Philadelphia, PA--The Philadelphia Museum of Art has acquired and placed on view a masterpiece by one of the great printmakers of all time, Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Christ Crucified Between Two Thieves (popularly known as The Three Crosses), of which the Museum now owns a superb impression, is one the two most ambitious and celebrated prints created by the Dutch artist.
This large-scale drypoint print, with its deeply gouged and delicately incised lines, measures 15 by 17½ inches and was executed in Amsterdam between 1653-55. The work was purchased from a European print dealer and was once owned by the French painter Edgar Degas. Through July 1, 2004, this major addition to the Museum’s distinguished collection of old master prints will be installed in Gallery 262, devoted to Dutch art, where it is shown with Christ Preaching, 1652, a recently-acquired Rembrandt etching accented with drypoint that conveys the power of Christ’s voice over a group of Jerusalem townsfolk. On view in the adjacent Baroque gallery (258) is Rembrandt’s imposing oil painting of Minerva, 1635, which is on loan from a private collection.
Rembrandt as printmaker
Many of Rembrandt’s most unforgettable works, whether on paper or on canvas, were inspired by his life-long study of the Bible. His career as a printmaker began around 1626 with small etchings of episodes from the infancy of Jesus, and culminated three decades later in two monumental scenes from Jesus’s last days, including The Three Crosses, which captures the chaos of rushing figures and the maelstrom of darkness and piercing light that the artist envisioned as accompanying Christ’s final moments on the cross.
When Rembrandt undertook Christ Preaching and The Three Crosses in the early 1650s, he had already made more than 250 etchings that demonstrate his passion for a medium, little used at the time, which was particularly well suited to his fluent draftsmanship. Rembrandt quickly learned to add finishing touches to his etchings with engraver’s tools (a burin or a drypoint) to avoid having to subject the plate to further immersion in an acid bath, as required for etching. Soon he was deliberately dragging the sharp drypoint across his plates to raise a delicate curl of copper (called ‘burr’) along one edge of his incision to capture extra ink and print accents of velvety black. By the time of Christ Preaching, Rembrandt was regularly employing a drypoint to add rough patches of black to his etchings, equivalent to the textured surfaces of his oil paintings.
The Three Crosses is executed solely in drypoint, a more challenging method of printmaking than etching. Not only does fragile drypoint burr rapidly wear away under repeated pressure in the printing press, but making such a large print entirely in drypoint needed considerable muscular strength, suggesting that the artist had to hold his tool with both hands to score the deepest gouges. During early stages of The Three Crosses, Rembrandt needed to reinforce gradually weakening lines three times before they gave out and were no longer effective. Rather than abandoning his most ambitious print, Rembrandt returned to The Three Crosses after a short period. For the fourth state, exhibited here, the artist began by scraping off the remains of the raised copper burr, deliberately leaving traces of the original composition, before redrawing much of composition in heavy drypoint. A flood of light pierces a new veil of hard-edged lines to fall on the dying figure of Christ, whose body and face are now rendered more human and more sorrowful with delicate modeling strokes.
"Most artists would have given up after the drypoint had worn out," notes John Ittmann, Curator of Prints at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, "but not Rembrandt. He returned to it with renewed vigor and made the drastic revisions we see in this final version, which many people regard as one of the greatest prints ever made."
Rembrandt as painter
The painting on loan to the Museum was executed some 20 years before the Museum’s impression of The Three Crosses, and it, too, reflects the remarkable play of lights and darks for which Rembrandt is celebrated. In this work, the Roman goddess of war has laid down her arms and is reading a book in her study, for she was also the goddess of wisdom and the arts. Wearing a rich brocaded robe and a laurel crown, she turns in her seat, her lips parted as if about to speak. A broad band of light catches her face, her long golden hair, pearls, richly embroidered cape, and the hand lightly resting on the open book. In the background we can make out her helmet, spear and lastly her shield, which bears the image of Medusa’s serpent-entwined head.
"This painting carries all the rich and dramatic contrasts of light and shade by which we know Rembrandt’s style," according to Lloyd deWitt, Assistant Curator of the John G. Johnson Collection and a specialist in Dutch art. "Rembrandt’s Minerva is wonderfully balanced in its portrayal of divine glory and human approachability. It is one of a number of paintings of goddesses that Rembrandt produced in the 1630s and it has all the painterly effects that exerted such profound impact on his contemporaries and later generations of artists."
The Museum’s collection of the arts of 17th-century Holland is among the finest in the United States, ranging from masterpieces of painting and printmaking to the decorative arts, Dutch tiles and a complete period room from Het Schipje, a house from the city of Haarlem.