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Alumni Voices: A Gift to the Hood Museum of Art: Prints by Dürer and Rembrandt

Hood Quarterly, spring 2013
Stacey Sell ’85, Associate Curator of Old Master Prints and Drawings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Hood recently received two major gifts from the family of Adolph Weil Jr., Class of 1935, and his wife, Jean K. Weil. Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Saint Jerome in His Study  (1514) and Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn’s etching The Three Trees  (1643) figure among the greatest landmarks in the history of printmaking and form a fitting culmination to the over 250 prints given by the Weils since 1991. An avid collector of old master prints, Mr. Weil gave many important works on paper to the Hood Museum of Art in his lifetime. A large group of his prints, an intended bequest, came to the Hood in 1997 after his death as a gift of his wife, Jean K. Weil, in his memory. Adolph and Jean Weil’s daughter Laurie Weil stated, “Those two prints were my father’s favorites, and for my mother, they symbolized his intellectual and humanitarian nature. Understanding her attachment to these two works of art, he provided in his will for her to keep them until her death. We are now happy to see these two prints, representing the spirits of Bucks and Jean Weil, join the rest of the collection at the Hood Museum of Art.”

Dürer joins many of his humanist contemporaries in depicting the fourth-century scholar Saint Jerome, the translator of the Hebrew Bible into Latin, at work. Jerome was a favorite of the humanists, and the cozy room depicted here must have resembled the studies of the artist’s many learned friends. The saint is surrounded by everyday objects such as scissors and candlesticks, and by more striking allusions to his life and accomplishments: the lion dozing at his feet, for instance, recalls a popular story about the saint taming the beast by healing its injured paw, while the cardinal’s hat refers to his role as one of the four Latin fathers of the Church. As one of Dürer’s Meisterstiche, or master engravings, Saint Jerome in His Study represents the artist at the peak of his powers as an engraver. Strictly speaking, the three Meisterstiche were not intended as a series, but Saint Jerome relates to Melencolia I and The Knight, Death, and the Devil (the latter also a Weil gift to the Hood; PR.997.5.53) in size, complexity, and technical achievement. The extremely high quality of this impression of Saint Jerome suggests that it was among the first sheets printed from the plate, before the copper began to wear down under the pressure of the printing press.

An engraver works by carving lines directly into a copper plate with the sharp point of a burin. When the plate is inked, the ink sinks into these incised lines. The plate is then passed through a press with a sheet of paper and the inked lines transfer in reverse to the page. Perhaps Dürer’s greatest innovation as an engraver was his use of line to convey both shape and texture. The bristly hatching modeling the dog, for example, follows the rounded form of his belly, while the long wavy lines forming the fur on the lion’s leg also effectively communicate the structure of the leg below. Particularly notable here is the artist’s handling of sunlight passing through the bottle-glass windows. The successful rendering of such a tonal phenomenon through line alone bears witness not only to Dürer’s consummate skill as an engraver but also to his close observation of the natural world. This virtuoso performance attracted the attention of Giorgio Vasari: the sixteenth-century Italian art historian, rarely tempted to praise northern artists, described this passage as una maraviglia, or “a wonder.” The print’s lasting appeal stems from the combination of its dazzling technique, shown to full advantage in this extremely fine impression, and its endearingly domestic conception of the great theologian.

Created over a century after Dürer’s Saint Jerome, Rembrandt’s Three Trees demonstrates a similar ability to push a linear printmaking technique to it limits in the description of light and tone, here in the form of a rapidly moving storm. Like most of Rembrandt’s prints, The Three Trees is an etching. The artist must have been attracted to etching in part by the spontaneity it offered: rather than cutting lines directly into a copper plate, the etcher instead draws with a needle on a layer of wax coating the plate. As the needle passes through the wax, it exposes lines of bare copper. When the artist plunges the plate into an acid bath, the acid bites into the copper, leaving incised lines. The plate is then inked and printed in much the same way as an engraved plate. An etching needle moving through wax works with almost the same freedom as a pen moving across paper, and Rembrandt took full advantage of this, roughing out the storm clouds with a fluidity that captures the turbulence of the shifting weather. Always an experimental printmaker, Rembrandt here combined etching with engraving and drypoint, a third technique that left a rough burr of metal around each line cut into the plate. This burr held the ink and printed as areas of velvety tone, an effect visible only in early impressions like this one. The combination of these three techniques provided Rembrandt with an exceptionally wide range of tones, from the white of the paper through deep blacks, and his sophisticated manipulation of these shades leaves the viewer with the impression that the right half of the sky is glowing with sunlight. Inspired by the dramatic composition, scholars have speculated for years as to the meaning of the print. Some believe that the three trees have a specifically Christian significance. Others see broader themes of man’s place in nature, noting the array of human activity in the landscape, including the tiny artist silhouetted against the sky and the couple concealed in the underbrush of the lower right corner.

The Weil collection was particularly rich in works by Rembrandt, and earlier Weil gifts to the Hood included two more of Rembrandt’s most important prints, Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses and Christ Presented to the People (Ecce Homo). The 1997 gift also included prints by other major artists, including Andrea Mantegna, Federico Barrocci, Lucas van Leyden, and Jacques Callot. These gifts have transformed the Hood Museum of Art’s print collection and offer students and the public the opportunity to study the works of some of history’s greatest artists firsthand.

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