Rembrandt unravelled

January 16 2014 - 3:33 PM

Seven new books provide new insights into Rembrandt’s etchings.

Seven new volumes in the Hollstein series on the work of the most influential etcher of all time, Rembrandt van Rijn, were published today. Rijksmuseum curator Erik Hinterding and Jaco Rutgers travelled the world to examine more than 18,000 impressions made from all 315 etchings produced by the artist between 1625 and 1665. In the course of their research, they made some unexpected discoveries about the etching techniques used by Rembrandt. As a result, we now know more about his etching and we can determine, for example, whether Rembrandt actually printed an etching himself or whether it was done much later. Together, the seven new volumes weigh approximately 10kg and cost €330 per volume. The Hollstein series accurately catalogues Dutch etching and engraving by individual artists in the period from 1450 to 1700. Since 1949, some 139 volumes have already been published.

Rembrandt unravelled, a presentation

The seven latest volumes describe and illustrate all of Rembrandt’s prints (1606-1669). The last catalogue raisonné of Rembrandt’s etchings dates from 1969. The new Hollstein volumes pay due consideration to research that has been conducted since then, and they also contain a rich harvest of Hinterding and Rutgers’ own discoveries. Some of these were revealed by the use of digital photography. Nowadays, taking digital photographs is very easy and these images can also be blown up, which makes the detailed study and comparison of different impressions much easier.
If he was dissatisfied with a large etching, the young Rembrandt would cut it into pieces, which could then be reused. Although one such case had previously been documented, it was long suspected that this was indeed common practice.

Rembrandt usually printed and sold his impressions himself. The latest Hollstein catalogue breaks new ground by drawing a sharp distinction between impressions that were made by Rembrandt and works that were printed using his own copper plates after his death. The artist also gradually refined his designs on copper plates, often in a series of small steps known as “states”. The recent study provides new insight into the successive stages of Rembrandt’s work process as he went about completing his prints.


Many of the later states, whose impressions had been attributed to Rembrandt himself, have now been “unmasked”. It has been shown that some of the changes involved the use of a mezzotint rocker (a kind of putty knife), which is used to roughen the surface of the copper plate. In Rembrandt’s time, this rocker had not yet been developed, so any prints bearing traces of its use must have been produced after 1669, the year that the master died. This new insight has helped to classify the 18,000 Rembrandt etchings in public collections much more reliably into those impressions that were made during Rembrandt’s life and those that were produced later.

Erik Hinterding & Jaco Rutgers, Rembrandt. The New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, Sound & Vision Publishers in close cooperation with the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Ouderkerk aan den IJssel 2012/13. The books can be ordered from Sound & Vision Publishers.


Zelfportret met hoed met slappe rand en geborduurde mantel, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
Zelfportret met hoed met slappe rand en geborduurde mantel, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
Zelfportret met hoed met slappe rand en geborduurde mantel, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
Staande boer met de handen op de rug, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1631
De blinde Tobias (schets), Rembrandt van Rijn, 1627-1631
De blinde Tobias (schets), Rembrandt van Rijn, 1627-1631
Knielende Hieronymus (grote plaat), Rembrandt van Rijn, 1627-1631

all images