The Other Show at the DeYoung

What can one say about The Girl with the Pearl Earring, the exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, that hasn’t been said already? Well, here’s my take: the real treat of this show isn’t the paintings. It’s the accompanying exhibition of prints and engravings called Rembrandt’s Century.

The double show (at the DeYoung, you pay one entrance fee for both) includes 35 paintings from the Mauritshuis in The Hague; and some 200 engravings, etchings, prints, and a painting or two from the De Young’s own collection. “Prints were among the most extensively collected and circulated works of art produced during the Dutch Golden Age,” according to the catalog for Rembrandt’s Century. And Rembrandt van Rijn “was arguably the most influential graphic artist of his generation.” (Today we would call this varying your price point.) And, while etching and engraving may have been replaced by photography and iPad apps in popularity today, it’s worth it to see these amazing prints, made nearly 400 years ago, by some of the best artists of their or any age.

Now, I’m not an art historian or a printmaker, so I’m not going to talk about processes or the development of the arts. What I can say was that I was awed and humbled to stand in the presence of the master’s work—and indeed of all of these pieces.

Rembrandts Shell at the DeYoung Museum
Rembrandt van Rijn. The Shell (Conus Marmoreus). 1650. Etching, drypoint, and engraving. 9.7 × 13.2 cm (3 13⁄16 in. × 5 3⁄16 in.). Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts Endowment Fund. 1997.42. From Rembrandt’s Century.

Take this shell, for example. Look at the chiaroscuro—the light and shadow. Look at how the shell feels round. To me, it’s that ability to create volume and depth that distinguishes Rembrandt’s work, etching or painting, from that of his contemporaries.

And then there’s this:

Rembrandt Sleeping Puppy
Rembrandt’s Sleeping Puppy. This version is from Wikimedia.

It’s teeny, all done with finely incised lines—but you want to pet the little guy.

One of the most surprising things to my friends and me was the way some of Rembrandt’s etchings reminded us of Picasso’s. (I’m sure we’re not the first to notice this—but you just don’t get the same jolt of recognition from reproduced images in books, even though these images are themselves prints.) The most striking example of this is a piece called “The Artist Drawing from a Model.” The top half of the image is completed, finely rendered, and very dark. The bottom half is merely scratched lines, the hints of things to come. The faint model herself is beautifully sketched out. The artist—and even more, the chair in the lower left—are crudely drawn, a preliminary layout. We don’t know why the piece was left unfinished. But it sure looks to me like something Picasso might have done.

Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model
Rembrandt Artist Drawing from a Model. This version is from the National Galleries of Scotland. REMBRANDT.78. Etching, drypoint and burin on paper. 23.20 x 18.40 cm. Sir David Young Cameron Gift 1943 through the Art Fund.

There ARE works by artists besides Rembrandt in this show, some of them quite good. Still, to me, they just show how good Rembrandt himself was by comparison.

And the paintings from the Mauritshuis? The recent trend for museums to send their permanent collections travelling while they renovate is a huge boon to art lovers. The opportunity to see these paintings is definitely worth it. I may never get another chance to see these works in person. The Girl is exquisite (and larger than I expected—about life size). And yet…

This probably isn’t fair, but I’m going to say it anyway. The painting “The Girl with the Pearl Earring” is in a darkened room all by itself. The painting is behind what has to be bullet-proof glass in a huge free-standing display case, which is surely alarmed. The fact that museums must make such an effort to protect these priceless artworks from people who would destroy them is a very sad commentary on our society, or any society. IMHO.

Still, she is sublime. Ironically, the Vermeer makes the paintings that follow it in the exhibition look stiff by comparison. But there are three Rembrandt portraits you can get up close to, to see his brushstrokes.

Have you seen The Girl with the Pearl Earring or Rembrandt’s Century? What did you think?

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