By Kahren Jones Arbitman

Many people are surprised to learn that Rembrandt's etchings, not his paintings, were responsible for the international reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime. When in 1660 the great Italian painter Guercino remarked, "I frankly consider him to be a great virtuoso," he was referring to the Dutchman's prints. The extraordinarily high regard Rembrandt's contemporaries had for his etchings was understandable, for in less than four decades he had pushed the relatively new medium to its expressive limits. While later printmakers tried to coax more from their etchings by altering the process, attacking the plate with new tools, and printing on unexpected surfaces, no one ever achieved greater results than Rembrandt attained with a simple etching needle and copper plates.

Etchings are created by drawing with a needle onto a resin-coated plate. When the plate is immersed in acid, the needle lines are cut, or etched, into the plate. Technically, producing an etching is not unlike creating a drawing. As a consummate draftsman whose extant drawings number in the thousands, Rembrandt was naturally attracted to this spontaneous approach to printmaking. His first etching dates to 1625, the year of his earliest known painting; his last was created in 1665, four years before his death.

Rembrandt's genius as an etcher lies in his recognition that this medium responds best to the light touch of a draftsman, not the heavy hand of a professional printmaker. Using the etching needle like a paintbrush or pen, Rembrandt created lines which spontaneously flowed in varying thicknesses across his plates. Not content with the traditional system of hatching and cross-hatching, Rembrandt employed every sort of scratch, dash and fleck to create nuances of texture and tone. Rembrandt also experimented with the darkness of his lines. He achieved tonal variations by immersing some lines longer in the acid bath, so that they were "bitten" more deeply. The deeper the lines, the more ink they hold and the darker they print. Seeking even greater tonal variation, Rembrandt explored the effects of drypoint. Drypoint lines, which are scratched directly into the surface of the soft copper plate, hold more ink and print more darkly and richly than their etched counterparts. His judicious use of drypoint created the velvety black textures and impenetrable shadows he sought.

Because of Rembrandt's combination of etching and drypoint on a single plate, the number of quality sheets obtainable from each plate was limited. While an etched plate could yield about 100 prints before unavoidable signs of wear set in, the number of first-rate sheets obtainable from a plate containing drypoint could be as few as 15. Not unexpectedly, the finest Rembrandt prints-fresh and vibrant, with rich pools of black ink clinging to the drypoint lines-are rare. They are objects of exceptional beauty, and are often unique works of art despite being created by a reproductive process.

Using the term "unique" to refer to a print which exists in more than one example may seem inaccurate, but when referring to Rembrandt's etchings, it appears justifiable. While most 17th-century artists handed over the task of printing their plates to professionals, Rembrandt often did the job himself. This allowed him to alter the process to create prints that, while pulled from the same plate, were not identical. Rembrandt's choice of paper, from common European white paper to thin, absorbent, ivory-yellow or light grey paper from Japan, resulted in remarkable differences in the individual prints. Similar variations occurred when Rembrandt inked his plates with more or less ink, or wiped the plate in ways which left ink on the surface to print as a continuous tone.

Rembrandt's etching style was as variable as his technique. His first accomplished etchings from the early 1630s are exuberant Baroque compositions with dazzling lighting effects. By the end of the decade, however, his mastery of the medium eased his dependence on this flamboyant style. In the 1640s Rembrandt's etched forms became simpler, and by 1650 the early curvilinear forms yielded completely to stable, block-like structures. Compositions were organized into receding parallel layers. Minute details, which in earlier etchings displayed his virtuosity, disappeared in favor of an emphasis on overall structure. Harmony and balance prevailed. In most cases, the later etchings were smaller in format, sparer in detail and focused on the interrelationship of a handful of protagonists. In his last works, Rembrandt used emphatic lines to capture the spirituality of a religious scene or the personality of a sitter.

Rembrandt's unsurpassed mastery of the medium, apparent in his technical innovations and stylistic advancements, extends to the breadth of his subjects. In fact, more than any other contemporary printmaker, Rembrandt captured on his small etched plates the remarkable quality of life in 17th-century Amsterdam. Landscapes, genre scenes and portraits flowed from his etching needle. Despite the brilliance of these subjects, his genius as a printmaker is nowhere more apparent than in his etched "Histories"-depictions of scenes from the Bible, mythology and ancient history. Surrounded, even nurtured, by a religious ambiance that included Jews, Mennonites and Calvinists of every stripe, Rembrandt created etchings that captured as never before or since, the phenomenon of human interaction with the divine.

Although early compilations of Rembrandt's etchings list about 350 works, recent research has reduced this number to around 290. Within these hundreds of etchings lies such breadth of technical inventiveness, stylistic finesse and insightful narrative, that succeeding generations continue to add their accolades to that offered by Guercino over three centuries ago.

Kahren Jones Arbitman is executive director of The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida. Previously she was director of the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State and curator of The Frick Art Museum in Pittsburgh. A scholar of 17th-century Dutch art, Arbitman has published books, catalogues and articles on the subject and lectured nationally and internationally.

Kahren Jones Arbitman will deliver a lecture, "The Sources for Rembrandt and Rembrandt as a Source," Friday, June 6, at 6:00 p.m. in the Museum of Art Theater. The lecture is free with museum admission. For information on additional exhibition-related events, see the Carnegie Calendar in this issue.