The following is a guest post by Katherine Blood, Curator of Fine Prints.
Picking a favorite Rembrandt might sound about as reasonable as choosing a favorite star or a single book to take to a desert island. But I do have a favorite–Rembrandt’s 1648 etching St. Jerome beside a Pollard Willow.
St. Jerome (ca. 342-420) has been celebrated as one of history’s greatest literary figures whose Latin translation of the Bible became known as the Vulgate (commonly used) version. Artists have conventionally depicted him in attitudes of spiritual contemplation and penance, as an ascetic living in the wilderness and as a scholar. In this etching, Rembrandt placed Jerome in a bright, open air setting, writing at a desk that is set at the base of a tree. Its upper limbs are pruned or pollarded, a process that stimulates fresh growth as embodied by the leafy branch extending over the scholar’s head. Jerome is also wearing spectacles, which enhance his air of focused study. During Rembrandt’s time, Jerome was thought to be the inventor of eyeglasses, even though they came into use long after his death.
The saint’s attributes punctuate the visual narrative, including the lion who according to legend became a constant companion after Jerome removed a thorn from his paw. Scholarly studies of this print have provided various interpretations of these icons: the skull can signify the seat of knowledge or human mortality; the cardinal’s hat refers to Jerome’s papal appointment; and the tree can be read as the Tree of Life in Eden or as a symbol of redemption or resurrection.
Rembrandt is one of the most famous practitioners of the printmaking technique called etching. The basic process involves using a metal stylus to scratch the design into an acid-resistant coating on a metal plate. The plate is then bathed in acid to incise the composition into the metal through the exposed areas. In this etching, you can appreciate the energy the artist was able to convey through a masterful yet delicate handling of line. Nearly as important as Rembrandt’s linear composition are the parts of the paper he left free of ink, imbuing the whole with a sense of sparkling brightness and fresh air.
All of these qualities draw me to the artwork again and again. It’s a beautiful and beautifully-constructed image, aesthetically and technically. I like the sense of time travel–from Jerome’s time, to Rembrandt’s, to ours. And because I get to spend quality time working with researchers, scholars, and artists in this library of libraries, the subject also resonates strongly on a direct, personal level. After all, Jerome is the patron saint of libraries.
In fact, I love this print so much that I used it as the gateway image for an article summarizing the Library’s entire fine print collection–roughly 100,000 artist prints, including nearly 200 Rembrandt etchings. The Washington Print Club generously devoted its Winter 2011-2012 quarterly journal to a series of articles about all kinds of works of art on paper at the Library of Congress, freely available online. The opportunity to serve as guest editor for this issue was a highlight of my year and a great way to share more of the Library’s visual art collections, including my very favorite Rembrandt!
- “Collections of Works of Art on Paper in the Library of Congress.” Edited by Katherine Blood, special issue, Washington Print Club Quarterly 47, no. 4 (Winter 2011-2012):2-28.
- Rembrandt the Printmaker. By Erik Hinterding, Ger Luijten, Martin Royalton-Kisch, et al. [London]:British Museum Press; [Amsterdam]: Rijksmuseum, 2000.
- Spencer Museum of Art Glossary of Printmaking Terms, see “etching”.
Selected Artist Print Collections – Searchable in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog:
- Fine Prints: International in scope, with particular strength in prints produced in the United States, Europe, and Mexico by artists including Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, Joseph Pennell, John Taylor Arms, Bertha Lum, Käthe Kollwitz, Diego Rivera, and Robert Blackburn. More recently-acquired and contemporary prints can be found in PPOC. Just a portion of the collection is currently represented online.
- Pre-1915 Japanese Prints: More than 2,500 Japanese woodblock prints (and some drawings) dating from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries, by such artists as Hiroshige, Toyokuni, and Sadahide. Also, see the online exhibition The Floating World of Ukiyo-e featuring both Japanese prints and illustrated books from the Library’s collections.
- College Women’s Association of Japan Print Show Collection: The CWAJ show, an annual event in Tokyo, Japan, since 1956, is a renowned venue for contemporary Japanese creative print art, known as hanga. Also, see the online exhibition On the Cutting Edge featuring some of these works.
- Pembroke Album: Italian Renaissance and Baroque chiaroscuro woodcuts by printmakers active in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
- Harmon Foundation Collection: Over 120 works by such artists as William H. Johnson, Georgette Seabrooke Powell, and Hale Woodruff. Established in 1922 by real estate magnate William E. Harmon (1862-1928), the Harmon Foundation was a key sponsor of African-American artists during and after the Harlem Renaissance.
- Ben and Beatrice Goldstein Collection: 1,688 items dating primarily from the 1880s to the 1960s. The collection focuses on working people, American industry, and political issues. Art work by social realists, women, African Americans, and Mexicans is well-represented. An online exhibition, Life of the People, is also available which features some of the prints and drawing from this collection.
- Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Collection: Works produced by master printmaker Robert Blackburn and thousands of artists who worked in his legendary Printmaking Workshop in New York City from the 1940s to 2000s. A portion is currently represented online, and there is also an online exhibition Creative Space: Fifty Years of Printmaking at Robert Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop available.
- Charles R. Dean Collection: Over 100 American Abstract Expressionist prints from the 1940s to 1960s, by such artists as James Budd Dixon, Sonia Gechtoff, Philip Guston, Grace Hartigan, James Kelly, Lee Krasner, Frank Lobdell and Hedda Sterne.