“Why don’t you come up and see my etchings?” has a different meaning when the etchings are by Rembrandt van Rijn.
In 1956, the art world learned that a fabulous cache of Rembrandt’s original etching plates, missing for a quarter of a century, had suddenly reappeared. The owner, a lawyer had secretly purchased the copper plates in 1938 from a French collector. Most of them were worn and had been reworked, but they were still highly prized collector’s items. In 1993, the plates were put on sale and the collection broken up, passing into the hands of museums, dealers, and private individuals all over the world.
Rembrandt’s original etchings, of course, are another story. In 2015, Bonhams auctioneers sold “The Three Trees”, one of Rembrandt’s most acclaimed etchings, for £65,000 and “Self Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill”, one of the best of the artist’s 32 self-portraits, for £32,500.
“Landscape with Three Gabled Cottages beside a Road” (1650) in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, is a mature treatment of a theme Rembrandt explored in numerous landscape drawings and prints: a view down a road lined with cottages. The road, houses, and trees sweep dramatically towards the distant horizon, anchored by the imposing tree in the foreground.
It is the first landscape etching in which Rembrandt made extensive use of drypoint (taking a needle to engrave the bare copper plate). Studies show that Rembrandt first lightly etched the tree, then substantially and dramatically altered its appearance with the bold addition of drypoint lines. Traces of an earlier stage in the evolution of the image are faintly visible in the sky just below the dead branch of the tree, where there are imperfectly burnished-out remnants of delicately etched foliage.
In October 1885, Vincent van Gogh spent three whole days at the Rijksmuseum looking at works of art. In a letter to his brother he wrote, “Rembrandt is so deeply mysterious that he says things for which there are no words in any language.” Even in his etchings.