A look at the work of Rembrandt van Rijn

Peasant-family-610x734   Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606–1669) The Peasant Family on the Tramp, ca. 1652 Etching 4 ½ x 3 ½ in. Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Gift of Eugene Metzger, A2124,81.0303 Rembrandt van Rijn, a painter, printmaker, and draftsman, was one of the most significant Dutch artists of his generation. He exerted a major impact on the history of art through his tremendous versatility in multiple media and mastery of a diverse range of subjects, including history and literature, biblical themes, portraiture, landscape, and genre scenes such as this example. Ever the astute observer who often sympathized with the humanity of ordinary people and their lives, Rembrandt captured the emotional and physical interactions among the figures in The Peasant Family on the Tramp. While the child’s father is ready to continue onward with his weathered walking stick, his son appears reluctant to follow and pauses to gaze at the viewer shyly. Above, the boy’s mother (with a baby on her back) calmly looks down at him for a moment, seemingly preparing to encourage him on their journey. This work exhibits the type of informality and frankness more characteristic of a spontaneous, quick sketch made from direct experience. Thus, the scene conveys a remarkable immediacy; it is as if the artist has frozen the family’s ephemeral actions in time. Rembrandt’s economic use of lines to render his subjects’ bodies, as well as the head and neck of the mule or donkey faintly visible in the lower middle ground (perhaps accompanying the family on their outing), suggest that he might have incised the etching plate from live observation rather than in his studio. Unusual as that may sound, Rembrandt is known to have done this occasionally. Renowned for his use of sharp chiaroscuro that betrays the influence of Italian Baroque artist Caravaggio (1571–1610), Rembrandt became a master at using this technique in his prints. Chiaroscuro involves dramatic juxtapositions of light and dark often employed in European baroque art and it is typically associated with the work of Caravaggio and his followers. In this composition, the contrast is achieved through cross-hatching (note the dark shading of the father versus the mother and child) and his masterful skills in inking the copper plate from which he made this print. Over the course of his career, Rembrandt produced a total of about three hundred etchings from the 1620s–60s. He documented his own image through a remarkable series of self-portraits and often used family members as models in many of his prints. Often, the artist created his etchings as alternate versions of the same subject in various “states,” which were collected widely throughout Europe and helped establish his international reputation in subsequent centuries.