I fell in love with prints by accident. As a college student, I was interested in medieval art, or, more specifically Byzantine art, especially manuscripts. I needed a part-time job to help with my living expenses, and I applied to work as a research assistant at a New York art gallery that specialized in manuscripts and early printed books. Unbeknownst to me, the gallery also specialized in old master prints and drawings, which I managed to ignore during my first few months at the gallery. I was thoroughly immersed in the world of medieval saints and philosophy.
Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque, including several self-portraits by Rembrandt, is open through September 15.
One day, I was alone in the gallery with the secretarial assistant. An elderly gentleman walked in with a paper bag under his arm. He took out a small framed print, black and white, very unassuming looking, and said, “They tell me this may be a Rembrandt.” I glanced at the print briefly. It was a portrait, a man in an elaborate feathered cap (shown above). And, with all the arrogant self-confidence of youth, I said, “No, I’m sorry, I don’t think so.” The man packed up his picture and left, disappointed.
A little while later, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should just check on this.” The gallery had a wonderful library (this was long before the internet). I pulled out a book on Rembrandt’s etchings, and….there it was. The print WAS an original Rembrandt—Self-Portrait in a Velvet Cap with Plume (1638)—an impression of which is in Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection. I would later learn that Rembrandt made about 30 self-portrait etchings, some very sketchy and slight, some elaborate (examples below), as well as some 50 paintings and a few drawings.
Three of Rembrandt’s other etched self-portraits are included in Small Prints, Big Artists: Masterpieces from the Renaissance to Baroque. In Self-Portrait with a Raised Sabre (above), the artist wears a fur cap and stole; in Self-Portrait with Saskia (below), he is sketching while looking into the mirror, as his new bride Saskia gazes at us in the background; and in Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill (below) he poses as a Renaissance courtier, in a velvet hat and opulent coat. The concept of the self-portrait as an exploration of one’s own psyche did not really exist in the 17th century. Most modern scholars believe that Rembrandt made the prints as models, or “tronies,” as they were then known. He was also producing works for sale and publicizing himself as an artist.
The experience at the art gallery and the unidentified print taught me a most valuable lesson. Never guess, never assume you know, always check to be certain. More importantly, I was embarrassed by how little I did know about prints, and curious to find out more. What followed was a wonderful adventure of learning—one artist at a time, one print at a time. I often wish I could thank the elderly gentleman for the lifetime of pleasure he gave me. I hope someone wiser than me identified his Rembrandt print as genuine!