Newly Acquired Prints Showcase Rembrandt’s Innovative Printmaking Practice

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669; born Leiden, Netherlands; died Amsterdam, Netherlands), The Windmill, 1641. Etching with touches of drypoint, 14.6 × 20.6 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, FundThe Museum recently acquired two etchings by the seventeenth-century Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669): The Windmill of 1641 and The Flight into Egypt: Altered from Segers of around 1652. These acquisitions greatly augment our collection of Rembrandt prints—especially his landscapes, of which we previously had only two, including The Three Trees, acquired in 2019—and each etching is important in demonstrating different aspects of the artist’s innovative printmaking practice.

The Windmill presents a scene so quintessentially Dutch that to modern eyes it may appear old-fashioned and clichéd. In Rembrandt’s time, however, such a subject reflected the technologies and industries that enriched Amsterdam and made the small country of the Netherlands one of the most powerful nations in the world. Windmills drained polders, sawed timber, ground grain, and even produced the oils and pigments that Rembrandt used to make his paintings and prints. The mill depicted here is of a type whose cap could be rotated to turn the sails toward the wind, particularly useful in flat, low-lying Holland. This specific mill has been identified as one used by the Amsterdam Leathermakers Guild to treat tanned leather with cod oil, a malodorous activity that earned it the appellation “De Kleine Stinkmolen” (The Little Stinkmill). It sat on the outer wall of the recently expanded city—hence the flat, empty landscape to the right—but was demolished as the city grew further in the eighteenth century. The place where it once stood is now much more central, only a thirteen-minute walk from the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight into Egypt: Altered from Segers, ca. 1652. Etching, engraving, and drypoint, 20.5 × 28.3 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum purchase, Fowler McCormick, Class of 1921, Fund The Flight into Egypt is not strictly a landscape. It depicts Joseph with Mary and the infant Christ on a donkey as they flee the massacre of male children ordered by King Herod. And yet the Holy Family is hardly conspicuous. One is hard-pressed to find a swaddled infant within the folds of Mary’s inky cloak. Instead the focus is largely on the panoramic landscape, into which the figures nearly disappear. A path leads down into a valley, with a river and towers in the far distance. Curiously, much of the landscape itself was etched not by Rembrandt but by the enigmatic and inventive Dutch printmaker Hercules Segers (1589/90–ca. 1638), whose etching plate Rembrandt reused after Segers’s death. Segers’s print, which he created more than two decades before Rembrandt made his alterations, depicted Tobias and the Angel rather than the Flight into Egypt. Leaving Segers’s landscape largely intact, Rembrandt completely effaced the figures and replaced them with a much smaller Holy Family, redrawing their immediate surroundings. One sees hints of Rembrandt’s reworking process in the remnants of the angel’s wings visible in the foliage at upper right. Segers was not a well-known artist in his lifetime—an eighteenth-century biographer claimed that he died destitute and in obscurity—but Rembrandt was an early enthusiast, amassing one of the largest collections of his works documented in the seventeenth century. Rembrandt’s reworking of Segers’s plate is another manifestation of his admiration for the artist.

Hercules Segers (1589/90–ca. 1638; born Haarlem, Netherlands; active Haarlem and Amsterdam, Netherlands), Tobias and the Angel, ca. 1630–33. Etching, 20.2 × 27.6 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; transferred from the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, collection Pieter Cornelis Baron van Leyden (1717–1788), 1816The Flight is a particularly remarkable expression of Rembrandt’s experimental intelligence, as such an act of transforming another artist’s printing plate is nearly unprecedented in the history of printmaking. That the print offers a sort of posthumous “collaboration,” with the work of Segers on the left and that of Rembrandt on the right, is especially significant, as Segers’s own prints are so rare as to be unobtainable. Rembrandt’s reworking of this plate is dated to around 1652, just before he made his monumental drypoints The Three Crosses (1653), of which the Museum has an impression, and Ecce Homo (ca. 1655). Both works are considered landmarks in the history of printmaking because of Rembrandt’s reworking of the printing plates between states, which drastically reconfigured their compositions. The fact that they are dated to just after his transformative reuse of Segers’s plate may indicate that this experience provided the impetus for similar interventions in his own drypoints in the following years.

The Windmill demonstrates Rembrandt’s earlier experiments in printmaking, if much more subtly. In the sky around the mill at left, there is an atmospheric grayish haze that some have argued is the result of sulfur tinting—a little-studied technique used by a handful of etchers in the early modern period. Pitted highlights within this haze indicate that it might be some other, as yet unidentified process. Regardless, there is a directionality to the haziness, with barely discernible strokes running diagonally upward from left. These are likely the result of how Rembrandt brushed his plate with a feather while applying acid to etch the plate. The tiny hairline cracks in the sky at center are likely the etched craquelure of an overbaked etching ground. Tinting and craquelure are difficult to control techniques, introducing an element of chance. For another artist, they might be considered to have been accidents, or “false-biting,” during the etching process, but their prominence in an otherwise blank sky and the fact that Rembrandt chose not to burnish them away indicate that he intended them to add atmospheric effects to the scene. He thus harnessed mercurial print processes to render the equally unpredictable Dutch weather.

The Windmill and The Flight into Egypt were acquired at the first of three highly anticipated auctions of the virtually complete collection of Rembrandt prints belonging to Sam Josefowitz (1921–2015), a collector known for having some of the finest Rembrandt impressions in private hands. Indeed, these two examples are exceptional, and the fact that they have a new home at the Princeton University Art Museum ensures that they will now and forever be accessible to the public and to the Princeton community in particular.

Jun P. Nakamura
Assistant Curator of Prints and Drawings