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Essay – Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn – Three heads of women, one asleep

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Essay - Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn - Three heads of women, one asleep

Rembrandt did many etchings. His earliest experiments with the medium took place in 1628, when he was still a young artist living in Leiden. Even after his move to Amsterdam in 1631 he continued to produce etchings regularly, up until about 1661. As far as we know, he made only one in the years that followed, a commissioned portrait. In total the artist etched around 290 copperplates. The numerous prints made

from them helped to acquaint the broader public with Rembrandt’s work and were extremely important in spreading his fame. Around 80 of Rembrandt’s plates have been preserved, among them this one, which is signed (in reverse) and bears the date 1637.1

Rembrandt here combines three sketches of women’s heads, each in a different position and wearing different headgear.2 The woman with the dark headscarf looks straight ahead, while the woman below has lowered her gaze; the third, sporting a kind of balaclava with fur trim, is fast asleep, resting her head on her hand. Interestingly, Rembrandt has not worked up the plate in every detail, instead consciously creating a direct, sketch-like effect by merely indicating some of the passages with only a few swiftly drawn lines. In the same period, 1636-1637, the artist executed two other similarly sketchy plates of the same motif.3 His wife Saskia van Uylenburgh was the model in several of these heads; among the most convincing examples is probably the figure holding her head against her hand in the version now in the Rijksmuseum (fig. 2). In the plate under discussion here, the women at the upper left and lower centre seem to be the most likely candidates. Rembrandt apparently often reused his inventions: the head at the lower centre appears again (reversed) in another etching (fig. 2).

Rembrandt may have borrowed the idea for this print from the various ‘sample sheets’ then in use by artists, showing, for example, a whole array of women’s heads with fantastical head-coverings.4 Another source of inspiration must have been the sheets of studies after living models popular from the Middle Ages onward. Dutch artists such as Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617) and Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1625) both made drawings very like Rembrandt’s etchings.5 Given that these sketches were much sought after by collectors in the seventeenth century, Rembrandt, too, must have designed his prints with eventual sales in mind.

Rembrandt printed the plate discussed here in only one state (fig. 1). In contrast to many others, it has remained basically unchanged. The lines were probably merely rebitten and some of the details worked up – for example in the cheek of the woman with the dark scarf. Otherwise the plate differs little from the prints made from it in Rembrandt’s own time. It has proved possible to reconstruct the saga of Rembrandt’s surviving copperplates.6 At the end of the seventeenth century they were in the possession of Clement de Jonghe (1624/5-1677), an Amsterdam publisher and print and map dealer. An inventory drawn up in 1679, two years after his death, reveals that he owned no fewer than 74. Number 39 is described as ‘Dry tronitjens’ (‘Three heads’) and is probably the copperplate shown here.7 For De Jonghe these copperplates were above all material for his work, a means of making new prints. How he came to them remains unclear. He may have purchased them directly from the artist, but it is also possible they were acquired only after Rembrandt’s death.

De Jonghe’s collection remained more or less intact for several centuries. In the 1700s it ended up in Paris, in the hands of the dilettante and engraver Claude-Henri Watelet (1718-1786), who was already the owner of a number of other Rembrandt plates. Watelet was a connoisseur and particularly interested in the aesthetic and technical aspects of Rembrandt’s prints. He, too, used the plates to make new copies. They then came into the possession of Pierre-François Basan (1723-1797), a Parisian print dealer with an international clientele. He was the first to publish the prints taken from the plates in book form, under the title Recueil Rembrandt. Never before had the artist’s prints been brought together in this way, providing an overview of Rembrandt’s graphic oeuvre. The Paris publisher Auguste Jean later followed Basan’s example, having purchased the plates in around 1810. The publisher and printmaker Auguste Bernard, who acquired them in 1846, put an end to the recueils, while his son and heir Michel Bernard ceased making new prints altogether. This was probably due to the introduction of modern printing techniques, such as photoengraving, which made it possible to reproduce the original prints made in Rembrandt’s own time. The plates, by now overworked and in some cases barely resembling the originals, were now superfluous and were henceforth forgotten.

They were rediscovered in 1906 by the collector Alvin-Beaumont, who bought up Bernard’s stocks. By this time, however, there was little interest in them. When asked, the director of the Mauritshuis, Abraham Bredius (1855-1946), confirmed their attribution but labelled them mere ‘relics’. In 1916 Alvin-Beaumont commissioned the engraver André-Charles Coppier (1867-1948) to carry out new research into

their authenticity; in the process, several new prints were pulled. Shortly thereafter the plates were inked and lacquered, keeping the image visible but making it impossible to print from.

In the 1930s Alvin-Beaumont attempted to sell the plates to the Rijksmuseum and the British Museum, but was unable to come to an agreement about the price with either institution. In the end, he sold them to the American collector Robert Lee Humber (died 1970). In 1993 Humber’s heirs decided to dispose of the collection, which is now scattered across the globe. Interest in the plates, however, had apparently revived: they were sold within two months, among others to such important museums as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. They are valued not only as historical documents that shed light on Rembrandt’s etching technique, but also as independent works of art.