Selected primarily from Harvard collections, Rembrandt and the Aesthetics of Technique, an exhibition at the Busch-Reisinger Museum from September 9 to December 10, 2006, will invite visitors to engage intensively with nearly ﬁfty drawings, paintings, and prints by the master, his pupils, and his contemporaries. The exhibition will focus primarily on the role of technique — the artist’s manipulation of his materials — in enabling the innovative visual eﬀects that distinguish Rembrandt’s creative achievement. Arranged in several small groups of works, the installation will encourage visitors to make comparisons that highlight, through similarity or contrast, some of the artist’s technical decisions. The exhibition was organized at the Harvard University Art Museums by William W. Robinson, Maida and George Abrams Curator in the Department of Drawings, and Ivan Gaskell, Margaret S. Winthrop Curator in the Department of European Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. Robinson and Gaskell are two of the world’s leading scholars in the ﬁeld of 17th-century Dutch studies.
Rembrandt’s technical skill tends to be overshadowed by his genius and by his mastery of so many other elements, including invention, iconographical innovation, and expression. Yet technical factors — such as the use of pen strokes that are thick in some areas and thin elsewhere, broken or continuous, densely packed or widely dispersed — determine much of the aesthetic impact of his or any artist’s production. “With each stroke, he chose to produce a particular mark in a particular form with a particular material using a particular instrument in a particular place on a particular surface,” said Gaskell. “The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said of the relationship between talent, genius, and skill, ‘Genius is what makes us forget skill.’ While there is no disputing Rembrandt’s genius, we are determined to explore the skill involved in the making of the objects by proposing visual comparisons among works to draw attention to technical features.”
The exhibition provokes viewers to look carefully at what can only be seen when confronting the original works of art. The focus on technique, using carefully selected groups of works in conjunction with an encouraged ﬁrst-hand visual analysis of the objects, is what sets this exhibition apart. “It is only through the close examination of the actual works that this technical proﬁciency is revealed,” said Robinson. “These traces of technique are lost or distorted in the reproductions in books, slides, or digital images. Although technological developments in the media through the years have helped to promote the appreciation of art and the study of art history, in this exhibition we are presenting a case for people to engage with the original works in a more intensive way and, we hope, come away with a diﬀerent understanding.”
The installation features groups of works that are divided into categories that illustrate various techniques for rendering tonality, emotional expression, perspective, space in landscape, and other eﬀects. One group consists entirely of landscapes with rustic buildings. Although they share the same subject matter, the diﬀerent media — drawing ink, wash, chalk, printer’s ink — applied with a wide range of strokes, produces an astonishing array of impressions of space, light, shadow, and texture. Another group focuses the visitor’s attention on Rembrandt’s inventive use of drawn and etched lines to evoke the psychological interaction between two ﬁgures in scenes from the Bible.
While the two curators served as the senior organizers of the exhibition and collaborated in the development of the concept, much of the research to establish pairings or small groups of objects was conducted by Willemĳn Lindenhovius, curatorial intern in the Department of Drawings, and Edward Wouk, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University, and Mellon Intern in the Department of European Painting, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. “This exhibition is fundamental in terms of its support of our mission of teaching and research,” said Thomas W. Lentz, Elizabeth and John Moors Cabot Director of the Harvard University Art Museums. “While it exempliﬁes innovative, transdisciplinary curatorial scholarship, it also points to the essential role of the Art Museums in educating graduate students and advanced level interns by means of both theoretical discussion and guided practice.”
A grant in support of the exhibition came from The Netherland-America Foundation, Inc. Additional funding for the exhibition came from Dr. Alfred Bader and Johnny Van Haeften and also from The Annemarie Henle Pope Special Exhibitions Fund.
Featured works by Rembrandt in the exhibition include the painting Portrait of an Old Man (1632), the renowned pen-and-ink drawing Landscape with a Farmstead (Winter Landscape) (c. 1648–50), the drawings A Farm on the Amsteldĳk (c. 1650–52) and Zacharias and the Angel (c. 1635), and impressions of several important etchings, such as The Three Trees (1643) and Landscape with a View Toward Haarlem (The Goldweigher’s Field) (1651). Also included will be one of only seven known letters written by Rembrandt from the collection of the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
A gallery guide will accompany the exhibition. It contains the essay “Rembrandt’s Genius, Wittgenstein’s Warning” by curator Ivan Gaskell and a checklist of objects. A grant in support of the gallery guide came from the Consulate-General of the Netherlands, New York.