Rembrandt, Saskia and me #2

This is the second instalment in which I develop my interest Rembrandt’s wife. Here, I talk a little more about the etching that I bought.

Self Portrait with Saskia, 1636
Line etching, image 104 x 92 mm (slightly irregular) on plate 105 x 96 mm (irreg), printed on white laid paper 107 x 97 mm (irreg), no watermark
Bought from Hanson’s Auctioneers of Etwall, Derbyshire, 29 June 2017 where lot 636 as ‘Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669), Self Portrait with Saskia (B.19), etching, 10.5cm x 9.5cm, framed’.
Collection Professor David Hill

It appears that the auctioneers presumed this to be of relatively little interest, but it is in fact the same impression as one at the British Museum (1843,0607.12) and Christie’s offered another impression of the same state (perhaps not so fine) at their sale of Old Master Prints in New York 29 January 2019, lot 138. Links to images of these will be found below.

The impression is well inked, and crisply printed all round. There is only one small stain – barely visible towards the lower left on Saskia’s right arm, but besides that, quite a lot of surface ‘noise’ including a silvery residual ink cast, and various surface scratches, and some distinctive areas of foul biting. Such ‘noise’ marks on the plate are of particular importance to scholarship for they determine the place of an impression in the editioning sequence.

As purchased the etching was presented in a small limed softwood frame, under a white card mat (not acid free wants discarding) and mounted on a folding card window mount.

The backboard was packed with three empty envelopes addressed to Mr W[alter] J Strachan of 10 Pleasant Road, Bishop Stortford, Hertfordshire; one dated 26 September 1971 and the others to the following day. In addition there was also a small piece of watercolour paper inscribed in pencil ‘Vous Souhaite une Bonnee Annee 1969’. The address is that of a private house, rather than business premises, so it is possible that the material identifies the owner at that time. So, whilst the print itself wants remounting in museum board, and given better framing, the mount and packing materials will be preserved.

On the back of the mount are several inscriptions: At the top ‘Mod. Reworked/ Basan-Bernard’; below that to the right ‘Vetted by/ Mr C J White/ BM/ who gave/this information’, with an arrow indicating a further inscription below: ‘3rd/ final state/ 17th-18th C’.

Whilst all of this is suggestive, it remains slightly frustrating that nothing is quite certain as evidence of provenance. It would appear that the window mount and its neat lettering is that of a professional dealer. We have a date range of 1969-1971 in the letters and other packing. One prominent selling show at that time was (for example) Colnaghi’s ‘The age of Rembrandt: an exhibition of etchings’, 10th April to 9th May 1969. It might be possible that the mount will ultimately suggest a source.

There have been numerous catalogues of Rembrandt’s etchings. The first by Edme Francois Gersaint dates from 1751, and subsequent editions include those by Adam Bartsch, 1797, where this is no.19 and Arthur M Hind First ed 1912, 2nd, 1923, where this is no.144.

Hind lists three states, all represented in the British Museum, together with a further state ‘Modern, reworked: Basan-Bernard’. Of the impressions at the British Museum, (1843,0607.12) is identical and identified in the current online catalogue as state iii. To see that state in the BM catalogue click here

More recent catalogues include those of White and Boon, 2 vols 1969-70 (the original Hollstein catalogue, following Bartsch’s numbering, i.e 19), Gary Schwartz, 1977, 1988 (also follows Bartsch’s numbering) and the current definitive edition is The New Hollstein: Rembrandt (7 vols.) by Erik Hinterding and Jacob Rutgers, 2013, where this is no.158. The best general account of the artist’s work in the medium must be Christopher White’s ‘Rembrandt as an Etcher’, (1969) 2nd ed., published by Yale UP in 1999.

The most distinctive feature of this state is the patch of foul-biting to the right above Rembrandt’s shoulder, which presumably occurred when the right-hand part of the face was reworked with better definition and to conceal an earlier foul-biting mishap to the face. It ought to be observed that the reworking here much better defines the right contour of the face and the ear.

There are several scratches on the plate, notably those across Saskia’s breast and Rembrandt’s hand, with others on Rembrandt’s face. Here, these are less crisp than in earlier states, but better defined than in later impressions. Accidental scratches tend to become fainter through successive prints of an impression, as the copper plate gradually becomes worn smooth. An impression of exactly the same state was sold at Christie’s, New York on 29 January 2019, lot xxx, although from the reproduction that appears to be a later pull from this particular edition, for the scratches throughout there appear less distinct. To see the Christie’s impression on the auctioneer’s website click here.

Such scuffs and abrasions are the very stuff of the scholarship and connoisseurship of Rembrandt’s etchings. Soft copper is vulnerable to scratching and abrasion and professional printers go to great lengths to avoid marking their plates. Rembrandt on the other hand seems to positively embraced them as the integral expression of artistic process. In that, as in many other respects, he defined and shaped the aesthetics of artist printmaking.

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