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"The Artist's Mother Seated at a Table" is one of three Rembrandt etchings that have been donated to Illinois Wesleyan University.

Donated Rembrandt Etchings Illustrate Skill, Genius of Artist

November 3, 2005

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. – In memory of the late Emery and Anita Rhodes of Bloomington, their three children, Emery jr., Reilly and Benjamin Rhodes, class of 1969, who is director of development at Illinois Wesleyan University, have recently presented the university with three 17th century etchings by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606-1669).

The nearly 400-year-old original etchings, which consist of “The Artist’s Mother Seated at a Table,” “The Virgin with Instruments of the Passion” and “Self-Portrait Leaning on a Stone Sill,” will be permanently displayed in museum-quality hangings in The Ames Library (1 Ames Plaza, Bloomington). The etchings are open for public viewing in the northeast corner of the fourth floor of The Ames Library.

Widely recognized as the greatest of the 17th century Dutch Old Masters, Rembrandt began his artistry at the age of 14, when he took up study with a local master, Jacob van Swanenburch, near his home of Leiden, The Netherlands.  He continued his studies in Amsterdam and just six months later, after mastering everything he had been taught, Rembrandt returned to Leiden.  He was so highly regarded that although he was barely 22 years old, he took his first pupils.

Though he used traditional etching techniques, Rembrandt also experimented with ink and tone, bringing the craft of etching to a new level of excellence.  Art historians consider his collection of over 290 plates revolutionary for the 17th century.

The technique used by Rembrandt to create these pieces is called Intaglio etching, a type of printing in which the lines in a copper or zinc metal plate are etched (or “bitten”) by acid. This technique was first used in the 14th century as a way to decorate armor, but was later used to create individual pieces of art, like those of Rembrandt. 

In order to create an etching, the artist first covered the polished surface of a metal plate with a thin layer of ‘ground,’ a mixture of waxes, gums and resins.  Then, he drew through this layer with a metal point called the etching needle, exposing the metal underneath the ground.  Finally, the plate was immersed in a bath of acid, which bit into the plate where it was exposed.  The strength of the acid used and the length of time the plate is left in the bath determined the depth of the lines on the plate and, as a result, the darkness of a print made from the plate.

Rembrandt’s skill with etching was such that other artists questioned whether he had developed a secret technique for producing the works.  This was not the case: the quality of Rembrandt’s work did not depend on a special artistic technique, but rather on his unmatched talent.

Despite his commercial success as an artist, Rembrandt’s personal life was colored by tragedy.  Bankrupted by an extravagant lifestyle, Rembrandt and his wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh, had four children, only one of whom survived childhood.  His wife passed away just a year after the birth of their last child.

However, Rembrandt’s artistry flourished as he expressed his misfortune through his work.  Using friend, family and even himself as models, Rembrandt continued to paint, draw and etch prolifically until his death in 1669.

It is believed that Rembrandt created more than 600 paintings as well as an enormous number of drawings and etchings that were internationally renowned even during his lifetime. All three of the works donated by the Rhodes family illustrate Rembrandt’s excellent skill as an artist.

Contact: Rebecca Welzenbach and Meg Dubuque, (309) 556-3181

Read more about the Rhodes family donation of the etchings.