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Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn (Leiden 1606-1669 Amsterdam)

Christ Disputing with the Doctors: a sketch

etching and drypoint, watermark arms of Amsterdam
signed and dated ‘Rembrandt. f. 1652.’ (in the plate)
12.6 x 21.4 cm (plate); 13.7 x 21.6 cm (sheet)
Bartsch, Hollstein 65; Hind 257; The New Hollstein 267[1], first state, b (of two)
a good impression of the first state (b), with the wobbly line upper left and the marks at the upper and right edge, an unobtrusive almost invisible skillfully restored tear in the third man at left, trimmed outside, or just or into the platemark, the sheet in otherwise very good condition

While Rembrandt was flourishing artistically in the 1650s, he did find himself in a financial crisis which forced him to sell his copperplates in around 1650.[2] Shortly after this loss, the artist produced a number of rapidly-executed, sketch-like etchings depicting episodes from Christ’s life. These etchings, executed with quick use of the etching needle, stand out for their spontaneous character and give us a great sense of the artist’s draughtsmanship. The same bold and abbreviated style can, for example, be observed in a drawn sheet of the same subject from circa 1652, in the Louvre, Paris[3] and in a drawing showing Christ and the Woman with the Issue of Blood, from circa 1655-1660, in the Albertina, Vienna.[4]
In his seminal work Rembrandt as an Etcher. A Study of the Artist at Work, Christopher White described the experimental approach of Rembrandt in this etching as following:

‘’This etching shows how many of the plates in the 1650s must have looked after the initial work in etching and before their elaboration with drypoint and burin. It is possible that Rembrandt may have contemplated carrying out further work on this plate, but when he took a trial pull he was satisfied, as well as he might be, with its suggestive quality, and in the event did no more than touch up a few places in drypoint.’’ [5]

The print depicts one of the few episodes from Christ’s childhood that is recorded in The New Testament (Luke 2: 41–51). The episode tells the story of the return of Christ, aged 12, with his parents after having visited Jerusalem for the Passover. When Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, they discovered Christ was no longer with them. After searching for their son, they found him in the Temple involved in a debate with learned men who were astonished with the child’s knowledge.
As ever, Rembrandt was particularly concerned with depicting the emotions of the learned men, who are paying close attention to what the young boy has to say. Some of the men are leaning towards Christ, two men at upper right seem to whisper to each other and others appear to quietly contemplate Christ’s words. The importance of the boy’s words, furthermore, seem to be underlined by Christ’s thoughtfully gesturing hands.

[1] E. Hinterding and J. Rutgers, 'The New Hollstein. Dutch & Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts, 1450-1700. Rembrandt, Ouderkerk aan den IJssel', 2013, text II, plates III no. 267, ill.
[2] J. Rutgers and T.J. Standring, 'Painter as Printmaker', exhib. cat., Denver Art Museum, 2018-2019, p. 138. [3] Inv. RF4720; see P. Schatborn and E. Hinterding, 'The Complete Drawings and Etchings', Cologne, 2019, D141, ill.
[4] Inv. 8793; see P. Schatborn and E. Hinterding, 'op cit.', 2019, D116, ill.
[5] C. White, 'Rembrandt as an Etcher. A Study of the Artist at Work', New haven and London, 1999 (second edition), p. 71.

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