Rembrandt: a subtle master of etching - and making a face

Two central preoccupations of Rembrandt's art coincide in this arresting image: self-portraiture and etching.

For this 17th-century Dutch artist, self-portraiture was more than a close inspection of his features in a mirror. Early in his career, it involved something closer to making a face in a mirror. He depicted his own face to dramatize and explore the way facial expressions convey emotions.

By the time he etched "Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill," in 1639, his self-dramatization was taking a different form. It was more like self-presentation. He was by then achieving a reputation.

Indeed, Thomas Rassieur, a contributor to the catalog for the current exhibition "Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher" writes that the artist "celebrated his success" in this etched self-portrait.

The artist shows himself as astute, calmly direct, and self-aware. But he does more. He had recently made a drawing after a painting by an Italian High Renaissance artist - Raphael's portrait of Baldassare Castiglione. Rembrandt's admiration for Italian Renaissance art and life surfaces frequently in his work. And in this self-portrait he arrays himself as a Renaissance courtier, posing as a latter-day Castiglione. Dressing up was clearly part of Rembrandt's imaginative life. The etching also suggests his admiration for a portrait by Titian, in which the sitter rests one arm on a sill.

The fact that this presentational self-portrait is an etching - and one of Rembrandt's most scrupulously worked, finely finished etchings - shows how important this method of making printed images was to the artist. The current exhibition deliberately emphasizes this, too. To give a full idea of Rembrandt's achievement, his various techniques - oil painting, drawing, and etching - are here accorded equal status.

An essay in the catalog describes in great detail how original and experimental Rembrandt was as an etcher and printmaker. Later in his career he also used a technique called "drypoint" that gave his prints added boldness, texture, directness, and even a lack of finish. This self- portrait, however, is solely etching, and its incisive finesse shows Rembrandt as a supreme, immensely subtle master of this black-and-white medium.

'Rembrandt's Journey: Painter, Draftsman, Etcher' is on exhibit at The Art Institute of Chicago until May 9.

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