Go Dutch

The Nevada Museum of Art hosts the etchings of Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn

In this photo illustration, curator of education Colin Robertson is shown with a Rembrandt etching of Adam, Eve and … an elephant.

In this photo illustration, curator of education Colin Robertson is shown with a Rembrandt etching of Adam, Eve and … an elephant.

Photo illustration By Kate Murphy

Nevada Museum of Art

160 W. Liberty St.
Reno, NV 89501

(775) 329-3333

One of the best ways to experience and interact with art is to get right up to it—see how heavily or haphazardly the paint was applied and closely examine the obscure details or the cuts in the clay. In that way, you can almost relive the artistic process and develop a personal connection to it.

There’s no other way to experience Rembrandt: The Embrace of Darkness and Light, the Nevada Museum of Art’s winter exhibit of the Dutch master’s etchings. While you’re not allowed to touch them, the NMA wants you to fully experience Rembrandt’s fine details by looking very closely at them. Take a complimentary magnifying glass from a museum staffer and explore layers of detail that are almost impossible to see with just a glance from the naked eye. This collection of works is drawn from the Museum of Fine Art, Boston and is on display through Jan. 17.

Cast a shadow

Rembrandt van Rijn is primarily known as a painter and a pioneer of chiaroscuro, which literally means “light dark.” It involves the intentional use of contrast to highlight or obscure features and emphasize certain aspects of the work. It also creates the illusion of space or depth, which was fairly unheard of before the mid-17th century. Chiaroscuro is the reason Rembrandt is labeled a master and is the inspiration for the title of the exhibit.

Yet his etchings and printmaking works, while perhaps less overtly dramatic due to their smaller sizes and lack of color, are unsurpassed for their light-dark contrast and their level of detail, as well as the sheer physical labor involved in their creation. His career as a printmaker is the focus of this exhibit, which features more than 100 pieces.

The intaglio, or copper printmaking plates, that Rembrandt used were produced through three methods: etching, scratching into plates and coating them with acid; dry point, in which a sharp stylus was actually pressed onto dry copper plates; and engraving, which was done with a thick engraving tool. The three methods were done separately or in combination to produce works—some not much bigger than a business card—that depicted landscapes, portraits, Biblical and mythological scenes, and ancient history.

But to truly understand the labor involved, stand up close to the work, and examine how the darkest areas, the shadows, require line upon line to be scratched into copper, enabling more ink to pool there. The strength and precision required of his hands and the patience required for the process are unfathomable—particularly in pieces such as “Saint Jerome in a Dark Chamber,” which features the saint sitting alone in a dark room, the only light a small window in the top corner of the frame. In essence, the entire piece is composed of different levels of darkness, which would have meant precise, controlled etching on nearly the entire surface. The idea of the labor is enough to make your hands ache just by looking at it.

Once the plates were completed, they were coated in ink and, with a large wheel exerting enormous pressure, paper was pressed against them to create a print. In addition to etched lines, varying color intensity or sharpness of line could be achieved by strategically wiping ink in certain areas of the plate or by altering the type of paper used.

Curious and curiouser

Always ahead of his time, Rembrandt saw the potential for steady income and an entrée into new European markets in a repeatable series of prints. His worldwide success was due in large part to this vision.

“It’s interesting to look beyond Rembrandt as a master,” says Ann Wolfe, curator of exhibitions and collections at the NMA. “As people are encountering his works on paper, they’ll see he was quite unconventional and inventive, and even a little eccentric. For example, there’s an etching of Adam and Eve, and in the foreground, just in the corner, there’s an elephant. There’s also an etching that features a child on the floor doodling in the foreground. So while you might come looking for traditional work from a master, you’ll see, if you spend time with the work, that you’ll find some comical scenes.”

Wolfe also points to the process as part of the allure. “Rembrandt used a copper plate like a sketch pad, so he’d often leave unfinished areas. You can actually see the creative process unfolding, where he made mistakes or decided to change things,” she says. “This was a really radical thing in the 17th century, when artists were looking for romantic ideals and images of perfection.”

To convey a sense of Rembrandt’s curiosity and interests, and to help visitors understand his working style, NMA curator of education Colin Robertson recreated a gallery studio that mimics Rembrandt’s Amsterdam studio for the exhibit. Additionally, a step-by-step explanation of Rembrandt’s printmaking process further crystallizes these concepts.

As Robertson explains, the Age of Exploration, during which time the world was being actively explored and mapped, played a huge role in Rembrandt’s work.

“He amassed quite a collection of objects, including work by Italian Renaissance masters and his own countrymen,” says Robertson. “But his studio was also stocked with some exotic objects—natural history specimens like seashells, taxidermy, fossils, Roman-era busts, armor and swords, or exotic decorative arts from Africa, the South Pacific or the Americas.”

Many of these items, like that elephant, appear in odd or unexpected places, helping to illustrate the impact of all this exploration.

Rembrandt events

In an attempt to help audiences further connect with Rembrandt, a series of related activities are scheduled.

Ongoing Tours: Offered free with admission every Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., and Thursdays at 6 p.m., these guided tours provide insights into Rembrandt’s work and processes. Spanish language tours are available with prior arrangement—call 329-3333, ex. 253.

Art Bites, Dec. 4 and 11: Half-hour dialogues that informally provide introduction to gallery works. On Dec. 4, University of Nevada, Reno lecturer David Fenimore discusses the Reformation, which greatly affected the artists of 17th century Holland. On Dec. 11, UNR Literature and the Environment professor Michael Branch will explore Rembrandt’s studio.

Printmaking: Drypoint Etching, Dec. 12: An educational program for ages 12 and up.

Experience Music: Rembrandt and the Music of His Time, Dec. 17: This lecture, presented by the Reno Chamber Orchestra and the NMA will include discussion of 17th century music and trends that may have influenced Rembrandt’s work.

Hands/ON! Sunday Family Program, Nov. 29 and Dec. 27: Free one-hour sessions beginning at noon, offering families a chance to do art projects and gallery activities in coordination with exhibits. In November, create portraits using charcoal, and in December try it with color scratch board.

“All these programs, including the classes, are designed in an effort to invite the public to learn more about Rembrandt, his work and the etching process—to engage people to learn about work that’s four centuries old,” says Robertson. “Hopefully, it will help make that time, and his work, come to life for people.”