Wide-eyed wonder and dramatic landscapes fill the Morgan Library and Museum’s vast collection of Rembrandt etchings — all of which can be enjoyed virtually.
When the museum digitized its holdings in 2014, the move marked a critical step toward making Rembrandt’s prints — extensive in their range — accessible to a large audience. Now, with collections stowed, the effort provides a vital connection to the details that can only be observed up close.
Organized into a digital gallery, the nearly 500 images contained in the collection greet online visitors in finely placed grids. The works — some playful, others divine — represent most of the approximately 300 known etchings from the Dutch Golden Age master. Filling further entries into the catalog, the remaining pieces represented take the form of impressions, drawn from various states of a work’s completion.
“Rembrandt used the process of etching to test concepts and themes,” the museum explained when the pieces were first put online. “The digitized works offer the opportunity to explore up-close his use of line, shading and subject matter.”
The foundation for the collection was laid in 1900 when Pierpont Morgan purchased his first Rembrandt etchings from Theodore Irwin, Sr. — the base of which was later expanded in 1906 with further acquisitions from George W. Vanderbilt.
“Few artists hold as much fascination in our collective imagination and these works offer a highly personal look into Rembrandt’s creative process,” William M. Griswold, then-director of the museum, said when the collection was digitized in 2014.
The artworks fall into four categorizations on the Morgan’s website: self-portraits, religious subjects, landscapes and portraits of individuals. Within these groupings, the distinct entries have been organized by date, offering a chronological progression through the artist’s looping and hatched strokes. Scrolling through the images, on view is the humanity at the core of Rembrandt’s portraits, the quality of light in his landscapes, the careful observance of his religious studies and the expressive exploration within paintings of himself.
Presented in fine detail, the images reward careful observation. The self-portraits, spanning just over two decades, move through expressions and hairstyles to reveal an artist aging. Fastened to a specific moment, each piece exposes Rembrandt’s interpretation of the self bit by bit, drawn out in lines and looping gestures.
Likewise, the portraits contained in the collection of his family, including his first wife Sasia van Uylenburgh, his mother and his children, elicit the feeling of flipping through a personal record.
Preferring the common subject over the idealization of traditional beauty, Rembrandt’s creations also capture the common man (imperfections and all) and quiet moments within the Dutch countryside — which are punctuated with shifting winds and light and populated with dilapidated farmhouses, laundry, sloping trees and thickets.
The works fit into a larger effort on behalf of the museum to make its collection available online. Along with Rembrandt’s etchings, the institution’s digitization efforts have also yielded the transference of hundred of music manuscripts (with Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Handel represented), a deep well of drawings, rare books, and a wealth of literary and historical manuscripts. As a result, thousands of images are now available to view online whenever the urge for a trip to the Morgan strikes.
Top Image: The Three Trees. Credit: The Morgan Library & Museum, RvR 300.