January 16 2014 - 3:33 PM

Study delivers new insights into Rembrandt's etching techniques.

In January, seven new volumes will be published, showcasing the work of the most influential etcher of all time, Rembrandt van Rijn. Erik Hinterding (a curator at the Rijksmuseum) 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 have a much better appreciation of the master’s printing techniques, and we can determine, for example, whether an etching was made by Rembrandt himself, or in another studio much later.

To mark the publication of the new Hollstein volumes, the Rijksmuseum is exhibiting 36 etchings by Rembrandt. These works offer an excellent sense of Rembrandt's etching techniques, while also helping to clarify the results of Erik Hinterding and Jaco Rutgers’ study.

Rembrandt unravelled, a presentation

The seven volumes are part of the Hollstein series, which accurately catalogues Dutch etching and engraving by individual artists in the period 1450 to 1700. Since 1949, some 139 volumes have already been published. The seven newest volumes, to be published this winter, are devoted to all known Rembrandt impressions. 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. These days, taking digital photographs is simplicity itself. The images can also be enormously enlarged, which greatly facilitates the detailed study and comparison of different impressions.

New insights

If he was dissatisfied with a large etching, the young Rembrandt would cut it into pieces, which could then be reused. Whereas just one such case had previously been documented, it was long suspected that this was indeed common practice. The Rembrandt Unravelled presentation highlights a new case of such reuse.

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 a novel insight into the successive stages of Rembrandt's work process as the master 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 understanding 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._