerist era of the 1590s through the turn of the 18th century. I also broadened the geographic reach beyond the Dutch and Flemish schools to include works by Italian, Spanish, French, and English artists. This expansive approach enabled me to juxtapose Rembrandt’s etchings with works on paper by his predecessors, contemporaries, and followers. Rembrandt was himself a voracious art collector, immersed in the print culture of his era, and I wanted Rembrandt’s Century to demonstrate the enormous breadth of activity in 17th-century printmaking.

Ribera's Drunken Silenus, 1628

Jusepe de Ribera (Spanish, 1591–1562). Drunken Silenus, 1628. Etching. Museum Purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1965.68.74

In selecting the approximately 60 Rembrandt etchings that form the core of the show, we had to update our cataloguing based on the latest scholarship. Besides learning more about our collection, another great outcome of this project was the enhancement of our 17th-century holdings through a number of important gifts and purchases, including a strong group of beautiful early etchings by the painter Adriaen van Ostade, a contemporary of Rembrandt’s based in Haarlem, and a spectacular watercolor by Lambert Doomer, a follower of Rembrandt who specialized in topographically correct landscape views.

Doomer's Salt Flats at Le Croisic, ca. 1671-1673

Lambert Doomer (Dutch, 1624–1700). Salt Flats at Le Croisic, ca. 1671–1673. Brown ink and brown and gray washes on ledger paper. Museum Purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund and Gift of the Graphic Arts Council. 2012.8

Doomer’s watercolor representing salt flats at Le Croisic on the Brittany coast is one of his most unusual works, combining the geometric forms of the evaporation pools with subtle washes of ink evoking the mutable light and atmosphere. Drained of classical or literary associations, the landscape is a truly modern view organized by the rules of agriculture rather than academic principles of composition.

In addition to these new acquisitions, we relished the opportunity to exhibit some of the Museums’ most important Rembrandt works on paper. A true rarity among rarities, The Shell (Conus Marmoreus) of 1650 is his only still life etching—a genre that held virtually no interest for him as a painter—and survives in relatively few impressions. This precious object provides a fascinating point of entry into a number of interrelated topics, including the 17th-century still life tradition, the pervasiveness of vanitas imagery, and natural history illustration.

Rembrandt's The Shell, 1650

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). The Shell (Conus Marmoreus), 1650. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. Museum purchase, gift of Dr. T. Edward and Tullah Hanley by exchange, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund and Anonymous Bequest. 1997.42

The final section of the exhibition, The Art of Darkness, allowed me to display the AFGA’s most important Rembrandt, his large drypoint Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses) of 1653.

Rembrandt's The Three Crosses, 1653

Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669). Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (The Three Crosses), 1653. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. Museum Purchase, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1964.142.40

A real tour de force of draftsmanship and printmaking in which emotion eclipses intelligibility, this piece pushes the art of chiaroscuro to the very edge of perception. Freshly matted by Mark Garrett and housed in a frame beautifully customized by Brian Isobe, the print is one of the artist’s most powerful artistic statements in black and white, and our impression has never looked better than it does in Rembrandt’s Century.

This Friday, May 17 see Rembrandt’s Century and Girl with a Pearl Earring for only $15 as we celebrate International Museum Day with free general admission. Don’t miss these extraordinary exhibitions before they close on June 2.