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Painting's Odyssey From Rags to Rembrandt

September 21, 1997|PAUL RICHARD | WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — It's like an art collector's dream. An unimportant oil painting found at an antique shop turns out to hide a Rembrandt lost for 300 years.

The painting, done on copper, is a little Flemish landscape of no obvious distinction that was bought in Yorkshire, England, in 1946. The buyer hung it in his living room, where it stayed for the next 50 years. The landscape doesn't matter. It's the copperplate that counts.

For the plate was etched by Rembrandt, and may well be the only one unused by other printmakers since the master's death.

The discovery was made last spring when specialists at Christie's, the London auctioneers, took the painting from its frame and found that its back bore a well-known Rembrandt image, "Abraham Entertaining the Angels," which he had etched, and signed, in 1656.

Christie's sold it at auction on June 26--for $315,000--to a London dealer acting on behalf of Washington's National Gallery of Art. The 6 3/8-inch-high copperplate, with the oil on one side and the Rembrandt on the other, will be displayed in "Building the Collection," which will open at the gallery on Nov. 16.

Rembrandt, we now know, ran a kind of factory. He etched more than a hundred copperplates, which he used for the production of several thousand prints. So great was the public's thirst for images by Rembrandt that long after his death in 1669 his plates were viewed as money-spinners. Prints were being pulled from them by skilled artisans in Paris as late as 1905.

The trouble is that copper is so soft that the metal plate deteriorates a little each time it's subjected to the pressures of printing. In time, the ridges get squashed and the finest incised lines get rubbed away.

To preserve the plates, or at least prolong their use, the French publishers who owned them took extraordinary pains. Some hired skilled engravers who, using needles, deepened Rembrandt's grooves and re-crosshatched his soft shadows. Others went so far as to have his copper sheets steel-plated. That's why early states of Rembrandt's etchings are so highly valued, and final states so cheap. The differences between them are seldom hard to see.

More than 80 of his copperplates have managed to survive. Most have been reworked. All of them--except "Abraham Entertaining the Angels"--have been printed since he died.

The etching--the gallery owns a fine impression--illustrates an episode from Genesis. The patriarch is entertaining three visitors at the front door of his house.

Only two of them are winged, but all three are angels who have come from God to inform old Abraham (and his aged and astonished wife, who listens from the doorway) that they will have a son. Rembrandt makes it sweetly lifelike. The bread loaves look like pancakes, a soft breeze stirs the trees, and little Ishmael, ignoring the momentous news, keeps playing with his bow, as any boy might.

Scholars can only guess at how the copperplate found its way to Yorkshire.

Christie's surmised that it may have been sold at the time of Rembrandt's bankruptcy in 1656, though the list of his possessions drawn up at the time makes no mention of his plates. Andrew Robison, the gallery's senior curator and the man in charge of its prints and drawings, thinks it just as likely that the copperplate was sold at the time of Rembrandt's death.

Small as it was, it was an object of some value, particularly for its smoothness, and especially to an artist. Today, such copperplates would probably be machine-rolled. In Rembrandt's Holland, they were hand-hammered.

The gallery's new acquisition--which is dark as an old penny and very difficult to read--is not really a work of art. Some might argue that it is more like an autograph, or a Rembrandt-touched-me relic, for it is not itself a picture fashioned for display. But it does (under the microscope) reveal tiny lines that Rembrandt scratched in by hand. And it shows his subtle burnishings. And it is one of a kind.

Since it came to Washington, the copperplate has been undergoing careful conservation. But it has not been harshly cleaned. Daphne Barbour, the object conservator most involved, has taken pains to leave untouched Rembrandt's etched-in lines. Those acid-bitten grooves still contain his inks.

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