WHEN most of us go for a stroll, we may come back with a poplar leaf or a pine cone as a souvenir. When Rembrandt went for a stroll, he came back with a masterpiece. ``Rembrandt's Landscapes: Drawings and Prints,'' the exhibition now on view (through May 20) at the National Gallery, is proof of that. The show includes 99 works, among them 50 drawings and 26 landscape prints (some in more than one stage). They resulted from his walks through the Dutch countryside and towns over a 30-year period from the 1640s through the 1660s.
This is the first major show dedicated to Rembrandt's landscape drawings and prints, inspired by the rivers, windmills, cottages, canals, and farmhouses he saw on his hikes. Landscapes from life intrigued him so that he carried prepared etching plates with him on his walks.
Cynthia Schneider, curator of this show, writes in its catalog, ``Many of his [Rembrandt's] drawings and some of his prints probably were made outdoors before the motif.... ''
``Rembrandt so vividly and succinctly captured specific places and weather conditions ... that we cannot doubt he penned his subjects on the spot.''
Schneider is assistant professor or art history at Georgetown University.
Rembrandt's reputation as one of the greatest artists in the world springs from his famous figure paintings such as ``The Night Watch,'' rather than his prints and drawings.
But National Gallery director J. Carter Brown points to his ``equally dazzling achievements as a draftsman and etcher and to his unique vision of the landscape.'' Although he is said to have done 11 landscape paintings, only eight remain today. But he created more than 1,000 drawings, as well as hundreds of paintings and etchings before his death in 1669.
Among the landscape works in this exhibition is the sublime ``The Three Trees,'' as well as three drawings never before seen in the United States: ``A Canal Between Bushes,'' ``Viewing the Amstel,'' and ``View Near Rapenburg,'' all from the 1640s and lent by the National Institute of the Polish Academy of Science in Wroclaw.
Included in the highlights of the show is Rembrandt's copy after Titian of the mysterious ``Mountainous Landscape With a Horse'' (1652-54), which shows a white horse leaping onto shore with reins from its bridle looped loosely on the neck but with no horseman in sight. It is shown in tandem here with Titian's ``Landscape with a Riderless Horse.''
One of the most haunting works is Rembrandt's ``The Three Trees,'' a 1643 etching, drypoint, and engraving with a sulphur tint.
Light runs before a gathering storm in a vast, open Dutch plain, against which three leafy trees stand high on a hill. On the horizon in the distance is the silhouette of a city, which might be Amsterdam.
``The Three Trees'' is found in the Panorama grouping in this show, which also includes some of his most priceless landscapes, among them the National Gallery's print of ``The Goldweigher's Land'' and an associated drawing, ``View of Harlem with the Saxenburg Estate,'' loaned by the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
The other four sections of the show are: Farmhouses and Cottages, Imaginary Landscapes (some with religious themes, like the contemporary-looking ``Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape'' with a lion by his side), as well as Architecture, and Town Views (including the masterpiece ``The Singel at Amersfoort'' from the Louvre), followed by the section Along the Amstel and the IJ Rivers.
Mark Twain once said that good writing is knowing what to leave in the ink well. One of the most startling things about this exhibition is how carefully Rembrandt edited his landscapes, how creatively he used his blank paper to stand in for sky or foreground, so that not an extra pen stroke was needed.
This is an intimate exhibition, with most of the works on small pieces of paper. As the gallery's Andrew Robison explains: ``It's like looking at a manuscript written in a very small hand: you have to look very carefully, and come back to them again and again.''